The Name Game: Steve Rivkin

In the latest of our series of interviews with professional namers, today we speak with Steve Rivkin.

Steve is the founder of Rivkin & Associates LLC, a marketing and communications consultancy that specializes in naming. He is the co-author of The Making of a Name (Oxford University Press) – described by its publisher as “the definitive work on names and naming” – and has been called “America’s leading nameologist” by Asian Brand News.

How did you get started in the naming business?

It was an outgrowth of my consulting work in developing and then executing marketing strategies. The need for a new name was an integral part of the majority of these projects, and I was dissatisfied with the methods and narrow focus I saw.

Any new name, I believe, should embrace several disciplines. First and foremost, a new name must have a strong positioning orientation to help differentiate the brand. It also should have a strong consumer sensibility, and it should have a realistic basis in linguistics.

To do this requires seasoned professionals with hands-on business experience in marketing and communications. There are no rookies or academic linguists on our team, which is a common practice at the big naming factories.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

All sorts. We have naming clients in the food, healthcare, communications, financial services, and technology sectors.

Please describe the naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

We start with a clear briefing from the client on their objectives, likes and dislikes regarding a new name.

Next, we develop a specific vocabulary list about the client’s business, product or service. That list is then enlarged by adding roots, synonyms, analogues, idioms, collocations, and translations, to create the building blocks we need.

Then we employ a series of techniques that we know will generate large numbers of possible names: construction of new words (neologisms) from recognizable roots, by using word fusions, suffixes joined to building-block terms, and other methods; existing terms or words used in new ways, such as adapted metaphors; compressions or contractions of existing words and phrases; application of imagery and symbolism; and other techniques and inspirations.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Devouring their own. Alpo Cat Food, A-1 Poultry Sauce, V8 Fusion Plus Tea, Tanqueray Vodka. These marketers have stretched the original meaning of their names past recognition – or believability.

Yes, all brand names are elastic, to some extent. Consider the brand ESPN. It started out in 1997 as a single cable channel, but has since mushroomed into half a dozen other channels, two radio channels, Internet access, and a print magazine – all built around the concept of sports coverage and commentary. But note the core concept behind everything ESPN does. A name can only be stretched to a certain point before it “snaps” in the consumer’s mind and no longer stands for a clear concept.

Another common mistake: the impolite utterances that others have commented on, such as the shoe brands named Incubus (a demon) and Zyklon (a poison used by the Nazis). Ikea has a catalog offering for a workbench named Fartfull. (I’m guessing that moniker is attractive in Swedish.)

Foreign language stumbles are particularly embarrassing. Pajero, an SUV from Mitsubishi. (You can look it up in any Spanish dictionary:  “One who masturbates; a wanker.”)  Country Mist, a cosmetic product that Estee Lauder shipped to Germany. (In German, “mist” means “manure.”) Burrada, used to identify a frozen Mexican food entrée. (Burrada translates as “a stupid deed” or “ big mistake.”)

What are some names that you particularly like?

You know I’m going to embrace our creations for clients. Here are a few of them: Behold single-vision lens, Premio Italian sausages, Trueste perfume, Celsia Technologies, Global Impact for charitable assistance.

I’m also drawn to names that are unexpected combinations of language, because they engage the brain on several levels. They’re surprising, meaningful and playful – all at the same time. Examples: Geek Squad. DreamWorks, which combines the magic of movies with an old industrial term. Zany Brainy, the educational toy store. Sky Harbor, the name of the airport in Phoenix.

And I applaud companies which do not blur the distinctions among their brands. For instance, American Honda Motor Company applied its mid-range Honda brand name to a lineup of vehicles – Civic, Accord, CR-V. But as Honda climbed the ladder of performance, styling and luxury, it realized it could not “stretch” the Honda brand indefinitely – and the upmarket Acura brand was born, with a completely separate identity. (You have to search long and hard in Acura materials to find any references to Honda.)

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

One: The fascination with what I call techno-babble. Or we could call it geek-speak. Names such as (and I’m not making these up) @Climax, 1-4-@LL, 160 over 90, Design VoX, mmO2, and $Cashnet$.

Another: The epidemic of me-tooism of “Ameri-something” names:  Americare, Americone, Amerideck, Ameridial, Amerihealth, Amerilink, Amerimark, Ameripride – enough!

And one more sin in naming: Thou shalt not prepare alphabet soup. “JCP&L, a GPU Company.” How that’s for dead-end communication? Or these recent adventures into anonymity from the Fortune 500: AES, BB&T, KBR, URS, SLM. That’s a total of $35 billion in corporate revenues, all cloaked in an invisible, all-initial shield.

The Name Game: Tate Linden and Stokefire

“Let me be clear; this is going to suck.”

Those are usually the first words out of the mouth of today’s interviewee, Tate Linden, the latest in our series on the art of naming, when he discusses what working with his firm is like. He’s been heading up Stokefire, a strategic branding and advertising firm in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, since 2005. All things considered, he seems to be doing pretty well.

In an industry where fun times, team building, and corporate retreats are the norm, Linden’s approach to developing names and brands tends to raise eyebrows and voices. With an education in philosophy and classical music performance from UCLA and a background in Fortune 500 product management, you might think he’d be mild mannered.

He is not.

He’s constantly poking, prodding, and provoking. A quick scan of his @Thingnamer twitter feed or Stokefire’s blog makes this abundantly clear. He’s not afraid to stir things up or to call into question the very foundation of the industry in which he makes his living.

His Twitter bio reads, “I brand stuff. With… My… MIND.” But we’re hoping he’s not quite so succinct in our interview.

How did you get started in the naming business?

The official version of the story has me figuring out how to brand stuff while employed for a decade by various Fortune 500 firms, and then parting ways to start up my own firm to specialize in it. Unofficially, the things that made me great at branding also made me intolerable as an employee of a conglomerate.

Around 2002 I left and began freelancing, then started up Stokefire in 2005 to focus almost exclusively on the verbal aspects of branding. Today we’re no longer a pure naming agency, but we do take on projects that have naming as one component of the larger brand.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

Early on a pulse and a bank account were the only qualifiers, and the pulse was just a ‘nice-to-have.’ Now we have a bit more leeway to engage in projects that present the most interesting and unique challenges.

I look for great organizations that may be struggling to better connect with or have an impact on their audiences. We’ve worked with organizations like Google, Motorola, Charles Schwab, Heinz, and the largest caucus of the United States Congress. A couple of the most intriguing projects we’ve taken on have been the branding and advertising of concrete in North America, and a complete overhaul of the US Department of Defense’s DARPA brand.

Oh. And there’s also a living online dictionary whose leader called us a few years ago and asked us to help her team figure out a name. The result of that project was something your readers may know: Wordnik.

How would you describe your naming process?

Pretty easily. “Painful” or “cathartic” both fit well. And I’m not stretching the truth. We put an immense amount of pressure on the name and the people and products that will be defined by it. We do this in order to ensure everything works effectively together and will stand up to the potential real world pressures to come. In my view a fun naming process is one that is likely to result in a name that serves a client well only until something goes wrong. As Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” A client is better served by experiencing those blows in private and learning to respond to them than they are by the experience of being TKO’d in public.

Process? We’ve got all sorts of proprietary tools, worksheets, and tables, but so does every branding and naming pro out there. Our stages are roughly in line with what you’d see anywhere else. It’s the guiding philosophies and the way that we apply them to what we do that makes us different and potentially more effective.

As for those philosophies, the one I reference most frequently is based on a quote attributed to Gandhi. He said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Ultimately Gandhi’s concept of happiness is the framework for all of the brands we craft. It’s not about slathering on a new coat of paint that will begin flake off the moment our team leaves. We strip organizations to the bare wood and help them display what makes them genuinely strong. When we leave there’s no questions from panicked leaders asking how to respond to something because what we’ve left them with is who they genuinely are rather than what Stokefire or their target audience wants them to be.

What are some resources that you use?

When naming, the books I pull down more than any others are my crossword dictionaries. They present words as answers to the questions a strategist might ask rather than as definitions we might not know to look for. Strangely, I’ve not migrated to the web for this resource, though I’m sure there’s something equivalent available.

When I do go online I have a few sites that draw me back time and again. There are some good reverse-lookup dictionaries, and there’s Wordnik’s ability to show how a term is currently being used, and to link to various kinds of related concepts. It’s a site I hit consistently with every project.

My best resource, though, is the network of creative professionals I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the years. Knowing that I can turn to someone like copywriter and naming pro Nancy Friedman when I need perspective or have a project that isn’t in my specialty area is invaluable. Back in the day I even relied on Wordnik’s own Erin McKean to share her lexicographical chops and entice a client to take the right path.

Living resources trump static resources almost every time, and you don’t get much more living than a person. Well, unless they’re dead.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Contrary to what I read in blog chatter and in the news, I think risk avoidance causes more problems than anything else. The number of brands that fail for lack of risk far exceeds the occasional Icarus-like ones that fail for too much of it.

The next time someone tells you that they can’t accept a name with risk, consider asking them if pouring money into a brand that no one notices and no one cares about is more or less risky than investing in one that just might have a shot.

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

All of them.

Back in early 2007 I spent about a week analyzing the impact of naming trends on the success of organizations. At that time the trends mostly involved prefixes like the e in eBusiness and the then revolutionary concept of personalization through the use of I, My, or You, as in iPod or YouTube.

My findings suggested that names that followed trends had only a 4% chance of being attached to a successful organization while those that avoided any identifiable trend had a success rate more than 250% higher. I knew copycat naming was a bad idea on principle, but I’d had no idea it was so strongly linked to organizational success.

I’m not suggesting that the trends themselves are causing companies to fail. I think that any organizational leadership that believes following a naming trend would be more effective than discovering a genuine way to express itself has larger problems. A copycat name is like a warning beacon to clients and investors that the organizational leadership views their product as a commodity, takes shortcuts, lacks strategic vision, and isn’t comfortable in their own skin.

Other than that, though, it’s no big deal.

Any last words?

Just that I’m honored to be included with the likes of Nancy Friedman, Anthony Shore, and the : : CRONAN : : crew; a talented group by any measure.

Also. It was mostly pain free. So, thanks Wordnik!

After our interview but before publication we learned that Michael Cronan passed away and reached out to Tate for comment.

I met Michael very briefly around 2006 and recall being awed by how his work and thinking consistently avoided trends, and even started them on more than one occasion. His passing this New Year’s Day was a blow to the identity industry, and indescribably difficult for the friends, family and peers that battled cancer alongside him for the past five years.

If Gandhi was right and happiness truly is “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” then from my vantage point, even considering his more recent health battle, Michael looks to have led a wonderfully happy life.

To my way of thinking there’s no higher praise a man can earn.

The Name Game: Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma of : : CRONAN : :

Continuing our series on the art of naming, today we talk to Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma, founders of : : CRONAN : :.

: : CRONAN : : is a Bay Area-based naming and brand design agency that has named many iconic consumer products and companies, including TiVo, Amazon Kindle, and the Kno tablet.

Michael has a background in fine arts. He taught at the California College of Art, Oakland and San Francisco for 20 years, was consulting product development and design director of the SFMOMA MuseumStore, is a founding member and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts San Francisco chapter, and much more.

Karin also has a fine arts background, working as a freelance design researcher and founding a creative research company and an award-winning product development company. She also recently received the AIGA Fellow lifetime achievement award.

How did you get started in the naming business?

It has become our sweet spot. Designers have the opportunity to understand a client’s business deeply and help them achieve their goals. We were fortunate to cut our teeth with designing for national and international branding, corporate identity packaging, store design clients – in a very wide set of activities.

We’ve had spectacular long-term relationships with Levi Strauss, Estee Lauder, William Sonoma, Blue Cross, Apple, the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and many more. Naming products and then entire companies came as a natural extension of those pursuits.

During the early 2000s, we began to work more remotely with our teams and clients, coming together at key moments in the process to move projects along very effectively. We realized that we could focus more and more on what for us is the most generative part of the process – the naming and identity design. And we could do it as a collaborative process, helping the clients evolve and grow their business through our approach.

We’ve found that our approach has been productive for our clients. One recently referred to us as “ninjas” as we helped his company move through a very narrow time window to create a new business personality, unify the team, and create a platform for their growth, all announced with new company, brand, and product names, as well as a dynamic new identity.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

We work with companies in high technology, consumer products and mobile apps, community foundations, banking, movie and music entertainment – the category of clients is always mixed. We work with those companies who are making a strategic change with an eye to national or international reach, from conceptualizing a new service, starting a new company, launching a new product, all the way to re-energizing an existing brand. There is a spectrum of points where we get involved.

Minimizing the risk of change and expanding change’s positive branding opportunities for company leaders is essentially what we do. We help our clients answer who they are, and move from where they are to where they want to be. We only work with the leaders and the key decision-makers in a strategic team they pull together. We always have the leader’s direct line and they are in the majority of meetings. As it turns out, that is very powerful. It is one of the things that makes what we do work.

Please describe the naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

We never start with ideas just because we will get distracted before we truly know what it should be, or even what it can be.

And we do find that clients come with and have pretty terrific ideas. Sometimes they have exhaustive lists of names they’ve generated but not found yet the answer. If they don’t bring ideas and lists, they do work with us in a collaborative environment created to give them the confidence and excitement they need to bring their ideas forward, appreciate ours, and to find what they need and want to get to YES – that’s the answer!

We design the exact approach around each client and for their project. We work in various ways but the core of our process begins with what we call Deep Listening. We listen and picture the results of what the client intends to do with all the positive outcomes and everything fitting into place, essentially focused on long extended success. We do this as a thought experiment, but we remove any critique from our thinking. We try to live in that positive outcome reference before we come back and look at the project from a critical point of view. There is always plenty of time to critique and evaluate what may or may not work.

Deep Listening helps us understand that an idea needs a chance to live before it can work. It is our way of getting on the same page with our clients and quickly sharing their vision without forsaking the discriminative abilities and successful outcomes they pay us for.

That Deep Listening phase includes a one-room meeting with all the people that will have input on the decisions including the CEO, founder, partners, executive director, chairman – you name it. We get them to speak about why they believe in what they do. We call the meeting an Intensive because many times the outcomes are well, intensive, with everyone speaking personally and responding directly to the questions we ask.

At the same time there is a lot of laughter in the meetings. Plato said something about learning more about a person with an hour of play than in a month of conversation. When you play or laugh, you drop your guard and new ideas can enter your consideration set and the realm of possibility.

And finally finding the right naive questions to ask of our clients and ourselves is probably the key to our process and the success we’ve enjoyed. Asking the right questions is a way to rapidly uncover what is not being considered and many times, leads to higher order thinking. When you get to that point the choices and design become easy.

What are some resources that you use?

We use a mad set of classic and multi-lingual dictionaries and of course Wordnik, plus comparative linguistics, standard search, the US Trademark resources and search urls, all without getting wonky. We need to keep current on business, communication, cultural and design trends while trying to stay as naive and open as possible to new ideas. One thing for sure, experience is and becomes the brand, so we use any means we can to understand and live the client’s product and business experience.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Our favorite is a successful Japanese fermented milk based soft drink that tried to capture the American market, named CALPIS. Sometimes a name can spell doom, or at least something you really do not want to drink.

One client we averted from a potential name disaster years ago was a company that syndicated internet services. They came to us to design their identity after recently investing in the name SYNDIC. They felt the name they had commissioned described what they did. We did not like it because it had SYN in the name as well as a DIC, and the graphic we could envision was funny but wasn’t where we thought they wanted to be.

Syndications were not happy new opportunities, and the name also seemed cold and selfish. We suggested that the naming firm should maybe take a second look. After two weeks the client came back unhappily with SYNDICA, a feminized version of the same name. We renamed and branded them Verio, from the Latin veritas or truth. They lived up to the promise in the name and today are one of planet earth’s largest internet service providers.

What are some new names that you particularly like?

Of those we did not name, how about Pinterest, Instagram, ModCloth, and Zite? They are not overly descriptive yet they communicate the core value being offered in a fresh and appealing way.

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

We generally would love to see arcane (fill in the culture) sky god names go the way of the white clouds. If you have to explain the attributes of the sky god and how your company has the same attributes, you have lost.

We’d like to see the overly cute double entendre names split from the scene. Constantly cute works for cupcake shops but a cute name will get more foolish with time. And too geeky names are a dime-a-dozen, indistinguishable from one another.

The oooga booga, zoooma, looma oomph names with too many vowels are hard to remember. Try keeping track of where you are driving in Hawaii. Without GPS all you have are lovely words with extra vowels.

And consumer drug names in general – it is completely confusing to have 2-3 names for the same product, all un-memorable.

UPDATE: We were saddened to hear of Michael Cronan’s passing on January 1, 2013. Our condolences to his loved ones.

The Name Game: Nancy Friedman and Wordworking

Many of us take brand and company names for granted. We run in Nikes, stare at our iPhones, and hit Target on the weekends. Some brand names become so common, we forget they were even brands to begin with. But how did these names come about?

We decided to talk to a few professional namers about the art of naming. First up is Nancy Friedman of Wordworking. In addition to verbal branding, Nancy writes about words and language at her blog, Fritinancy, and as a contributor to the Visual Thesaurus. You can also follow her smart word snarkery (we do) on Twitter.

Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks as we interview more naming experts.

How did you get started in the naming business?

I was in the right place at the right time. I’d worked as a journalist and copywriter and moonlighted as a poet, and a friend with a similar background asked me casually whether I’d like to get into the name-development game. I started freelancing for an agency that trained all of us in namestorming techniques such as mind-mapping and word-building. I got to work with uber-smart people, exercise my word-play muscles, and get paid! And, usually, fed! (Agencies do like to put on a spread.)

As it turned out, journalism and marketing were the perfect preparation for my name-development career. The first phase of any name-development project involves asking a lot of questions, so that who-what-where-when-how-why training proved indispensable. Later phases require a strong sense of the market, the audience, and the competition, which is what marketing is all about.

What types of customers and clients do you work with?

Well-funded ones.

Seriously, though, I’ve worked with small, medium, and large businesses in virtually every industry: software, hardware, middleware (yes, there is such a thing), hospitality, fashion, medical devices, furniture, food, transportation, nonprofit … I even did one pharmaceutical-naming project, although that’s a highly specialized field that nowadays is handled by niche agencies.

Please describe the naming process. Do you usually start with ideas, or do you find your customers often have their own ideas already?

A professional naming process ideally starts with a blank slate and a lot of questions. The answers to the questions become the basis of the naming brief, a detailed written document that describes the objectives and criteria for the name: what it needs to say and how it should (and shouldn’t) say it. Most do-it-yourself namers skip – or aren’t even aware of – this crucial step.

In many cases the slate isn’t 100% blank: I’m renaming an existing brand, or the client has already developed a list of names that haven’t passed the test (usually because the test hasn’t been well defined—that’s why you need a naming brief), or there’s a code name that’s for internal use only. I do an audit on those internal names as well as on competitors’ names.

What are some resources that you use?

I have several shelves full of specialized dictionaries: The Surfin’ary, The Cowboy Dictionary, From Juba to Jive, The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, a word-parts dictionary, and many foreign-language dictionaries. And that’s a very partial list. I use online resources, too, including Wordnik, of course!

But mostly I use my stored knowledge about how language works – sound symbolism, market-appropriateness, and so on. I use lateral-thinking techniques to get beyond the obvious and the descriptive: for legal and other reasons, a “suggestive” name is much stronger than a descriptive one.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make in terms of naming?

Not taking the time to develop the naming brief is the biggest one. The naming brief is a road map for the creative process and a benchmark for evaluating the results.

Next in line: confusing a domain with a brand name. Trademark is a much more important consideration than domain availability; there are all kinds of ways to get a domain, including, yes, buying one from a domainer. You have to face reality; this isn’t the wide-open domain market of 1997.

Next: Confusing a name with a brand. It takes much more than a name to build success: word of mouth, advertising, customer service, consistent communication. Don’t say “We want a name like Zappos” when you mean “We want to build a company like Zappos.”

Other mistakes: Too many decisionmakers. (I like to keep it to four or five, max.) Not generating enough names. (Only about 5% will be available, so you need to create at least 300 names, preferably more. That’s not a challenge for professional namers, but most amateurs find it very difficult.) Not understanding how long the naming process takes or what it should realistically cost. Resistance to metaphor. Fixation on an internally developed name, even when it’s clearly problematic. Ego.

What are some new names that you particularly like?

Beeminder is the very nice name of a website that helps people set and meet goals. It suggests industriousness and reminders, and it’s fun and easy to say – much better than the company’s original name, Kibotzer (sic!). The original tagline, “Reminders with a Sting,” made me smile. The current tagline is more pedestrian: “Solving the Self-Control Problem.”

I also like Weightless Books, which sells DRM-free publications in a variety of formats. They’re e-books, so they are literally weightless, and you get them instantly, so they’re waitless. Very nice.

In big-company-land, I’m a fan of Surface, the name of Microsoft’s new tablet device. As a noun, it draws attention to the device’s near-two-dimensionality; as a verb, it suggests “coming up for air.” And it subtly reinforces the Windows brand: windows are, after all, mostly surface.

What are some trends you’d sooner see die off?

What’s up with the adverbs and forced verbs? So many names end in –ly (I’ve created a Pinterest board with 117 examples, and I add a few new ones every week). So many names end in –ify (Storify, Zenify, Securify, Themify…). And in retail I’m seeing a lot of X+Y names: Circle & Square, Imogene + Willie, Time & Silence, Georgi & Willow, Holler & Squall. These concepts may have seemed fresh early on, but now they all blend together.

Oh, one more: the all-caps, no-vowels name. BHLDN. STK. BLK DNM. It’s as though we’re all shouting while texting. UGH.

Anything else to add?

I tell my clients that a brand name is an arranged marriage, not a love match. If you’re waiting for your heart to pound and your pulse to race, forget about it! You want a name with a good background (meaning, spelling, pronunciation) and good prospects (able to stand the test of time) that won’t embarrass you in front of strangers or bore you at home.