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.