Some notes on thinking up names for stuff.
This past weekend I had a fun little side project: I helped a friend brainstorm names for her clothing boutique. (Don’t know yet how I feel about “name-storm,” so yeah, brainstorm it is.) It got me thinking about naming stuff in general and led to some insights about the whole process.
In this case I was helping a friend, but usually when naming something I’d be doing it for work. Then I remembered that I do this on my own anyway: Outside of marketing stuff, I still think up fake band names and even album names for fun (some plausible, most just for laughs). I keep a list of them in my phone. I once also tried to come up with the most absurd title I could think of for a faux academic paper. I remembered this just now because that’s in my phone too. I’m an eminently mature person!
A couple years back I was part of a creative team proposing names for a healthcare company’s complex enterprise software. I have no recollection of any details of the project except for this: we were having fun.
What’s the deal? What’s so enjoyable about naming stuff? Granted, I’m sure some folks out there dread it, even copywriter types. But I tried to break down its appeal:
1. So much rides on a name. It’s a lasting decision of great consequence. A goofball name for a company or product or app doesn’t necessarily prohibit its success, but an outstanding name is a powerful asset.
2. Naming forces you to cut away clutter. You only get a word or two.
3. It’s a chance to be playful — often there is potential for metaphor and neologism — and at the very least you get to search for vibrant words that punch above their weight.
4. Beyond general concessions to decorum and length, there are few rules. Because constraints counterintuitively make creative tasks easier, its relative freedom makes naming more challenging and therefore more rewarding.
5. It’s the quintessential instance of trying to find just the right word. Succeeding at this is satisfying even when you’re just grasping for a word to bury within a blog post. The stakes are considerably raised for a semi-permanent label designated for a marquee, logo, domain, app store, billboard, and everywhere else.
6. Novelty is a factor. There are only so many businesses, products, or websites a person will get to name (notwithstanding the infinite number of those potential band names and album titles).
Novelty is a big one for me. It’s good to seek new stuff to do. This recent project was the first time I’ve tried to name a store. Despite the fact that all of my friends undoubtedly would describe me as “scarily fashion-forward and super cool — just totally on top of the style game for daaaaays”(that was extreme sarcasm btw), I realized something about the fashion world that I had never consciously noted before: a lot of clothing brands’ and retailers’ names don’t directly allude to fashion at all. Instead they adopt an evocative or provocative name as a fashion statement in and of itself. This is especially true for small trendy shops like the ones on Melrose and Fairfax in L.A. — I’m looking at you, Filth Mart — but it’s true for many giant brands and familiar retailers too: Banana Republic, The Gap, Forever 21, ANGL, Guess, Hollister, J. Crew, Lucky, Victoria’s Secret — each has nothing implicitly to do with clothes or fashion. And of course many just take the name of the designer.
The upshot is that a business’s vertical or a product’s purpose should not restrict the type of words to consider for its name. This is equally true for industries outside of fashion. It can make sense to stay topical, but that’s not what makes a good name: it will always be good or bad on its own (albeit subjective) terms. In fact, trying to come up with some punny name that directly relates to the product or business is risky, as it can come off as hokey, go over some people’s heads, or be otherwise unmemorable.
Creative direction aside, the biggest source of frustration is that so many great names are taken. Science has shown that this becomes axiomatic the minute you’ve found a name that excites you, because… (drum roll…) it’s time to check trademarks! This is a horrible life event that I don’t wish to discuss. When you’re working within a saturated industry, invariably it seems like every good name you think of has been claimed. Checking the registry feels like you’re part of some sociological experiment designed to make you lose your cool.
There’s also continual grousing about how all the best domain names have been gobbled up.* (This year’s addition of 1,000 domain suffixes was designed to ameliorate this problem.) But because of the proliferation of sites and domain squatters, when it’s time to choose a name, new startups and internet companies often must resort to weird portmanteau words, unconventional spellings, or outright gibberish. Sometimes they do this just to be quirky. Google is an example: I doubt they chose its creative spelling because “googol.com” was taken in 1997. (Side note: Google was originally named BackRub.)
Like any industry, the tech world is home to lots of colorful names, some great, some OK, some terrible. (Check out TechRepublic’s list of their 15 worst offenders — my favorite is “Fashism.” What in the living hell.)
Then there are the big dogs. Did their names help? Were they a hindrance?
Did you ever stop to think about the name Tinder? (Tinder is a dating app that some of my single friends complain about and use in equal measure.) It’s quite a clever metaphor. And kudos to them for not spelling it “Tindr.”
Whisper is rather obvious (well, in hindsight it’s obvious) but very fitting for that app.
Facebook is pretty literal (can a name be skeuomorphic?) but that’s not a bad thing, per se. SnapChat is very literal too. Beats by Dre pulls off being literal and imaginative simultaneously.
Apple is nice and wholesome (although its name was, how should we put this, “lifted” from the Beatles’ music publishing company; the court agreement barred Apple Computers from conducting any business related to the music industry, which is a really funny joke to tell in 2014).
Uber is another interesting case. It seems to fit their bold personality — or do I perceive them as bold because of their name? (Not to mention their slick design sensibility and aggressive expansion plan: As CEO Travis Kalanick told The Wall Street Journal in 2013, “If you ask permission for something that’s already legal, you’ll never get it.”) Either way, the name Uber is short and strong and it works. The German word for “better” or “greater than” also accurately positions them against their taxi company competitors.
Props also to MailChimp, another cleverly named company. It suits the brand and the service to a tee (always simple, sometimes lovingly ridiculous). All their copy is stellar, too.
I’ve heard negative comments about Twitter’s name but I think it’s perfect. The service was initially referred to internally as “Status,” so they clearly needed a stronger name. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jack Dorsey describes how they chose “Twitter”:
“We wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket. It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word ‘twitch,’ because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But ‘twitch’ is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word ‘twitter,’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was.
“The whole bird thing: bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds. The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient. So we just fell in love with the word. It was like, ‘Oh, this is it.’ We can use it as a verb, as a noun, it fits with so many other words. If you get too many messages you’re ‘twitterpated’ — the name was just perfect.”
Thankfully “twitterpated” never took off. But I agree it’s hard to think of a better metaphor for whatever Twitter is than chattering birds.
Naming is just one of those things. You know the best choice is out there but the harder you look for it, the further it seems to slip away. Then out of the blue a great option will pop up. Then you realize it’s taken. Snap back to reality, oh, there goes gravity.
In my search this weekend I came across an online comment somewhere about clothing boutiques’ names sounding like nightclubs. I thought this was a brilliant observation and started searching club names. Turns out you could make a good game out of this: Is this the name of a club in Soho or a boutique in Venice? This device is specific to fashion and nightlife I guess, but there are plenty more versatile tricks to use when you’re stuck (some are obvious so you can roll your eyes at me).
The Dictionary: Yes! There’s no better compendium of potential names than . . . a compendium of all words. (OK, no dictionary could contain all words, but they each have enough.) As he explains in the story above, Dorsey et al. had luck with this tactic when naming Twitter. Just keep in mind that not all dictionaries are created equal, not even the online ones (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary > merriam.com > dictionary.com). This doesn’t matter as much for naming purposes but you may as well be using a more authoritative dictionary. I highly recommend this post by James Somers, “You’re Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary.”
The Thesaurus: Look up one word in a thesaurus and it’s crazy how many different directions it will take you. I kind of snubbed dictionary.com up there but its sister site, thesaurus.com, is my favorite online one. Merriam’s online thesaurus is also very good but the user experience isn’t as friendly.
Idioms: If you’re stuck, try your luck at idioms.thefreedictionary.com. Whenever you refresh the page a new batch of idioms randomly generates. Some of the rare English idioms seem insane (“Not on your Nelly”? “Knock something into a cocked hat”? “Chasing rainbows”? — surely they meant waterfalls, yes?). But the main problem with idioms is that they’re usually clichés. Some are wonderfully colorful though. Sometimes you can twist the phrasing a bit or take only a piece of an expression to better suit a name. And like all the sources mentioned here, they can lead you to other words or insights.
Music: No need to stick to your own iTunes library. In fact, don’t. Try artists that are way out there, even if you’re not familiar with their work. Seek artists who clearly put thought into their lyrics. Also, electronic music often features vivid song titles (perhaps because the titles are often the only words associated with the music at all, so they do even more work than titles normally do). Rifle through song and album titles long enough and you’ll find powerful, punchy words for inspiration.
Poetry and Experimental Fiction: If you’re looking for some thrilling, obscure, lively language, spend some time with contemporary poetry or experimental fiction and you’re bound to find some playful samples. I bet if I grabbed My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist off the shelf, some stimulating words would jump right out.**
Watch and Listen: It always pays to be resourceful. Maybe you’ll come across a word and think Hmm this might come in handy. Maybe a friend or colleague who’s got a way with words will say something that pricks your ear in a peculiar way. Whenever you see an unfamiliar word, look it up. I have a whole spreadsheet of words from this, because I am strange.
I guess resourcefulness is the main takeaway though. Finding inspiration for names isn’t much different from looking for design inspiration or other artistic ideas. They’re all around. You just have to keep your eyes open. It’s beneficial to stock up on ideas so that you’re prepared when you need one.
What would you name your next child? Your Great Dane? Your pug? Your cat? Your racehorse? Your boat? Your sugary children’s cereal? Your beer label? Your literary magazine? Your app? Your band?
When I worked at a small interactive agency that was rebranding and renaming itself, I spent some time thinking up names I thought would capture the energy and creativity such a place should project to the world. It was a fun exercise. Unfortunately, despite limited but vocal opposition from parts of the creative team, the chosen name turned out to be what we in marketing call a fait accompli.*** It was disappointing but not that big of a deal. I just considered it a wasted opportunity at the time.
But I still have my list...
*This article from Julian Shapiro about naming your startup, website, and/or app is from 2012 but is very comprehensive and holds up extremely well. He’s much more methodical and process-oriented than I’ve been above (that shouldn’t be surprising — he’s a developer who built a whole company around domain names and I’m just a guy who likes words). I would suggest that both our approaches have their pluses but that it’s crucial to close with something closer to his, pretty much out of necessity these days. He also includes lots of helpful resources like LeanDomainSearch.com, Wordoid.com, and Domai.nr, plus active domain portfolios and more. Most important, he convincingly lays out for tech entrepreneurs all the reasons they should take the naming process very seriously indeed, and calls BS on all the usual excuses they use to give the naming of their companies short shrift.
**To test my hypothesis I randomly opened Mark Leyner’s strange book to pages 69 and 70 and found these words: apex, threnody, straddle, tipsy, fossil, crooked, Pleistocene, tumult, rank, aquatic, taut, scalpel, brittle, slow motion, skate, murmur, conjure, corridor, delirious, cornet…. I don’t know about you but I see some potential names in there. Threnody! The language practically sparkles. Ah — sparkle’s a solid word too.
***OK nobody would really call it that.
Posted on July 24, 2014.