A peek into our culture, personalities and passions.

A peek into our culture, personalities and passions.

April 20, 2017

What’s In A Name?

By Jeff Insco

As a creative agency with a strength in branding, naturally we’ve faced the challenge of naming assignments. Consequently, I’ve found myself in a number of meetings with groups of decision makers as they grapple with potential product or company name options.

It would be so much easier for everyone if there was a textbook answer for what the right solution is. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. But there’s clear guidance found in a proven process, the right research and an appreciation for artfulness and its role in successful marketing.

These naming decision meetings usually mean I’m trying to respond to reactions that range from overly literal to obscure. These comments are typically well-intentioned, but we humans can’t help but going non-linear sometimes when asked for our opinion. 

What's in a Name?

Even the most competent and seasoned business professionals can range off the reservation when it comes to feedback regarding a topic like naming—a topic that, with all due respect, they’re probably not qualified to evaluate. 

In one meeting a few years back I found myself drifting off while a long, overwrought discussion on the origins of the root of a word played on. I imagined a story about how the name Google might have come about.

[Brilliant Stanford engineer 1] “Dudes, seriously this indexing system is gonna be huge. We need to name it, protect it and get some financial backing. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I think we should call it ‘Google’. 


[Stanford engineer 2] “What does that even mean? You mean like googol… the math term? One hundred zeros?”


[Stanford engineer 3] “I don’t get it. I doubt others will either.”

[Stanford engineer 2] “Plus, we’re indexing a hella more than 100 zeros worth of data.”

[Brilliant Stanford engineer 1]  {face palm}


And yet, here we are. Google is one of the most powerful brands in the ENTIRE WORLD… in human history. The name worked for a variety of reasons—primarily because it artfully connects to the essence of why we care about the brand. More on that later.

It’s challenging to generate consensus for a name among a group of people. But getting one cleared through legal is what I imagine it’s like to get a root canal when the dentist’s entry point is from another orifice. 

That said, the only thing more uncomfortable can be the process of developing the name in the first place.

Back to the story… something came over me (perhaps the Thai coffee at lunch), but I felt compelled to share my imagined anecdote about Google. Met with awkward silence at first, it did help clear the mental underbrush and got us talking about a couple of key points… like the objective of a name.

Naming assignments can be challenging, frustrating and sometimes painful—yet utterly sublime when the solution is found.

In order to get there, we have to remember the role of a name is to help customers recall what your product or service is and to remember it in a way that somehow sets it apart from your competition.

Creating that solution starts with being very clear about your brand’s narrative—what we call the promise of the brand. Think of it as the reason why someone should really care about your brand.

Brand Promise

From there, we use a number of creative techniques to generate initial concepts and words. This can range from free association to using “illogical provocation” and other lateral thinking techniques.

We’ll consider mashing up a variety of prefixes and suffixes and explore the meanings and connotations of words in alternate languages.

What remains paramount is that the options connect to the brand promise. Various options may do this from different angles and go to different depths… but they all must connect.

There’s considerable research in the psychology and linguistics arenas that we often rely on to guide our thinking about the amount of conceptual creativity that we can or should employ. Yes, beyond the precarious results of creative testing, there’s sound data out there.

Thing is, in today’s litigious, IP-focused world, it is difficult to find a suitable name that will pass legal muster.

It can literally take hundreds of options to get down to a select few that might pass a conflict screen. Before we even get the lawyers involved we check main search engine results and screen our favorites against the U.S. Trademark office site (TESS). 

Here’s the rub… breaking through today’s clutter, differentiating your product or service from your competitors and resonating with customers requires a brand to be artful.

Artful is elegant and authentic. And research shows that consumers, especially millennials, appreciate elegance and authenticity. I think it’s because both characteristics indicate intelligence and trustworthiness (one of the most important attributes a brand can have).

“Artful” requires an artist, not a committee. And it isn’t easy.

Seth Godin eloquently points out the typical outcomes of committees and draws a relevant distinction when he says, “…elegant takes a moment to get. Obvious is a trap, the last resort of an artist who can't think clearly about what to do next. If no one says, ‘huh, I don't get it,’ you've built the obvious, not the elegant.”

This is what we strive for on our naming assignments. And, if you want your name to be successful, we encourage you to do the same… and trust your experienced artists.

Next time you see the name of a company or brand and ask, “what the hell does that mean?” or “why did they spell it like that?”, recognize you’ve opened the door to the narrative marketers want you to think about.

And, humbly, I ask you to take a moment to pay respects to the arduous process and countless ideas that lost their lives on the way to getting you to that very instant where you make the decision to engage… or not.

(The purported actual account of the Google name’s origin can be found here.)


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