When I tell people at parties what I do, they’re always curious. “You’re a namer-of-things? That sounds like fun. Tell me more,” they say, surprised that it’s an actual job.
In fact, the profession has grown in the last 15 years with the explosion of entrepreneurs and startups that need to name everything from products and services to websites and apps. “Verbal identity” is at the core of every product launch and includes not just names but slogans and taglines.
I’m a naming consultant hired by branding agencies to tackle projects for clients that have included a faith-based financial institution, an online investment service, and wine marketed to women. I’ve coined quite a few cute names. For example, City Block™ is a note cube with a city map printed on its side. Then there’s HandJive™—fashion gloves designed for cyclists.
When I get hired to name a product, the branding agency provides me with a briefing document that outlines the client’s business strategy, identifies the competition, and suggests preferred directions, themes or language. Then I go to town. I get into a naming zone. I start with a walk for fresh air and ideas. I stop at the neighborhood newsstand and scan the magazine covers. I window-shop and note clever taglines (like the Gap’s “Fall into our sale.”)
I’m often one of several namers working on a tight deadline—anywhere from just 24 hours to a few days—to generate as many as 200 names. With luck and persistence, a short list of top contenders is presented to the client.
The tools of my trade include foreign-language dictionaries, a rhyming dictionary, Visual Thesaurus, and the Oxford English Dictionary. If I’m looking for a three-letter word, I can search ScrabbleFinder.com.
Successful naming demands focus, linguistic alchemy, and midnight oil. The creative process of naming is always tempered by legal scrutiny to ensure that a name doesn’t already exist. My clients—mostly small businesses and startups—hire trademark attorneys to register and protect the names that I’ve come up with for them.
Research is easier than when I started thanks to companies that allow you to search and register domain names. But it can be difficult to find a name that hasn’t already been claimed. One common solution to this problem is to leave out a letter: See Flickr or Tumblr.
My parents tell me I was born for this occupation. As a little kid, I was verbal, inquisitive, and imaginative. In 1990, I took a job as packaging copywriter for toy manufacturer Mattel (“MAT”). Over more than 15 years, I produced countless descriptions and taglines, and hundreds of names, for toys. Rule #1: A name should be memorable.
I worked at Mattel in a team with a graphic designer and a structural engineer. In our brainstorms—or as we called them “name-storms”—we entertained dozens of ideas. The work wasn’t always fun and required many levels of approval. But the rewards were big: What could be more exciting than to hear a little one ask for Baby Ah-Choo™ at Toys “R” Us?
Rule #2: A name must be easy to pronounce. Some of my favorites: Stack-tivity™: a set of building blocks, each with a playful activity on it. A child could draw on the blank face of the What’s Her Face™ doll. Other names I loved were nixed by a higher authority. For example, Paw-Pets was the perfect name for a set of animal finger puppets. Rule #3: Never fall in love with a name—and never take rejection personally.
I recently bought a pair of men’s cashmere socks, despite the hefty price tag, because the name blended playfulness and luxury. I knew that the recipient of my gift would appreciate it, too: Ovadafut. The spelling may look exotic, but say it out loud.
If you say it out loud and you smile: bingo. That’s the game of the name.
Ellen Lutwak is a writer, walker, and connector of people and resources. She tweets as @NameGirl and has worked with many branding agencies, including the global consultancy Interbrand and Tanj, a boutique firm named for the word “tangible” and the founders’ love of tangerines. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.