The game of the name

I have just posted a comment piece about naming in the Articles section. I wrote it for Design Week way back in 2002, when the world had become somewhat agitated by the appearance of pretentious company names. Anyone remember Consignia? Innogy? Uniq? Monday?

Re-reading that article made me think about the working process of naming a company, product, publication or object. In my experience, these assignments are either brief and blissful – like a short, sweet dream – or seemingly endless, frustrating and draining, like the nightmare I had last week in which I was required to restock the shelves of a haberdasher’s shop while wearing a diving bell, gravity-enhancing astronaut boots and crudely knitted orange mittens.

Someone rings up about a naming project every few weeks, and I usually point them elsewhere. There are specialists better placed to give most clients what they really need – a comprehensive set of options backed up with research, corporate-class project management capacity, and deep reservoirs of patience. But if the caller is open to a wild card approach, and they seem interesting and instinctive, I might say ‘I’ll give it a go, and if I don’t crack it in three days I’ll put you in touch with someone better’. I then go through a pretty straightforward process – find out what they want the name to convey and to whom; look at their competitors and peers; immerse myself in as much of the organisation as I can for a day; then invite lots of words, phrases and sentences to mingle in my brain until something possibly appropriate pops up. As a process it is capricious, fitful and lacking in professional rigour. It often works quite well.

A good name might appear at any point during the process. A few months back I was briefed to name a lively new firm of consultants and accountants who specialise in advising arts institutions and creative agencies about money. The founding partner used to sing/shout in a punk band, and they wanted to sound more like their clients than their competitors. As I put the phone down the name Counterculture lit up in my mind. They love it, and so do their clients.

Eight years ago I had probably the toughest brief of all; find a name for a not-for-profit organisation championing the cause of great writing in business and life. Writing for writers – like doing stand-up for comedians. Naked. I thought something interesting might occur if we wandered away from the obvious route of using a word, but I couldn’t think of a relevant way to employ numbers, and Prince had already tried a glyphic squiggle. Next morning, I was walking along my road when I passed house number 26. It reminded me that there are twenty-six letters in the English language, and these are the building blocks of writing. 26 gave our group a collective identity, and all sorts of project ideas and names have sprung from the original.

Sometimes names are conceived, sometimes they’re found under a bush. One of our 26 book projects was about the Circle Line, but we were going round in circles trying to find a title. Tom and I were chatting when he mentioned a piece of music he had been developing on a circular theme, which he’d called ‘From Here to Here’. I gently observed it would make a great title for our book, and he generously donated it to the cause. A name doesn’t have to be new, just new in its own context.

A property industry client recently developed a blog in which its top people were going to offer their perspectives on the big new issues affecting the industry. A great idea, but lack of a name meant it hadn’t captured the imagination yet. I suggested ‘Sight Line’, and suddenly the initiative was much easier for everyone to ‘get’.

Australia, where men are men, names are names, and likening a name to a roulade would get you a good bashing.

A good name rolls the most relevant points about the organisation or thing or activity into one word or phrase. It’s a linguistic roulade. When something is tough to name it’s often because the proposition isn’t clear and compelling. You can’t create a meaningful, memorable name unless there’s something meaningful and memorable to convey. Even then, that delicious, calorie-packed monicker can be elusive, and you might have to take a lateral approach and grow your meaning over time. Think Orange, Apple, Amazon.

Have we moved on from high profile corporate names based on peculiar perversions of Latin, like Consignia? Perhaps. The current austerity mindset is deeply allergic to anything that smacks of waste, luxury, pretension or, indeed, aspiration. We’re in the age of sensible titles. Those who enjoy brand name invention may have to avert their eyes from organisational naming for a while and focus on another area. Race horses, perhaps. Or they might try hitting the bottle, as some of the best and worst new names have long come to us from vineyards. Just wander into Majestic for a blast of intoxicating brand names. Still not sure about Goats Do Roam, but I really like Educated Guess, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Roots Run Deep winery in Napa Valley. Actually, Educated Guess sounds like a good name for the unpredictable business of naming. Chin chin.

Tim  an article about brand names and copywriting

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  • By Grace Rousseau on 06/08/2010 at 12:35 am

    Brand names, company names, product names – a tough business http://f.ast.ly/kXT8D

  • By Just the right name | Just the right words on 27/03/2011 at 5:18 pm

    [...] an instinctive grasp of what works and what doesn’t. Someone like Tim Rich, who has written a great post on his blog ’66,000 miles per hour’ about the art of naming. He’s the clever chap [...]