You name it

But good luck getting your colleagues to buy it.

Today, we visit the wonderful world of product naming, an exercise that can make Sisyphus’ job seem like something he could do with his left hand.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine on this subject brought back memories of standing before a whiteboard, trying to impose rigor on conference room cacophony, as opinions flew and attendees sought the perfect five-letter word with six different meanings.

With so many experts in the room, this should be easy, right? Wrong. As smart as the usual suspects in a product naming meeting are in their own fields, what is often heard are uninformed ideas, shibboleths, and wishful thinking.

Believe it or not, there is some rigor involved. The NYT article described how product naming at at high level (of expense, at least) gets done. Believe me, in the Big Leagues it’s more than two hours of free-associating in a conference room, after which the highest ranking person chooses the winner because it reminds him of his favorite car.

In a former life as a marketing services manager in a manufacturing company large enough to need this sort of thing, I was often dragooned into such meetings, and my experience in them led me to develop, as a defense, some guidelines that would take participants past the my-idea-is-just-as-good-as-yours level of debate. What the party needed was rules, and God bless ‘em, what engineers and technical people do really well is follow rules. Holding up a piece of paper and pointing out that “…it says here…” was often effective at bad-idea control.

As the article pointed out, a big challenge is just finding a word that can be used as a trademark. The rate of name consumption worldwide makes product namers wish for an alphabet with about twenty more letters, but the challenge is making do with what you have.

Nearly every useful word in the dictionary has been used. I’ve preached to many groups (and as confirmed by the Times article) that made-up words are the surest path to success.

That’s all I’ll say about what to do—hey, we’re talking about my IP here—but I’ll let on about some things not to do. These are things that pop up in every naming meeting I’ve conducted or attended.

Top of the list: acronyms. In technology companies, people have a fetish for them. It’s a form of clever that people enjoy practicing, and it can be easy. The problem is, when the word formed is translated, the acronym blows up. Let’s say my product is a big ugly machine. One acronym could be “BUM,” which seems somehow descriptive. But when BUM is translated to Portuguese or something, what the resulting letters stand for and the meaning they carry disappear. That’s another reason made-up words are useful—besides being available, they are untranslatable.

Another magnet for bad ideas is pop culture. References with leg-slapping cleverness in the United States, even in the Internet age of information ubiquity, can come across in another part of the world as baffling or worse. There’s a reason Exxon was named Exxon—the perfectly inoffensive name had no meaning to anyone, anywhere, in any age.

This may be the worst approach: holding a naming contest among your employees. It’s guaranteed to irritate all but one of them—the winner. If there is one, that is; a lot of their ideas will contain the first two do-nots guaranteed, along with other submissions unacceptable for various reasons. But don’t get me wrong; I don’t discount serendipity. It’s just that the odds are low. So… if you’re thinking about a name, get some professional help.

An associated problem is what to name. Some companies like to trademark everything in sight, but you may want to consider the advantages of fewer but more powerful and recognizable brand names versus a zillion trademarks that nobody inside or outside the company can keep straight.

I was pleased to note in the article that my methodology differed from best practices of the product naming big boys mostly in degree, and by the resources available to throw at the problem. These people will gin up a thousand choices at the start of the winnowing process; I never had that luxury. But at both my level and theirs, there’s one thing in common: fear of client whim. This X-factor can undermine all of your most brilliant ideas, but so it goes in selling the intangible. There’s not much job satisfaction in such a case if you’re the namer. All you can do is congratulate yourself for at least leading them to the point where a decision was actually made.

For the companies that will have to live with it, making a decision on a name is like deciding whether or not to marry somebody you think you love now, but there’s that weird little thing they do, and well, you’re not sure if it’ll last…

While naming is often difficult, the effort can can pay off with the satisfaction of creating something of potentially great value, using only a whiteboard, marker, and a lot of creative thinking. In this sense, it relates to fields like literature and art, whose magic is almost alchemic—creating something from nothing. Doing that is my idea of job satisfaction.

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