fb-pixel Skip to main content

What’s in a name?

A dream job for some, there’s more to being a professional namer than clever wordplay

According to Pantone, the “world-renowned authority on color and provider of color systems,” “Radiant Orchid” is the color of the year for 2014.

Who’s the lucky person who got to choose that name?

Product namer has to be near the top of many lists of dream jobs, right up there with Chocolate Tester and Sommelier. It’s a little like playing God: You point your finger at a shade of blue and pronounce “Breath of Fresh Air,” or you pick up a bottle of nail polish and dub it “Euro-mazing” or “Yellowpalooza.”

But the name game is more complex than you might think. Whimsy helps, but to be a skilled namer, you have to be a shrewd cultural observer and a marketing whiz, to distinguish your products from the glut and make them feel timely.


You also need to be a wordsmith — something Ford knew in 1955, when the car company asked Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore to help brand its latest model. Among Moore’s exotic ideas: “Mongoose Civique” and “Utopian Turtletop.” Ultimately, Ford went with “Edsel,” after Henry Ford’s only son; some blame the car’s spectacular failure on its dull name.

The naming of “Radiant Orchid” was simple, says Laurie Pressman of Pantone. “We were thinking strictly of radiance. This is a shade that imbues the wearer with a healthy glow.”

Some of the colorfully named products (clockwise from top left): Omen Eyeshadow from Urban Decay, Fish Bowl Special Effects hair dye, Need Sunglasses nail polish from OPI, Razzmatazz Crayola crayon, Arsenic paint from Farrow & Ball.

But Anthony Shore, head of the naming company Operative Words, takes a more analytical approach. Like most namers, he spends time searching words of interest in linguistic databases called corpora, which he calls “a thesaurus on steroids.” Through these databases, he can study the words, metaphors, symbols, and images that have been associated with his chosen word.

To him, “ Radiant Orchid” is a richly layered phrase.

“Orchids are often associated with Asian cultures, especially southeast Asia,” he says. “Perhaps there’s a bit of China rising suggested in the name. One thing for sure is that it’s exotic. Orchids are unique and come from faraway places. And yet there’s also something accessible in orchids. People have orchids in their homes.”


Shore detects hints of the sexual “afterglow” in “radiant.” And, he says, the word orchid “comes from a Greek word that is related to the word ‘testicle,’ ” even while it is often associated with female genitalia in the world of art.

“Like any great name and any interesting word,” he says, “there are going to be many dimensions of association. The most powerful words are going to strike some kind of emotionally resonant chord in us — and what could be more emotionally resonant than the realm of sexuality?”

Many new color names in the marketplace — for paint, for cosmetics, for crayons, for cars — are far more allusive and strange than “Radiant Orchid.” Decades ago, nail polish colors were identified simply by number; now a woman may choose to paint her toes with OPI’s “I Saw . . . U Saw . . . We Saw . . . Warsaw” (navy blue) or Nars’s “No Limits” (bright magenta), names not even tangentially linked to the colors themselves.

The names are all part of a larger branding effort by companies, a way to make a statement to the consumer. “Companies use color names to shape perception,” says Shore. “With cars, Ford and Toyota and Rolls-Royce are all going to give their cars different color names even if they happen to use very similar colors. The names help reinforce certain ideas about their brand or their product.”


Shore, who has been naming for 25 years, says he has noticed Volkswagen trying to promote the Beetle as a faster car. “So the Beetle now has colors like ‘Tornado Red’ and ‘Yellow Rush’ and ‘Reflex Silver.’ ” There is nothing inherently red about a tornado, and yet by juxtaposing the two words, VW has planted thoughts of power and speed in the consumer’s mind.

“A word like ‘tornado’ is going to trigger more associations than just the sight of the color,” Shore says. “A picture is worth a thousand words, but a single word is easily worth a thousand pictures.”

That’s how Ford has been trying to class up the perception of its Focus models, using color names such as “Tuxedo Black” and “White Platinum.” The words “tuxedo” and “platinum” suggest money. Using nature in color names, Shore says, is another tried and true approach: “Nature can imply a sense of power, endurance, and permanence.” Thus Porsche’s “Basalt Black” and “Crystal Green.”

Cosmetic companies are generally the boldest users of color names. They tend to go for the more arbitrary names, such as “Asphyxia” (a hyacinth blue) and “Omen” (metallic purple), names of Urban Decay eye shadows. That way, in the process of wondering why you would put Special Effects’ teal-colored “Fishbowl” dye in your hair, you spend time pondering the product.

Elizabeth Miller, a marketing professor at UMass-Amherst, co-wrote a 2006 study about strange color and flavor names. “We were interested in understanding why companies are using these ambiguous names,” she says. “It started with Crayola. They had ‘Razzmatazz’ and ‘Tropical Rain Forest,’ and when a crayon company’s words are no longer descriptive of color, that’s really odd. We were also noticing it with Gatorade drinks. We wondered, is that effective and why might that work?”


The study’s conclusion: “Consumers did prefer these ambiguous names,” she says, in the world of hedonic products. “When they’re thinking about what does this mean, or trying to solve the puzzle of why was this particular name used, you get a boost in interest in both cases.”

To Miller, the phrase “Radiant Orchid” attracts buyers due to its marriage of the specific (“orchid”) with the surprising (“radiant”): “People say, Why is that modifier ‘radiant’ there, and they give it a little bit of extra thought, and that extra thought results in a positive boost.”

Paint company Farrow & Ball has a green called “Arsenic” that also catches the buyer by surprise. It was named for the historical use of arsenic in green paint, which some historians suggest played a role in Napoleon’s death. “When you have an educated target market,” Miller says, “that’s effective. Once they get the reference, they get that little pat on the back: ‘I solved it.’ ”

Arsenic, though, has negative connotations, something some companies work to avoid.

Laurie Pressman from Pantone says she likes to allude to food and flowers, “things that are tantalizing to the senses. If you can get someone to respond through different senses, they have a better recollection of the color. It becomes a multi-sensorial experience.” She works to keep the color names positive. After seeing a color called “Rat’s Nest” in the United Kingdom, she says she knew Pantone would never use that name: “While it might evoke a certain color, it wouldn’t evoke a pleasant feeling.”


She has no interest in being controversial or edgy. “We have to live with these colors,” Pressman says. “This is not a T-shirt that goes in and out for the next season. We’re living with some colors for years and years.” Kristin Summer, who names paint colors at Andover-based California Paints, agrees: “You really do want to try and think of names that will last the test of time. We don’t change color names. It would be too confusing for the consumer. Once a color has that name it keeps it.”

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.