Expectant parents have a lot to think about, but one of the most crucial and timeless issues is: “What are we going to call this kid?” Partners may have different family naming traditions or ideas about what a name should convey. Giving your child an extra-special, never-before-seen name has some appeal. But is it worth making them a bully magnet? Names follow us throughout our lives, and it’s nice if they’re good company.
Companies naming products (or themselves) face similar decisions. Who wants their company moniker to be a laughing stock on Twitter? That’s where professional namers come in. Consultants give companies lots of naming options while making sure the final choice rolls off the tongue, allows the product room to grow, and works well in the global marketplace, where products live when they grow up.
Richard Loranger — a freelance namer and verbal branding consultant for 10 years, as well as a poet — stresses the primacy of a name as the hook. “It’s often the first thing that someone learns about a product or business,” he says. That first contact creates a first impression, and it should make people think, “I want to know more.”
Another veteran namer and taxonomist — Maggie Balistreri, author of the “Evasion-English Dictionary” — says that namers must first remember that “people are going to say this name out loud.” Names that are hard to pronounce or have a negative connotation in another language should be avoided — you have to think sonically and globally.
You also have to look ahead, since the name is going to be there long past its debut. Consider Apple, a versatile brand name that was able to grow beyond computers to all sorts of products. Balistreri cautions that “descriptors limit as much as they disclose” so it’s important that a name leave room for growth and retain a bit of mystery. A too-literal name — say, including the word “car” for a car-related project — might be perfect today while closing off possibilities for a new version of the brand story in the future.
Namer Nancy Friedman — in her blog Fritinancy — has sung the praises of suggestive names, which “draw on the power of metaphor and analogy to create positive associations in customers’ minds.” She cited Amazon as a name that “suggests a mighty river of products.” Such suggestions add metaphorical punch without limiting the product’s future. Jeff Bezos reportedly considered the name “Relentless” for Amazon, before being dissuaded by friends that it sounded to sinister. Even so, click on Relentless.com today and it still redirects to the online retailer that has been nothing short of relentless in disrupting American consumption.
Altering a name or word by a letter is a common feature of product and baby naming, and they share some similar motivations. Balistreri talks about Freud’s “narcissism of small difference” to explain a company or parent thinking, “change the spelling and now it’s special.” This is a feature of many famous services such as Flickr and Tumblr as well as the endless parade of varied baby names such as Kaitlin, Katelyn, Kaitlinn, or Kaytlon. Companies and parents are often both motivated by a unique spelling’s potential for easier branding and access to web addresses. It would be a shame if your ingenious app or darling child didn’t have the perfect URL.
The most eerie similarity between corporate and baby naming occurs when two companies merge. Like two people, the companies might have totally different names: one might be traditional, the other wacky. One might want to keep their name. Balistreri suggested meeting in the middle in such cases and not picking a name too close to either previous brand — advice parents with their own unusual names should heed as well.
Professional namers also do routine “disaster checks” on potential names, even before lawyers fully investigate trademarks. That includes searching for inappropriate meanings in English and other languages, such as referencing an unlucky color, inappropriate slang term, or unfortunate homophone. If the name rhymes with or sounds like a word for a crime — such as embezzlement or perjury — that could be a disaster for the company if an executive is ever accused of one of those crimes.
Unlike parents, businesses shouldn’t get too emotionally invested in the name game. Loranger warned that the name of your dreams might not be distinct, robust, or legally available. A parent can use any name — a company can’t.Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.