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Point of View

What's in a name?

April 09, 2015

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

That Shakespeare guy knew a thing or two about naming products.

Landing upon a name for a product or service is often a strange and particular process. I have recently worked on two naming projects – one for a small non-profit that is trying to shake its stodgy public perception and the other for a company that hopes to create an entirely new product line distinct from its main offering.

Sitting down with the small task force charged with potentially changing the non-profit’s name, the executive director asked me, “How long of a process is this?”

My rather annoying answer was, “How long do you want it to be?”

There are entire agencies that do nothing but name products. They use science. They use software. Namers go out and listen to the flutter of bird wings and try to capture the sound in letters. They think about mouth feel and how starting a word with “m” sounds appetizing and a hard “c” sound is more action oriented. In an era when darn near every word or phrase is already trademarked, making up evocative, ultimately meaningless words is a favorite strategy, particularly for pharmaceuticals. Even that is getting more difficult.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine shares the lengths to which companies will go to name a product. It isn’t a straightforward process. Working in marketing agencies and as a solo consultant, I have participated in quite a few naming projects on things as varied as nature centers, checking accounts, energy drinks, mobile shelving and candy. The process I was taught, which is to discover the essence of what you want to communicate and then devise “buckets” of themed exploration, is a common approach. While that sounds straightforward and might seem easy, naming requires creativity, strong language skills and a really good ear. Most people aren’t particularly good at it, which is why professional namers exist.

The 3-D gaming company highlighted in the Times article spent over a year and tens of thousands of dollars to ultimately arrive at the name Jaunt. If you have the time and money to hire a naming firm and go through multiple rounds of ideation, it’s a fine investment. If you decide to make that commitment, reserve some money for consumer testing.

But as Shakespeare noted, what you’re naming better smell sweet. A great name can’t overcome a bad product experience but a great product experience can overcome a bad name. The Times article gives a couple of classic examples such as iPad, which detractors gleefully compared to a tampon at its launch. Gap is an empty space. Yelp is a dog in pain. Jaunt is cute, but you could say it sounds more like a travel website than a gaming device.

However, nobody thinks iPod, Gap or Yelp are odd names anymore. The success of the products erased the initial negatives of the names. These examples go beyond naming to show the value of continuously improving product experiences.

A great name can’t overcome a bad product experience but a great product experience can overcome a bad name.

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