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In Berkeley, California, not far from where the ragged, but famous Ashby Flea Market sells its weekly selection of incense, ethnic food and used bikes, the naming firm A Hundred Monkeys is tucked into a row of single-story commercial buildings on a quiet street and marked by a small sign. The firm was founded in 1990, several years before the first dot-com boom hit the Bay Area, and its ethos has always run counter to tech-industry naming trends: the science-y sounding names made of spliced and grafted Latin roots, like Lucent, Pentium and Agilent; the absentee vowels of Flickr, Razr, Tumblr and Sqrrl; the meaningless phonetic mash-ups of Meebo, Yipit and Zillow. The namers at A Hundred Monkeys are outspoken in their scorn for such Frankenstein linguistics and in their preference for names composed of real words that communicate logically and emotionally, names that are, as they say, “provocative and human.”


Even among namers, the Monkeys seem to be word-nerds, enchanted by mellifluous language. Creative director Eli Altman tells me that when he reads, he likes to isolate words from the context of a sentence and consider how solitude changes them; the example he gives, without explanation, is yachts. The company’s main screening tool for prospective employees is a writing test. “It’s very weird, everything from an analysis of Ezra Pound to explaining how an airplane flies to writing a recipe for a food you hate,” Altman says. “It tests how nimble people are with language, how they approach problems.” The office vibe is exclusive and a bit secretive in a way that is at once professorial and hipster-geeky, suggesting an inner sanctum filled with difficult novels and New York Times Sunday crosswords. There is, in fact, a wall that separates the real Monkey workspace from the reception area and foyer where Altman and I meet. I never get to see what’s behind it.

The existence of naming firms is not news. The branding firm Landor Associates has specialized in naming since the early 1980s, and Lexicon, the agency that named Apple’s PowerBook, opened its doors in 1982. Still, the business of naming continues to seem, alternately, like a charming curiosity or a ridiculous hoax. But, in fact, naming is neither fantasy nor farce. Although most firms play up the idea that what they do is, if not outright magical, at least uniquely clever and fun, the daily grind of naming is a highly methodical process, and the names themselves are far more often products of practicality than flashes of inspiration. The Bay Area has long been a naming hub, and my visit to A Hundred Monkeys was one of several appointments intended to unearth the naming basics beneath the big personalities and proprietary methods of the firms.

Altman explains that the first step toward a good name is not to start tossing out possibilities in search of something everyone likes, which is, unfortunately, what most people do when left to their own devices. The first thing a naming firm will do is clarify exactly what the name needs to say about a given company or product. When A Hundred Monkeys renamed a digital publishing platform formerly called Standard Nine, they focused on the simplest expression of the company’s reason for being: to make educational textbooks more fun and engaging by leveraging the capabilities of the iPad. The new name had to communicate “the lightness of learning; learning for fun because you’re interested and don’t want to stop,” Altman says. Only after that was defined did they start spinning out suggestions. The end result was Inkling, a name that not only gets the idea across, but also hits the right emotional note. “‘Inkling’ connotes excitement, the sense that you’re on to something,” Altman says. He’s careful to add, however, that emotional resonance is not the same thing as personal preference. “We try to keep people away from the idea of a ‘eureka’ moment,” he says, “this feeling that the perfect name is going to come to them and they’ll just know it.” Alexandra Watkins, founder of San Francisco naming agency Eat My Words and the author of Hello, My Name Is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick, says this is one of the most important realizations you can have about naming. “Don’t ask yourself if you like it,” she says. “Ask yourself if it’s right.”

Eat My Words, the second stop on my tour of Bay Area naming shops, is the newest and most nontraditional of the bunch, but it shares with A Hundred Monkeys a distaste for the verbal jazz-hands of trendy tech names, including the recent onslaught of cute URLs (Visual.ly, Ethn.io) and the oppressive number of “-ifys,” from Spotify to Shopify to Mobilify. Watkins hates “Xobni” and “TCHO Chocolate,” and she’s bugged by the y in “Lyft”—“if you have to spell your brand name, you’re essentially apologizing for it,” she says. She insists that names be easy to say, easy to understand and spelled the way they sound. She loves “Crunch Fitness” and “Kryptonite” bike locks, and she recently bought an electric flyswatter solely because it was called “The Executioner.” “Your name needs to be approachable and friendly,” she says. “If not, that’s like a bad customer service experience.”

Watkins spent more than fifteen years as a copywriter before entering the naming division at Landor Associates. When she struck out on her own in 2005, she did so with an approach that is resolutely noncorporate, unscientific and intuitive. She refuses to hold brainstorming meetings, which she says are artificial and terrifying. “Staring at a whiteboard in a white room is not where colorful ideas come from—you can quote me on that,” she says, pausing while I type it. The San Francisco loft that is Eat My Words’ headquarters is colorful, retro, high femme in an ironic way, kitschy in an expensive way, cluttered in a meticulous way. Watkins prefers online resources to books and stores her small library in a vintage pink refrigerator. Eat My Words has named Smitten Ice Cream and Spoon Me frozen yogurt and christened a men’s nail salon in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood Hand Job. Watkins employs a team of nine or so freelancers, including a baker, a software engineer, two magazine writers and an improv actress. “I would never hire a professional namer,” she says. “They can’t create our type of names.” Prospective employees must pitch her 20 names for a wireless portable speaker, and if she likes their ideas (winners include Mighty Mouse, Nugget, Troubadour and Shimmy), she’ll let them try a project. The team is currently working on naming a new early-season apple, a new type of egg and a brand of cannabis.

Watkins very consciously steers clear of the kinds of corporate assignments that push naming firms to produce bland work, but many of the practical restrictions that hamstring creativity are simply inevitable. Trademark laws are chief among them, and even marijuana needs a legal name. Watkins estimates that a quarter of the potential clients who get in touch with Eat My Words do so because they’ve been called out for trademark infringement. The legal difficulties only get bigger when dealing with large companies, which is the specialization of Oakland-based firm Catchword Branding. “I’ve learned not to fall in love with names,” says Catchword co-founder Maria Cypher. “If it works, somebody else has already thought of it.”
 

Catchword opened in 1998, in the early days of the Internet boom. “We cut our teeth on tech and startup work back when the products had names like Blue Martini,” Cypher says. Catchword’s clients now are primarily Fortune 500 companies, which is significantly less colorful work. The agency’s portfolio includes McDonald’s Chicken Flatbreads, Starbucks Refreshers, and a line of pink and purple pens marketed to women called Bic for Her. It’s these straightforward, seemingly uncreative names that make laypeople suspicious of professional namers: Do clients really need to pay a firm many thousands of dollars to call a flatbread a flatbread?

The reality is that it’s exactly these types of names that require professional expertise. At large companies, individual product names need to fit within taxonomies of hundreds of other products without taking the focus off the company name, which is usually the primary brand. The names need to make sense in multiple, often international, markets, meaning they must be pronounceable and free of negative connotations in many languages, and the trademark must be available in every country.

This is the gritty side of naming: Regardless of each firm’s ideological approach, assembling names for a client is like gathering soldiers for a war of attrition, making the ranks robust enough to withstand being decimated by legal issues and still have some good options standing. And the naming firm then must marshal the survivors through waves of client meetings until they end up with something everyone is satisfied with. “A lot of it is just throwing names at a client until they say yes,” Altman admits, but notes that you’d better be happy with every option you put out there because you never know what the client will choose.

A good result requires generating far more options than most of us would consider necessary, and not just because many won’t clear the legal hurdles. “What sounds like a clever name sounds that way because it’s familiar,” says Kristen Pembroke, Catchword’s client services director. “You have to get through the shallow stuff first, the obvious stuff.” When Watkins named Spoon Me, she relentlessly aggregated words with all kinds of different associative links to frozen yogurt, such as cold weather and winter sports. Catchword generates about 2,000 possibilities for every name and maintains vast stores of name lists. “We’re naming some bottled water now,” Cypher says. “We look at the bottled water list for ideas because why wouldn’t you? But we’ll also look at SUV names that connote outdoor adventure.”

For designers and brand strategists who might consider taking on a naming task for a client, the most important thing is to keep a clear head about the fact that although naming is a creative process, it is also heavily technical, legal and interpersonal. You’d be well advised to call a naming firm if you’ll be dealing with international legal issues, aggressive timelines, large groups of stakeholders, picky boards of directors, or anyone who insists on believing that naming is exhilarating, romantic, divinely inspired or, worst of all, easy. “Whenever you do a big name launch, you hear lots of commentary—‘I could have come up with that!’” Cypher says. “But actually, no, you really couldn’t have come up with it… It wouldn’t have been available in Lithuania.” ca
 
PLAYING THE NAME GAME
Rookie naming mistakes make the pros cringe. Follow their tips to avoid the most common missteps.

Check the trademark early on. Naming firms leave the full trademark screening to their clients’ lawyers, but a cursory investigation will help you avoid wasted time. “Uspto.gov is easy to navigate and search, and you can get a sense of what’s out there in your trademark class,” says Maria Cypher, co-founder of Catchword Branding.

Don’t let the URL dictate the name. “Nobody cares what the domain name is,” says Alexandra Watkins, founder of Eat My Words. “They’ll find you.” Add a modifier if the exact URL isn’t available. “We’ve been trying to acquire catchword.com for a dozen years,” Cypher says. (The current URL is catchword branding.com.) But note that this is an issue of scale: the bigger a client is, the more likely it is that the company will want an exact match for the URL.

Get to know your client well. “Naming is at best 20 percent creative and 80 percent understanding the people in the room—and probably not in the room—who will have final say, without necessarily having contact with the process,” says Eli Altman, creative director of A Hundred Monkeys and author of Don’t Call It That: A Naming Workbook.

Avoid focus groups. Most namers don’t put much faith in their findings. “People in focus groups are expecting names with all the brand equity of a decade of marketing,” Cypher says. “There’s a preference for names that are easy rather than evocative and descriptive. ‘Apple’ or ‘Virgin’ would have flopped.”

Contextualize the name. “It’s hard to believe in the power of the brand when the brand doesn’t exist yet,” Altman says. “But once a name becomes part of a brand, you can never isolate it again. ‘Nike’ is never just the word.” To put the name into perspective, “make a mockup of the product with the name on it,” says Kristen Pembroke, client services manager at Catchword. “Show it on a billboard, what it looks like out in the world.”

Play the long game. Don’t be too specific to the immediate needs of your brand. Watkins points to the Burlington Coat Factory—you may remember its ads with the tagline “We’re more than great coats.” “They outgrew their name,” Watkins says. Encourage clients to think about whether the name accomplishes their communications objectives and how it might develop into a larger brand over time. —S.B.
Sara Breselor (sarabreselor.wordpress.com) is a San Francisco–based writer and the editor of the IDEO Labs website. She’s a regular contributor to Wired and the Harper’s Weekly Review, and her writing has also appeared in Idiom magazine, Salon and Slate.
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