Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.
This week's edition about naming products—in which 99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Laurel Sutton, co-founder of Catchword Branding, Eli Altman, creative director at A Hundred Monkeys and author of the naming book Don’t Call It That, and catchword namer Alex Kelley—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.
The name is important. It’s the first thing, the tip of the spear with any product you use or buy or see. You are bombarded by thousands of names every day.
In this daily barrage, only the names that are most interesting and most pleasant on the tongue can survive in your memory. So it’s no surprise that companies—especially large ones like Sony or Procter & Gamble—hire naming companies.
That is, there are companies that come up with names for things. Cars, lines of yogurt, iPhone apps, small businesses, sodas, movies, and even theories have all been named by professionals.
Now, we’ve all come up with names before—for pets, or children, or bands, or blogs. But when it comes to designing a name for a business or a product, there are a number of additional factors to consider.
Case study: Photoshop Elements.
The word “Elements” took a lot of work.
Photoshop was looking to market a less expensive version of its software, which it wanted to market as having all the capabilities of regular Photoshop but without many of the “bells and whistles.” Adobe hired Oakland-based naming company Catchword to come up with something. Catchword went through a monthlong exploration of every word that might apply: “essentials,” “basics,” “light,” etc., but they all sounded compromising. Finally, they came across Elements, which implies both simplicity and necessity; the parts that are basic but important.
(Catchword, by the way, got its name from the guiding words at the top of the dictionary pages. Those are the catchwords.)
There are really only a handful of businesses that deal exclusively in names, and their services can cost thousands of dollars. In addition to coming up with names, they also determine what names are available for trademark, which URLs are available, and they conduct linguistic checks to ensure that potential names are pronounceable, unique, and appropriate in languages around the world.
Linguistic checks can be vital: Catchword was once naming a toy and one of the names they had come up with for it turned out to mean “a small device that doesn’t work” in Japanese. So they ruled that option out.
More than anything else, Catchword just produces a ton of names. They see a direct relationship between quantity and quality, and casually remark that the first 500 names anyone comes up with are going to be obvious and uninteresting. Catchword will generate more than 2,000 names per client, 30 to 50 of which they will present as viable options.
And they can come up with so many names because they make names across a naming spectrum.
At one end of the spectrum you have descriptive names, which just describe what the thing is—like Raisin Bran, and Shredded Wheat.
Descriptive names can be great because they’re self-explanatory. But they are also hard to own. In fact, neither Raisin Bran nor Shredded Wheat is trademarked. Anyone can make a cereal and call it raisin bran or shredded wheat.
The other big drawback to descriptive names is that they can be limiting. National Public Radio changed its name to NPR so that they wouldn’t be limited to just one medium.
Descriptive names contributed to the downfalls of a lot of specific startups in the ’90s, like estamps.com, which had trouble expanding services beyond its name.
All the way on the other end of the spectrum are so-called arbitrary names, which don’t tell you anything about the product or service. Like Apple.
Arbitrary names allow for flexibility—in Apple’s case, the name allows them to make anything.
Arbitrary names can also be completely made up. These kinds of names are called “empty vessels.” Names such as Hulu, Exxon, and Kodak mean nothing on their own, and were largely chosen because they are short, unique, and sound appealing.
Catchword came up with an arbitrary name, Vudu, for an online movie service:
Arbitrary names and empty vessels are easy to trademark, easy to get the domain name for, and are usually good in languages around the world.
Drawback: They are hard to market. You have to put a lot of money behind these kinds of names to tell people what they mean. You would have no idea what Amazon sells or does if it didn’t have the budget to tell you about all its services.
Most names fall somewhere in between the two poles of descriptive and arbitrary names. These are “semi-descriptive” or “suggestive” names. Like Microsoft, which kind of says “software for microcomputers,” but not explicitly. Microsoft is a “coined word”—a word that doesn’t exist in an English dictionary but is made up of familiar words, word parts, or sounds. Spotify, Nespresso, and Netflix are also coined words.
A few miles away from Catchword is another naming company called A Hundred Monkeys. (A Hundred Monkeys got its name from the idea that if you put a hundred monkeys in front of a hundred typewriters, you’re bound to get a good name. It’s a joke about the process.)
A Hundred Monkeys doesn’t make coined words or empty vessels. They prefer to come up with names based around a narrative, inspired by anatomical charts, constellations, secret service code names, rundown theaters, types of wind, and ocean currents. They strive for names that lead to conversation. They have named Front Porch Senior living communities; The Lot (Rhode Island’s state lottery); and Start Here Microsoft Windows tutorial. They also named Conditioned Hypereating, a theory for how fast food companies design food to make it irresistible.
Rather than a naming spectrum, A Hundred Monkeys sees more of a sort of name taxonomy, in which classifications break down into 25 categories of names. Some examples:
Names of real people (Tesla Motors, Jack Daniels, Newman’s Own)
Names of imaginary mascots (Jolly Green Giant, Dr. Pepper, Captain Morgan)
Americana names (Baby Ruth, Dixon Ticonderoga, 76 Gasoline)
Mythical names (Nike, Pandora, Hermès)
Foreign-feeling names (Clinique, Häagen Dazs, Tazo)
Lifestyle statement names (Forever 21, True Religion, Livestrong).
The takeaway is this: If you have enough money, the name can be anything. When the iPad was about to come out, everyone thought it was a really silly name. You heard all kinds of sanitary napkin jokes.
Now, through sheer force of will and advertising dollars, you don’t think twice about the word “iPad.”
99% Invisible is distributed by PRX