It’s all in the name

How did Google and Orange get their names – and how do you go about labelling new brands? Jim Davies on the arbitrary art of name-generation

In my time, I’ve been asked to summon up names for shirts, phones, a music download service, a squash tournament, a perfume and a cheese. Not forgetting a couple of children. But mostly, it’s brands and companies asking for that elusive piece of nomenclature that will make them stand out and be remembered.

Of all the design writer’s tasks, naming is the most simple and yet the most slippery. I remember a client once asking me what my ‘process’ was. When I explained it was no more than sitting in silence with a huge pad of A2 paper and filling it with longs lists of words and doodles, her dubiousness was apparent, even over the phone. She wanted science, quantification, to know exactly what she was getting for her for money – but the name game doesn’t work like that.

Google could easily have been called BackRub. Orange finally won out from a shortlist that included Pecan and Kite. Naming is an incredibly arbitrary activity, but that’s what makes it so fascinating. For the writer, it’s the equivalent of a jazz singer’s scat, improvising and free-associating around a central notion until you happen upon an interesting take or juxtaposition of words that somehow fits with the character of the company or brand . For me, anything goes apart from hybrid or Latinate words.

Of course, you’ll need to do a bit of homework before you start, in order to discover not only the nature of the business, but also how it would like the world to perceive it. It’s this background that gives you the basis for your scat and keeps you from straying too far from the underlying tune.

As well as hard facts, it’s customary to ask a series of cod-psychological questions like, ‘If you were a colour, what would it be?’, or ‘Which celebrity would be the perfect ambassador for your company?’. Admittedly, they’re a bit naff, but often it’s not the actual answers to these questions that provide the telling clue, but the reaction to being asked them. And they do serve to focus the mind, giving you a sense of how far left field you can push your suggestions.

Once I have my full pad of A2, I start editing. Paring down and sorting until I have a shortlist of about ten names grouped in a reasonably logical order. I then post-rationalise them, writing a few words of explanation for each route. You shouldn’t really have to do this, as the names should stand or fall on their own merit, but for the client it legitimises the words, giving them more weight than frothy, tangential ideas plucked from the ether.

Responses to names are highly subjective, of course – we all have different associations with certain words. You may have a lecherous old Uncle Jim, which has put you off the name forever. Or the notion of ‘Jimness’ may fill you with uncontained delight because a dark, handsome stranger of that name rescued you from drowning and gave you the kiss of life.

Often the name-generation process is farmed out to a third party simply because people can’t agree among themselves. They have to realise that there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ name. A name can only convey so much. It’s the rest of the furniture – straplines, ads, corporate identity, ongoing performance – that build the resonance, feeding back into the name to transform it into an intense nugget.

A bit like cheese really.

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