Make a Name for Yourself

To some it’s an art. To others it’s a science. However you approach it, coming up with winning names is more than just a game.


Sidebar: Hey! Play the NameGame!

In an old building in Sausalito, California, a crack team of linguistic, legal, and creative specialists pieces together word fragments, flips through pictures, and runs sophisticated database software. Across the country in a conference room in Stamford, Connecticut a similar group takes a “mental excursion” through a teenager’s bedroom and pastes together a collage of colorful artifacts.


They’re not competing against each other — at least not directly. But both professional teams, and more like them, are part of an intense new exercise: coming up with winning names for an escalating flood of products, services, and companies.

New product introductions are exploding at the rate of more than 26,000 per year. As a result, new names, good names, even legally available names are harder and harder to find. Says David Placek, founder of Sausalito’s Lexicon Naming, which named Apple’s PowerBook and Intel’s Pentium: “It’s an enormous task to leapfrog over existing names to get something that not only is legally available, but also gets the product concept in motion.”

The name drain is so severe in the digital realm — trademark registrations for computer hardware and software surged 112% between 1989 and 1994 — that the stock of information-era word roots like net, power, and link is virtually depleted.

For average table stakes of $20,000 to $50,000, a company stands to win a valuable asset that can become the cornerstone of brand success. Yet more important than the rewards of a good name are the risks of a bad one.

“Good names don’t make products succeed so clearly as bad names make products fail,” says Ira Bachrach, founder of the San Francisco-based NameLab. He cites 7-Up’s $120-million misfire with the first caffeine-free cola: Lyke Cola.


Names don’t fail for lack of raw material — there are some 600,000 morphemes (the smallest meaningful word unit) and a huge number of combinations. Experts disagree, however, on the best strategy for tapping into that pool of possibilities. Bryan Mattimore of the Stamford-based Mattimore Group and Lexicon’s Placek describe naming as “very much an art.” In contrast, NameLab’s Bachrach says, “It’s an analytical process. It’s not creative — it’s cold-construction linguistics.”

Take the case of Honda’s first luxury car. NameLab first developed a working definition that focused on “high engineering content.” It then broke engineering down into its component elements — science, metallurgy, precision — and matched them with a series of morphemes.

“The best word we made was Acura,” says Bachrach, who also came up with Compaq and AT&T TrueVoice. “It’s based on the morpheme “acu,” which means ‘precisely’ or ‘with care’ in many languages. It worked because the first thing you thought of was precision — the definition of German luxury cars.”

Whether they approach the game as an art or a science, players agree on some basic rules:

1. The Déjà-Vu Taboo. Don’t use tired word roots — pro, global, ultra — or obvious combinations like ProChip. Lexicon got inventive with the Intel chip: “We made it up,” says Placek, “but we took the word part “-ium” from scientific text and bonded it with pent. It sounds like a natural element and very powerful.”


2. Put the Whole World in Your Name. The best world brands have universal meaning — Sony is built on the morpheme son which means “sound” all over the world. They should also be short. “The longer a word is, the less likely you are to remember it,” says Bachrach.

3. Make a Promise, Tell a Story. A literal promise — of “power in a book” or a battery that “dies hard” — is a sure bet in the marketplace. A name that tells a tale can work just as well.

As Terry Heckler of Seattle’s Heckler Associates recounts, the founders of Starbucks originally suggested the name Pequod Coffee Company, hoping to evoke the romance of the high seas with the image of the boat in “Moby Dick.” “I said, ‘People are not going to drink a cup of Pequod,’ and suggested they look at adventure sites in the Northwest for ideas,” says Heckler.

In researching old mining camps on Mt. Rainier outside Seattle, he happened upon one named Starbos and thought, “That’s it!” When he took the name back to the owners, he recalls, “They looked at one another and yelled ‘Starbuck!’ — the first mate on the Pequod, unbeknownst to me.”

4. Meaning Isn’t Everything. Semantics is the first leg a name has to stand on, but it’s not the only one. The second is phonetics. Certain word stresses and rhythms are more compatible with a product than others, which is why you ask for Super Shell and not Shell Super at the gas station.


“Sound symbolics” is the third leg. Certain sounds and letters convey specific associations and attributes: the hard “P” in PowerBook communicates compactness and speed, while the “B” suggests dependability. Finally, there’s look and feel. A good name is easily reproduced in all media and conveys enough energy to stand out in the stream of spoken and written words.

Nike stands on all four legs: “Few people will know it’s the Greek goddess of victory,” says Placek, “but what is more important is the beat of it, the sound of it, the look of it. Very quick, very easy to pronounce. They took that vessel and they poured all kinds of ideas into it. And now they have a brand.”

5. Listen to Your Inner Ear. In spite of all the available criteria, experts say there’s no reliable scorecard for assessing winning names. Final judgment resides inside, says Mattimore: “When you get right down to it, these are intuitions, feelings, and gut. Sometimes the best way to recognize a great name is by how nervous it makes you.”

Hey! Play the Name Game