What It’s Really Like To Name Products For A Living

Professional namer Nancy Friedman reveals what it’s like naming everything from chairs to medical devices. (Hint: not easy!)

What It’s Really Like To Name Products For A Living

It must be the best job in the world, to name things. “That car is a Jaguar! Now give me my money!” Nancy Friedman has spent the last 20 years as a self-proclaimed “chief wordworker.” She has named products for global juggernauts like Medtronic (the “Sentrant” sheath) and Steelcase (the “Amia” chair). She has turned down multiple opportunities to name cigarettes.


Needless to say, there are a lot of misconceptions in the business of naming products. Friedman spent a few minutes with us to set the record straight.

Naming Is Perspiration, Not Inspiration
“People say this is all about brainstorming. ‘Let’s get a case of Red Bull!’ But that’s really just the middle of the sandwich. The research that goes into the naming brief is a really crucial part.”

That Naming Brief Needs To Have A Few Things
“The process I apply is actually kind of journalistic. It’s the who, what, where, when, why, and how to naming. Who you are naming for, or who is your brand? What are you naming? Why does this thing need a new name? Where is it going to appear?”


Usually You Don’t See What You’re Naming
“Most of the time, there’s no product yet. I often have very little to go on.”

And You’d Never Come Up With Just One Name…
“I come up with about 250 names. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”


…Because That Name Will Never Be Available…
“Fewer than 10% will be available [for trademarking].”

…And You Need A Few For The Client Anyway.
“I’m never presenting a single name. I’m always presenting 7 to 15, so the client has a choice. Different names hit different objectives. They strike a different tone. I don’t just say, here’s the name, take it or leave it.”

The Original Dotcom Era Was Pretty Rockstar For Namers…
“I was actually trained on the job by the company that is now called Lexicon. In those days, during the first dotcom boom, there was a lot of money in projects, and on our team there would be eight to 10 people, a PhD linguist, a songwriter, a screenwriter, somebody from the world of copywriting, a journalist, and we’d all get together and do exercises…”


…But It Often Came Down To Reading Dictionaries Together…
“…we’d look at pictures and do word associations, mind maps, dictionary searchers–literally look through through a 1,000-page dictionary until a word hit.”

…And Still Does
“I read linguistics books for fun. I have books about suffixes. I have a surfing dictionary, and a cowboy dictionary. I may use all of those on the job.”


Medical Devices Sound Lame For A Reason…
“In medicine, you’re usually on pretty firm ground if you stick to Latin roots. Doctors, no matter where they are in the world, have to rely on some measure of Latin. Names of diseases. Names of organs. Even ‘Rx’ is a Latin abbreviation.”

…Because You Don’t Do Brain Surgery On A Kindle.
“When a doctor buys a Kindle, he or she is not buying something that’s exclusively for work. You have to remember, doctors think highly of themselves. With a medical device, nobody else besides a doctor or hospital will buy this… It needs to sound like something doctorly. It can’t sound like something anyone on the street could buy. It’s going to sound cheap, common, unreliable, or unprofessional.”

Some Words Just Sound Right In Some Contexts
“There is such a thing as sound symbolism. There’s a reason a lot of words related to flight start with an FL. [Ed Note: FL is not a prefix with a strict definition.] If you coin a name that begins with FL, you’re going to have that lurking in the back, or you should. If you don’t, you’re missing an opportunity.”


Sorry, You Probably Stink At Naming Things…
“Most people–if they try to do it themselves–they may have named a pet. You don’t have that muscle developed. It’s not that you aren’t good at it or you aren’t creative. It’s like trying to run a marathon when you’ve walked across the room once.”

…But It’s Okay, Naming Is Relatively Cheap
“At the big firms, you’ll pay $50,000 to $100,00 per name. I don’t charge anywhere near that amount. When you consider how many just raw hours I put into a naming assignment, and the value of a good name, it’s a bargain. Companies spend a LOT of money on some things, then get tight-fisted on others. I think the name is kind of important!”


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach