‘How To Get a Name Right’

Commentary — Dec 30, 2013

Naresh Ramchandani provides advice for the “tough and twisted journey” of finding the right name. 

By Pentagram's Naresh Ramchandani, originally published in YCN Magazine's Winter issue.

Notepads, texts to self, dictionaries, thesauruses, long lists, shortlists, hope, despair. Right now I’m trying to name two different products for two different companies and it hurts. Despite the fact that I’ve helped to name a hotel, a law service, two agencies, a football club, a range of whiskies, a property company, a charity night, a lice removal boutique, an environmental service, a band, three cats, a house and three children, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it gets harder. The more I name, the more I realise how much rides on a name. Let me count the ways.

First of all, a good name should do a good job of suggesting. If you haven’t heard of something and you hear its name, you should get a sense of what it is, what it does, and how it does it. ‘Have you worked with Digital Beast?’ Cue expectations of small agency of ten to fifteen men in their mid twenties holed up in an attic or basement on the east side of London devoid of social skills but great at working through the night on beer and special fried rice to get the job done. “No but send me a link.”

Equally importantly, a good name should do a good job of reminding. If you’ve tried something and hear its name, a good name should be a verbal hyperlink back to the experience you had when you tried it. “Have you heard anything by Shredded Angel?” Cue memories of that unforgettable night where you saw a new dubstep band, the name evoking your vodka-tinged impressions of a wan threesome delivering their hypnotic trance ballads that swayed between reluctant anger and genuine heartbreak. “Yup, I saw them at Heaven supporting Alt Disney.”

Suggesting and reminding are pretty tough asks for a name, but there are many more. The name’s got to sound good. It’s got to trip off the tongue with a nice combination of sounds and rhythms. ‘Scissor Sisters’ is a wicked name for the sexually bi-charged band, but say it and you sound like a gibbering fool with a tongue the size of Ibiza. While think I could write an entire PHD on the brilliance of the name ‘the quarterpounder.’ Its combination of trochee rhythms, plosive consonants, musical vowels and rhyme making it such an appetising word to say, and (despite being slightly too big for most people) very easy to ask for.

The name’s got to find the right tone. SitCom, short for Sit Comfortably, would be a good name for a chair company, but its knowingness makes it right for a boutique chair company and wrong for a mass market chair manufacturer. And Car King of Barking would a good name for a garage, but its daftness makes it right for a pile-it-high sell-it-cheap dealer and wrong for a specialist coachworks.

A name cannot only be spoken, it needs to be visually expressed, and it’s useful if it can look good when it is. Flower names, beast names, object names, time length names and space and size names all have good visual potential. I'm thinking Pointerdog for a search engine, Five Mile for a minicab firm, Ringlets for a children’s jewellery range. Names that have something interesting or attractive about their letterform also have good visual potential. I’m thinking MOOD with its circles and curves for a perfume, or Dignify with its two nice dots for an over-60s face cream. Don't give a graphic designer an abstract name with awful letter forms and expect them to do a good wordmark or logo, or to be happy.

Then comes the tricky question of originality. It’s easy to assume you have to find an original name every time but it depends on how original the product is. If you are asked to name a cut-price iPhone rip off then it’s a good idea to find a copycat name such as yPhone or biPhone. These names give the consumer exactly the right signals: here’s a cheaper version of the phone you really want. But if you’re asked to name a phone with a completely original proposition - say the first phone that allowed you to make free calls to anyone anywhere - you’d need a name that’s nothing like iPhone. Something like Freespeech or Chatterbox. Something that creates a new convention in exactly the same way that the product does.

And finally, you have the biggest challenge of all. You need the name to stand out, but at the same time you need it to fit in. A name is any product’s No1 piece of identity and marketing, more permanent than a logo, more fundamental and symbolic than a communications line. A stand-out name is a great start in life, putting the product or service into the public’s view and onto the public’s tongue with nerve and verve.

But before you get too bold, snappy and clever with a name in the anxiety to get it noticed, consider this. The name should also be fitting and authentic. A product should be like a child, named after its creators and from a genuine sense of their hopes for it. Resist the urge to give the world a Better Gym of a SmartCar or Häagen Dazs. These names speak of organisations whose first concern is to sell a product rather than make it good. They smack of marketing, not parenting. Instead, give me a Talacre Centre or a General Motors or a Ben & Jerry’s. Names that show less leg and reveal more heart. Names that fit into culture by resisting the urge to trump it.

Yup, naming is a tough and twisted journey, full of black holes and false dawns, but keep writing the lists. The right name will be worth it.

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