March 13, 2008

21st Century Identity Crisis: Naming Strategies for the New Marketspace

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC

Who ever imagined that naming a company would become a game of speed and chance?

Client 9 as depicted by New York Magazine

Client 9 as depicted by New York Magazine

As soon as the Eliot Spitzer-prostitute story broke, I looked up the name Client9.com. Then New York Governor Spitzer was busted for hiring prostitutes: he was the mysterious “Client 9” in investigative reports. Given my penchant for anything that sounds like it came from a James Bond film, I immediately looked to reserve “Client 9” as the site of a satirical series, but someone beat me to the punch. Damn, that’s fast.

And that’s a taste of what it’s like to name a company in in the 21st century.

Over my two decades in business, I’ve named numerous products and companies — and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The big naming agencies use computers, linguistics PhD’s, and legal teams to ferret out the “right name” for a client, then charge six figures for the service. I use my own secret formula, some of the ingredients including multiple shots of espresso combined with external sources of stimulation (the novels of Tom Robbins or Babylonian mythology) and a set of criteria:

1. Availability: Before print up your business cards, make sure the name is available legally (check both federal and state trademark registries) and as a .com. Although you now have several alternatives to .com, they just don’t have the same clout or searchability. You still really want a .com. Note: there are now 183 million website domain names in existence, so there’s a good chance that your dream name is already taken as a web address.

One of my biggest peeves is web-address squatters. Just when you’ve nailed a great name, you find that someone has already booked it but isn’t using it. They just reserved it for resale. And it’s not just geeks in Third World countries hoping to score an extra buck. The domain-registration and hosting service Network Solutions was recently sued for automatically grabbing addresses that people were researching on their site. Regardless of the legality, it makes finding a name even harder.

Finally, make sure a similar name isn’t being used by something unsavory. I once developed a name that turned out to be similar to a neo-Nazi website — oops, back to the drawing board. In addition, if you find a used name that’s now abandoned, try to find out what it was once used for.

2. Suitability: Is the name a good fit for the company, the industry, and the target consumer?

I love the name “Skullcandy” for headphones targeting the extreme sports and music crowd. It captures the company’s edgy culture, describes the product, and appeals to the youthful rebellious audience.

I’m not so wild about “The CW” for a television network targeting young people. It says absolutely nothing. At least its previous name, “The WB,” conjured up Warner Bros (its original parent company), the Wayan Brothers (its early programming), or White Babes (the focus of its non-Wayan Brothers programming). “CW” is what, Country Western? Corporate Waste? Creepy Weasels?

3. Memorability: Today’s consumers encounter thousands of company names from around the world. Most reflect no imagination or even thought.

In Web 2.0, apparently, the weirder the better. It started with Yahoo! and Google becoming massive and famous. Then came the onslaught of nonsense names like Danoo, Ooyala, Veoh and Hulu. Maybe those names will stick, but they’ll take time, work and money.

The worst corporate names are acronyms, like The CW, BASF, EDS, TIAA-CREF, or half the ad agency names in the industry (see below). It usually takes years and millions of dollars in marketing to make acronyms stick (like IBM or BMW), since they’re usually unpronounceable and have no readily apparent meaning.

Or it takes a brilliant ad agency: the Kaplan Thaler Group used a talking duck to finally make AFLAC memorable. Before the duck, AFLAC had spent millions of dollars on ads and yet failed to generate much name recall by consumers. My hats off to AFLAC for taking a creative risk for a conservative product (insurance). It worked. But what if AFLAC had a better name in the first place?

4. Spellability: If consumers have a hard time remembering the spelling, they’re never going to find your website. Hulu is only 4 letters, but I’ve already had to spell it for people.

Even if the name is made up of common words, if it’s too long, people will mistype it. Trying to type AllAmericanFootballLeague.com into your browser will give you writer’s cramp. (In addition, as I mentioned in a previous post, the League’s acronym AAFL is pronounced “awful.”)

5. Creativity: In dotcom land, everyone at first put an e- in front of their names (eTrade, eToys, eBay). Then came i- (before Apple locked up every noun in the world with an i- in front of it). Now I see names with You- at the beginning or -Tube at the end.

Other industries aren’t immune from copycat behavior. At the Consumer Electronics Show, every other name had the word Tech in it. In football, it’s something generic + FL (UFL, AAFL, USFL, XFL). Even in frogurt chains, Pinkberry spawned such leaps of imagination as Blue Cherry and Kiwiberri, and Pinkberry itself mimicked another chain, Red Mango. All sad and shameless.

It’s perfectly fine to derive your name from other sources (such as classic ’80s teen flicks) as long as they’re not in the same industry. Otherwise, you’re just confusing consumers instead of impressing them — some might even think you’re lame. You’re also setting yourself up for a lawsuit.

Almost as bad as a derivative name is a generic corporate name, like Technical Solutions, Premier Staffing, or National Finance Services. I just made up those names right here on the spot and… (excuse me while I search for them)… yes, they’re real companies — companies whose names are boring and impossible to remember, even if you’re holding the CEO’s business card in your hand.

And unless you’re a law firm, don’t make your name a string of the partners’ last names. Talk about hard to remember, spell or even pronounce.

An original creative name stands out from the crowd. It’s easy to remember. And It says that you’re a smart company that’s worth watching.

It also makes for great conversation at networking events.

Inspirations & Competitors

My criteria are partly based on the work of Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap and Zag (I recommend both). Ironically, his first company website had the unfortunate name of NeutronLLC.com — a forgettable combination of commonplace noun and corporate suffix — proving that even the experts hit the occasional wall.

Indeed, I’m amused by all the ad agencies — who are masters of branding — with names like a law firm or a spilled bowl of alphabet soup: TBWAChiatDay, GSD&M, Crispin Porter + Bogusky… In fact, I just Googled “naming services,” and the first listing was Master-McNeil, self-proclaimed “Thought Leaders in Naming.” And yet the best they could do for themselves was the last names of their founders separated by an annoying hyphen? Really? (Fortunately for them, they also own the URL naming.com.)

So What’s Up with Atomic Tango?

When I had to name my own agency, I avoided the industry clichés of using an acronym or my last name (for many people, Nager is both hard to pronounce and spell).

I came up with “Tango” first. It’s easy to spell and fun to say. It refers to a sensual dance requiring athleticism, cooperation and precision. And because I work closely with clients, I wanted to evoke “it takes two to tango.”

But the name Tango was already taken — as are nearly all one-word .coms — so I decided to create a two-word name, which is an effective way to bypass squatters. I selected “Atomic” because it’s easy to spell and say, and it evokes the late ’50s/early ’60s, the pinnacle of American style. (Yes, I’m mad about the TV series Mad Men.) It hints at “fusion,” which is what my agency does (fusing creativity and strategy). It was also the era of the early James Bond flicks, and the time when my father was jet-setting around the world as a member of the State Department.

So I put the two words together, and in the year ‘007, Atomic Tango was born. Good name? I’ll let you decide. It’s worked for me so far.

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Shameless plug: Need a killer name for your company? Contact Atomic Tango

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

3 Responses

  1. Got a problem with country western?

  2. Freddy,

    Nice post. We do a lot of naming here too, and I agree with all your comments.

    I’ve always loved Harry Beckwith’s comment regarding using an acronym for a company name, “Monogram your shirts, not your company.”

    So, we’re thinking of naming one of our clients “Nuclear Waltz.”

    What do you think?

    :)

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