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Extremely Frustrating and Completely Unimportant: The Arcane Art of Naming

by Michael Antman  |  
January 10, 2006
  |  14,665 views

Here's a pop quiz: Name a form of marketing communications that can take as little as five seconds to complete, can be accomplished by a nine-year-old child or an adult, and is of absolutely no importance whatsoever.

Oh, and it also happens to be the most difficult and frustrating form of marketing communications, by far.

The answer is naming consulting, the often-arcane art of creating and applying names to products, services and companies.

Having named a dozen or so companies and products over the years, I'm firmly convinced of the utter irrelevance of names. This isn't something that the big, ultra-expensive corporate identity firms and naming boutiques will tell you, needless to say, because naming is their bread and butter—or, perhaps more accurately, their bread and pate de foie gras. However, because it's always been a small part of my own consulting practice, I have no compunctions about letting this dirty little secret out.

Here's what I mean. Imagine (since we're talking about bread) that you're planning to open a low-cost, high-quality sandwich shop and you need to come up with a name to put on the empty awning out front. It's critically important, wouldn't you think, to communicate to hungry lunch goers that your lettuce is crisp, your bread fresh, your ham and cheese of prime quality?


So, let's see... perhaps you should name your sandwich shop after a pitch-black, dank, dangerous hole in the ground that reeks of stale urine and is so loud that you can't hear yourself talk. An abysmally bad idea, you say? And yet it's worked out rather well for Subway, one of the most successful restaurant franchises in the world.

Ah, but you say, Subway is a reference to "submarine sandwich," which is what it's called in those parts of the U.S. where it isn't, instead, called a hero or a grinder or a muffaletta or a hoagie. And, yet, if you go into a Subway sandwich shop, the wallpaper contains reproductions of antique newspaper articles about the opening of urban subway systems, back in the days when they were even noisier, darker, danker, etc. than they are today.

Let's try another thought experiment. Let's say you're going to open a high-quality copy shop that offers high-speed copying and printing services, faxing, computer services, shipping and office supplies. Would you give it a name that evokes... oh, I don't know... a depraved clown? Of course not. And, yet, for Kinko's, it's worked out well enough. (There are many other examples of successful companies with seemingly inappropriate names, such as the plant-rental company Rentokil, which presumably has a subsidiary that allows you to purchase tropical plants outright if you plan to keep them alive.)


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Michael Antman is principal of the corporate and marketing communications firm McSweeeney & Antman (www.mcsweeneyantman.com).

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