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Extremely Frustrating and Completely Unimportant: The Arcane Art of Naming

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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.)

That these names have odd connotations is completely irrelevant. That's because what really matters is the quality of the product or service the name represents. Once the initial oddness of the name wears off, it soaks up these positive qualities like a chunk of tofu soaks up soy sauce, and the original meaning is utterly immaterial.

Hence, Yahoo, Google (which, by the way, is a play on the mathematical term "googol," itself concocted by a 9-year-old boy) and the automobile companies Chrysler and Chevrolet, which to our ears sound like perfectly reasonable names for cars, but which—when they were first introduced to the world—sounded exactly like what they were, the last names of their respective companies' founders.

Put another way, "Hershey" is a name that seems indelibly associated with chocolate, and yet there is nothing inherent in its two syllables to suggest chocolate; if Walter Chrysler and Milton Hershey has switched places early in their careers, we'd be snacking on Chrysler bars and driving Hershey cars, and we wouldn't even notice the lack of almonds.

So what makes this irrelevant discipline of naming so difficult?

First, because a name is so easy to come up with that an expensive consultancy that spends six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to extrude a new corporate name is likely to be met with a good deal of skepticism. "Apex," the company founder says in shock. "It's just four letters! That's $250,000 per letter. Plus, it's right there in the dictionary! See, it means pinnacle! I could've come up with that myself!" (As well he could.)

The consulting companies can forestall this reaction by pointing out that there's an enormous amount of research that goes into developing a name (whether all of that research is necessary, given the irrelevancy of names, is another matter), creating a logo and stylebooks, and then creating a strategic plan for introducing the name to the marketplace.

Naming consultants will also tell you—quite accurately—that all of the names are already taken. Not just all of the good names, like "Global This" and "Strategic That" and "Smucker's Jams and Jellies." All of the names. According to some estimates, virtually every word in the English-language dictionary has already been taken by some product, company or service, somewhere.

Even invented names have been exhausted. Try another experiment: Think of a completely concocted word; the only requirement is that it should be readily pronounceable. Then, search for that word on Google. Odds are, you'll find it's being used by some company, in some context, somewhere. (Just now, I invented the word "Avexa" and Googled it. Bingo! It's a real company. Speaking of which, there's also a Bingo Technologies.)

In short, a world in which Tracinda and Fraxodi and Arixtra do business is a world in which there just are not enough letters to go around.

Thus, the shortage of names—or, more accurately, the proliferation of companies, products and services requiring names—means that a naming firm may go through thousands of possibilities to find one usable name that's pronounceable, doesn't sound too ridiculous (sometimes this requirement is waived), isn't already trademarked and doesn't mean "belly button lint" in Serbo-Croatian.

The obvious solution—so obvious that most companies and naming consultants ignore it—is to go back to days of Messrs. Hershey and Ford, when companies not only stood behind their products but put their names on them as well, thereby evading the issue of trademark infringement (since your name already belongs to you.)

This doesn't always work, as the software entrepreneur Chuck Microsoft has learned. But, by and large, using your own name for a new company or product is a sensible way to go. If you have a brand-new business and you're thinking of dubbing yourself, let's say, Axepia—stop. There's a less expensive, more personal and likely easier-to-pronounce alternative out there, and it's already printed on your American Express Card.


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

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