The Name Game

There's an increasing awareness that, in an economy driven by branded companies, picking the right name is critical.

Russell Crowe's tough-guy movie Cinderella Man did not do well at the box office this summer, despite critical acclaim. Why not? Well, some film people think it's because the movie has a sissy-sounding name. Meanwhile, Quebecor Inc.'s Toronto 1 TV station is changing its moniker to SUN TV, in hopes a new identity will boost lacklustre performance. And who can forget General Motors' cock-up a couple of years back, when it had to rename its new Buick LaCrosse after discovering that lacrosse is slang among French-speaking Quebecers for “masturbation”?

Today, there's an increasing awareness that, in an economy driven by branded companies, where an ill-advised website address can foreshadow failure, picking the right name is critical. At the same time, it has become substantially more difficult to hit upon catchy names that are not already trademarked. “In the old days, advertising agencies attempted to do naming,” says Michael Barr, president of San Francisco-based NameLab Inc., “but they couldn't always come up with names that met clients' objectives: memorable and available.” The result? The rise of the professional namer.

It's difficult to determine just how large the naming industry is, but there are dozens of official naming companies across North America. Most sport traditional monikers of their own, such as NameSharks, Naming Systems, Namebase and, amazingly enough, a naming company officially titled The Naming Co. (The most adventuresome may be Igor, or A Hundred Monkeys, while Good Characters, a firm specializing in names meant to travel between North America and Greater China, could be the wittiest.) Most naming companies are private, or divisions of larger public companies, so revenue figures are rare. However, fees run between $25,000 and $75,000 for an average naming project, which usually takes between three and six weeks to complete.

Is professional naming worth the price? High-profile tags Google and Yahoo were both developed in-house. John Lacey, chairman of Alderwoods Group Inc., the second-largest operator of funeral homes and cemeteries in North America, recalls paying US$100,000 to a naming company–only to come up with a label himself after spying a sign at the side of the road during a train trip.

Even so, for both convenience and access to expertise, companies continue to knock at namers' doors. Anthony Shore, a creative director of naming and writing with international branding consultancy Landor Associates, says that his company's naming studios “are busy every day of the year, with multiple assignments.” Credit Landor with Canadian titles such as Clarica (Mutual Life of Canada's post-demutualization name; it's now part of Sun Life Financial) and SureType, Research In Motion's new typing system for the BlackBerry. Landor also named Frito-Lay's new snack food, Rollitos, a takeoff on the ever-popular Doritos.

Shore's team typically develops 1,000 to 3,000 unique names for every assignment. The current trend, he says, is away from descriptive names like General Electric and toward more evocative names, such as Song–Delta's new low-fare airline. But Shore adds that the majority of fees “have nothing to do with the creative process.” Instead, most of the money covers the cost of paying attorneys to do trademark searches.

Skeptics might find NameLab's scientific method more attractive. Using an approach called “constructional linguistics,” NameLab staff meet with clients to determine what messages a new name should communicate. Then NameLab combs its database of nearly 7,000 morphemes–short, semantic units that when combined form words–to find ones that align with the client's desires. For example, “van” is a morpheme that indicates “front of,” “top of,” or “leading edge.” By combining appropriate morphemes, NameLab generates a long list of candidates, ultimately recommending six to eight names to the client. “Our process is linguistically analytic,” says Barr. “I'm not suggesting our clients are smarter, but they like an articulated, transparent process, as opposed to hiring you to go into a room and do something magical.” NameLab's clients are also willing to go with abstract designations; the majority of the company's creations are neologisms. Barr says that pharmaceutical industry players are especially big fans of naming companies.

Across the industry, approaches vary, from the creative to the scientific to the spontaneous. But so long as duds like Cinderella Man keep making it through, and as long as original domain names continue to become more difficult to identify, the demand for expert namers, whatever their approach, seems unlikely to dissipate.