1. What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

For decades, corporations have turned to creative people for naming their new products—but with varying results

By: | Published: January 25, 2015 12:05 AM

The announcement came in November with two names attached: one famous, one not, or at least not yet. The famous name was Paul McCartney. Anyone who wanted to try a virtual-reality experience starring the former Beatle—replicating the sensation of standing centrestage with him as he sang Live and Let Die to 70,000 screaming fans—had only to download a special video file, put the file into an app for their Android phone and slip the phone into a cardboard headset designed by Google. The not-yet-famous name was of the virtual-reality production process that created this experience. Reviewers said it was ‘mindblowingly cool’ and an ‘exciting preview of the future’, but it was also so novel that it had been hard to think of a word to label it. Its inventors had wanted a name that would lodge in the public consciousness the same way Dolby, Imax and Blu-ray had. A name that could become a verb as well as a noun. An iconic name. A name for the ages.

Finding such a name wasn’t easy. Starting in April 2013, the production process itself went through what has become a fairly standard development story for tech start-ups: the three founders—Tom Annau, Jens Christensen and Arthur van Hoff—began with a flash of insight, then wrote code for the software, then assembled a hardware prototype, then raised more than $34 million from investors, including Google. But initially, they couldn’t come up with a name. The three batted around a few possibilities, Christensen says, but it “very quickly became apparent we weren’t going anywhere. We really needed help”. They had already hired a San Francisco-based branding and design agency called Character to help shepherd their production process to the marketplace, and it was Character that took them to Anthony Shore.

Shore, 47 years old, is what is known in the arcane world of corporate branding as a namer. He studied linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and wrote a senior thesis on Latin and moraic theory. There wasn’t a lot of work for linguists, so he fell back on another preoccupation, fonts, and became a typesetter for a real estate magazine. Typesetting led him to graphic design, graphic design led him briefly to advertising and advertising led him to naming. Shore spent 13 years at Landor Associates and a year at the branding behemoth Lexicon before deciding in 2009 to open his own naming agency, Operative Words.

Now, he met the three entrepreneurs at their office in Menlo Park. They showed him their 32-lens camera, then he put on a headset and they fired up a standard-issue VR demo. He was immediately teleported to a computer-generated Tuscan villa. Shore was impressed. But still, it looked like a computer game.

The engineers then loaded a new file, and when Shore looked around the room through the headset, he saw the three inventors tossing a Nerf ball. Only they weren’t. Shore was watching a virtual-reality movie of them tossing a Nerf ball. This time, Shore was astonished. “It was completely real,” he says. “It was transportive.”

Shore had named everything from companies to products to websites to ingredients to colours. But the new VR production process posed a particular challenge. It was manifestly different, Shore told himself. It could have a profound influence on entertainment culture and on how people connect with one another. He needed a name that would convey its magnitude—a great name.

For decades, corporations have turned to creative people for their naming needs, with varying results. In 1955, a Ford Motor marketing executive recruited the modernist poet Marianne Moore to name the company’s new car. The marketing department had already created a list of 300 candidates, all of which, the executive confessed, were “characterised by an embarrassing pedestrianism”. Could the poet help? In a series of letters, Moore proposed dozens of notably non-pedestrian names—Intelligent Whale, Pastelogram, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop, Varsity Stroke—but the marketing team rejected them all, instead naming the new car after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel.

Today, roughly 500,000 businesses open each month in the US, and every one needs a name. The effects of strategic naming are all around us once we begin to look for them. “You go to a restaurant and you don’t order ‘dolphin fish’?” Shore points out. “You order ‘mahi-mahi’. You don’t order ‘Patagonian toothfish’. You order ‘Chilean sea bass’. You don’t buy ‘prunes’ any more; they’re now called ‘dried plums’?” Maria Cypher, the founder and director of the naming agency Catchword, which named the McDonald’s McBistro sandwich line, will tell you that names “give us a shared understanding of what something is.” Paola Norambuena, the executive director of verbal identity at Interbrand, says they give us a “shortcut to a good decision”.

Most people assume that companies name themselves and their products. True, Steve Jobs came up with the name for Apple and stuck with it despite the threat of a lawsuit from the Beatles, who had already claimed the name for their record label. Likewise, Richard Branson chose the name Virgin, and namers venerate him for it. “Virgin gets a reaction,” says Eli Altman, the head of A Hundred Monkeys, a naming agency. There is no “way that would get through a boardroom.” Most executives aren’t as imaginative as Jobs or Branson. And that’s where namers come in. Some work within larger branding agencies, like Landor or Interbrand. Others work within boutiques, like Catchword, A Hundred Monkeys, Namebase and Zinzin. Some, like Shore, are lone operators.

For the process that leads to a single name, companies can pay anywhere from $3,000 to $75,000. If that name becomes the foundation of a branding campaign, they can pay tens of millions of dollars more to establish its presence in the commercial firmament. The results can be inspired, but they can also be laughable. When Stephen Wolf took over USAir in the late 1990s, he concluded that the name sounded like that of a regional carrier, and he hired the branding firm Luxon Carra to find him a new name that fit his larger aspirations. The new name was unveiled in February 1997 to great fanfare. USAir was now US Airways. The process of rebranding, from reprinting the stationery to repainting the planes, took nine months and, by one account, eventually cost the company nearly $40 million.

The namer’s craft may attain its highest expression in the pharmaceutical industry, in large part because namers have to work within so many government restrictions. Every drug name must be analysed by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research to make sure that it doesn’t make extravagant claims and that it cannot be mistaken for any other medication. The FDA even runs handwriting tests on potential names to see if pharmacists might mistake one scribbled drug name on a prescription for another.

The oddity is that for all the weight a company places on choosing names, the decisions arise from a process that couldn’t be less corporate.

There are no naming metrics, no real way to know if a new name helps or hinders. The field attracts people who are comfortable with such ambiguity. Jay Jurisich, the founder of Zinzin, is a painter with an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jim Singer, who founded Namebase, was a jingle writer, and Margaret Wolfson, who now runs naming at Namebase, still splits her time between naming and performing one-woman shows around the world in which she recites classical myths. “A good name has the potency of any piece of art,” says Martin McMurray, a partner at Zinzin.

What namers share is a love of words and a sensitivity to them, and they will tell you that that sensitivity is what separates them from amateurs.
After Shore had his virtual-reality encounter, he got to work. Shore learned that the inventors wanted something short, preferably one word. It needed to convey the idea of transport and also seem hip and consumer-friendly in a manner that suggested advanced technology. The founders wanted it to have a science-fiction feel to it. When Shore asked them about names they liked, Christensen said Tesla and Imax. He got to work.

Shore returned to the inventors’ office with 50 final candidates. After Shore left, the inventors wrote the finalists on a whiteboard and began deliberating. The contenders included Popover, FarAcross, Jaunt, Jumpdoor and Lunge. Christensen lobbied hard for Jaunt, which had grown on him because of its science-fiction origins. For days, the partners debated the possibilities, and the weight of the decision was considerable.
It would be seven more months before the company was ready to come out to the public. In that time, the inventors moved their operations to Palo Alto. They began making arrangements to record events like the McCartney concert. And then, when they were ready, one afternoon last April, they invited the press to their unveiling. Reporters who entered the office were greeted by a large sign affixed to the wall with the company’s name in a futuristic-looking font. It simply said: Jaunt.

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