What’s the Point of Naming Brainstorms?

Posted on September 10, 2010 by 2 Comments

I recently found myself in a brainstorming session, working to come up with possible names for a global microfinance program. For two hours, several colleagues and I considered the audience this program is hoping to appeal to, the business needs of the client and the market place in which the program will be competing. We made lists of names that we felt took into account all of these things, revised them, and then threw them all out and made new lists.

Names and thinking of them is particularly relevant in my life right now because my husband and I are trying to name our first child, due in January. Our process has been much less organized than the one my colleagues and I participated in that day. And by less organized, I mean non-existent. Typically it goes like this: one of us proposes a name, the other one thinks about it for 2 seconds and then says “I like it!” or “I knew a girl in high school with that name and she was really mean, so no.”

So I’ve been thinking, what’s the value of trying to organize the naming process? Isn’t coming up with a name a matter of gut instinct?

“I’ve had people challenge me on this a number of times,” Dave Mahlmann, Vice President of Ideation and Creative Insights at WE, explained to me. “People say to me, ‘You have this formal process for naming, but I bet we could get into a room and think of just as many names as you do just by throwing darts at the board.’” It’s true, Mahlmann says, that sometimes names just come in the form of momentary inspiration. But by using an organized process, we make sure that we have taken into account the whole ecosystem that this product or company is going to be a part of. Among other things, we ask ourselves if the name will give the program room to grow, who the name will appeal to, what the logic is behind it.

And the thing is, even when we do “throw darts at the board,” we’re actually engaging in an organized thought process — we just don’t know it. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few years ago, parents have been trying to choose more unique names since WW II. Yet, as Brooks explains, even though parents may “think they’re making an individual statement,” in fact, “their choices are shaped by the networks around them.” K names, for example, have become popular recently. You may think you thought up the name Konnor with a K, but you’re probably giving yourself too much credit. (If you haven’t seen it, check out Laura Wattenberg’s endlessly fascinating website, The Baby Name Wizard, where she charts the rise and fall of individual names throughout American history.)

Back to the business of naming things other than people. If you’re working on naming a product or a campaign, here’s a couple interesting things to take into account:

  • Back in the dot-com salad days, nonsensical names, or “empty vessel” names were all the rage. Think Yahoo and Babel Fish. As the branding agency Interbrand explains in a recent report on naming trends in 2010, now that times are tough we’re drifting back to names that represent real actions and ideas. Bing, for example.
  • Given increased transparency, businesses can no longer get away with inventing or exaggerating a brand heritage. As Interbrand points out, consumers can now Google names like “Haagen-Dazs” and figure out just how authentic that name is. Companies are instead opting for names that reflect universal truths — like the recently launched line of ice cream called “Five,” which refers to the minimal number of ingredients that go into the product.

As for me and my husband, I have a feeling that in the end we’ll fall back on what just feels right — and hope that our subconscious figured out the rest.

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