The Happy Idiot, as it’s known in professional naming circles, is a process used by naming agencies who view your naming project as a consensus building exercise only, and not a quest for a powerful name that consensus is then built around.
It’s called The Happy Idiot because an agency deliberately delivers a name that’s a liability to a smiling client who’s happy with the result. It was designed to be the fastest, smoothest route to client buy-in on a name, with the least amount of effort by the agency.
When a Happy Idiot practitioner presents a name candidate that isn’t immediately met with applause by every member of a client team, they’ll smooth down the edges until there is nothing interesting or effective left in the names they’re presenting. Going forward they’ll only present names of the vanilla variety, because getting buy-in on breakout brand names requires commitment and hard work. It requires the ability to give a client the confidence to make the most powerful choice.
The first step to protecting yourself is learning to spot The Happy Idiot.
To illustrate each, we’ll use actual names and case studies created by a single naming agency.
The Happy Idiot
In this classic version the agency invents a word with no resemblance to any existing word. Because the name neither means nor implies anything, there are no objections from the client. It’s been sanitized for their protection. But in order to sell the name the agency needs to convince the client that the invented word has positive, relevant meaning. The agency breaks the name down into morphemes (a morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of a language) and assigns positive meaning to each. They have someone with a master’s degree in linguistics from Berkeley or Stanford certify the meanings – in languages neither the client nor their target audience speaks – to give it weight and to assure the client that this meaningless construction is not only full of meaning, it’s perfect for them.
When an agency rolls out morphemic rationale, you’re being played:
“Mirvie is a rich coining that draws on several Romance languages: Mira means “objective” in Italian, “purpose” or “look!” in Spanish, and the feminine form of “wonderful” in Latin. Vie is “life” in French and “means” or “paths” in Italian. Mirvie suggests the wonder of pregnancy, a means to your objective, and lifesaving, targeted insights”
Is it possible the naming agency believes, “Mirvie suggests the wonder of pregnancy, a means to your objective, and lifesaving, targeted insights”? Depends on what they’re smoking. What matters is the client believes it. Nobody objects, a positive meaning was established by an expert no one feels qualified to argue with, job done! Client is happy.
When agencies rely heavily on this strategy, it’s referred to as morpheme addiction.
Invented words have their place in naming, but their rationale cannot be morphemic pretzel logic based on multiple languages foreign to the audience. An invented name has to work on its own, without explanation, in the context of the company or product it represents: Neoverse, Ventrix. The only exceptions are names of pharmaceuticals and chemicals, where global regulations prohibit rational names.
The Happy Idiot with a Passport
Same basics as the original, but this variation uses real words from foreign languages that neither the client nor the client’s target audience speaks. The Happy Idiot with a Passport produces names that the client can’t object to because they don’t mean anything to the client. Foreign language names function as invented names, but the positive meanings the agency claims the name has are based on their meaning in an obscure language.
When an agency tries to sell you on a meaning in a language unfamiliar to your customers, you’re being played:
“Ikena, a Hawaiian word meaning “vista, perspective, knowledge.” The name also recalls “I ken” (an older English word for “know”) and “I can”
The Happy Idiot and Happy Idiot with a Passport both reveal an essential naming truth: Having a meaning doesn’t make a name meaningful. Ikena has a meaning but is meaningless unless you speak Hawaiian. Mirvie’s morphemes may have meaning, but Mirvie is meaningless to everyone. Which is why in our opinion, both naming approaches are scams. They’re nothing more than a sales pitch to a client to end a project.
Foreign language names can make reasonable brand names, but they have to work based on their look, sound and personality. Their “meaning” is irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.
The Happy Idiot with a Wallflower
The Wallflower version employs the one thousand most common words used by brand names, words like Active, Arc, Atlas, Blue, Bridge, Care, Clear, Complete, Core, Curve, Edge, Engage, Ever, Expert, Flex, Fly, Force, Front, Fusion, Future, Gain, Go, Green, Hill, Hub, Key, Lead, Light, Line, On, Next, Now, Path, Plus, Point, Power, Pro, Pulse, River, Sense, Scape, Shift, Sky, Span, Splash, Star, Stream, Sun, Up, Via, Vista, Wave, Wise and Zip. A single word Wallflower is rarely presented. They are overwhelmingly “Compound Wallflowers,” as a combination of two excruciatingly common words is much easier to trademark than one. These words are so generic they don’t draw any objection from the client, and each contains a slight, one-dimensional positive attribute. And so common their effect is that of white noise on the audience. They’re Wallflowers, forgotten in a heartbeat.
When an agency takes the path of least resistance by presenting pairings of white noise words, you’re being sold a Wallflower.
Combining these wallflower words has gifted six different clients of this one agency with these six names:
– When an agency rolls out morphemic rationale, you’re being played.
– When an agency tries to sell you on a meaning in a language unfamiliar to your customers, you’re being played.
– When an agency takes the path of least resistance by presenting pairings of white noise words, you’re being sold a Wallflower.
Preventing a H.I. Jacking
If you’re looking for a branding or naming agency to create a brand name, have a quick look at their naming portfolio. Agencies who’ve somehow found a way to ethically rationalize The Happy Idiot don’t just dabble, they’re all in. The vast majority of their portfolio will be chockfull of Compound Wallflowers, Invented Words and Foreign Language names.
They’re all mindless brand zombies, neither interesting, differentiating nor memorable, and create a marketing money pit that you may never climb out of. If you can spot a Happy Idiot, avoiding the trap is straightforward.