By Samuel Greengard
From his chalkboard-walled office in San Francisco, Igor's Steve Manning has manufactured monikers for such clients as BBC America, Cisco Systems and Vanilla Accounting.
ust over a year ago, when William Keller decided to start an accounting firm, he didn't want to become another less-than-memorable name in a field that most people would prefer to forget. So, the certified public accountant set out to create a distinctive moniker that would communicate who he is and what his firm had to offer: flat-rate fees and unlimited support.
Working with an outside consultant, Keller spent the next month sorting through nearly 100 names and mulling over the message that each name sent. "We wanted to break away from the accounting industry's old-fashioned and stodgy image," he says.
The final choice? Keller scooped up "Vanilla Accounting," a name that implies the firm is "uncomplicated" and has "nothing to hide." The tab? A cool $30,000.
Keller isn't the only one shelling out big bucks for a premiere name that will communicate "brand."
"It's a top priority for businesses today," observes Steve Manning, managing director at Igor, a San Francisco naming firm that has worked with BBC America, Cisco Systems, Steve Wynn and...Vanilla Accounting. "The right name can play a huge role in achieving results."
"Too often, what should be a business decision becomes emotional."
With consulting prices starting at $10,000 and running well into the hundreds of thousands--even millions--of dollars, the name game has indeed become big business. Yet, what separates Apple Computer from Dell and United Airlines from Virgin Atlantic amounts to more than a few letters. Says Michael Barr, president of San Francisco-based NameLab, which created Acura, AutoZone, CompUSA and The Olive Garden, "Naming has become a very important part of marketing and branding. It attempts to differentiate and separate a company from all the others that exist. When it succeeds, it creates an emotional connection."
Today, a mind-numbing array of names exists. Some, like Ford Motor Company or The Walt Disney Company, reflect their founder. Others, such as International Business Machines (IBM) or General Electric (GE), are entirely functional. Another group, including the likes of Agilent and Acura, uses Greek and Latin roots to invent new words. Still others like Google and Oreo are constructions based on poetic rhythm. Finally, there are experiential names, which include Gateway and Sunkist, and evocative names such as Yahoo! and Caterpillar.
Inventing a name isn't as simple as concocting a great-sounding word and slapping it on the side of a building. One sticking point is that the vast majority of names simply aren't available--other companies have already trademarked them.
"It is extremely difficult to find functional names," Manning says. In fact, that's the primary reason why prescription drugs now have unusual names like Prozac, Viagra and Rogaine and microprocessors are known as Xeon, Centrino and Athlon.
Another factor is that naming encompasses far more than the word that describes the company or product.
"There are logos, stationery, business cards, a Web site and much more to think about," says Nick Wreden, author of Fusion Branding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future (Accountability Press, 2002). "Besides being able to meet the ethereal burdens of being inspirational, motivational and memorable, a company must be able to stake a claim on a unique URL for the Web."
The naming process can take weeks at some firms, as linguistics experts sort through the building blocks of language to create new words that do not exist naturally.
Selecting a name can prove extremely challenging. Not only can the process take weeks or months, it can involve ego clashes and bitter arguments. "When it comes to naming, everyone is a self-appointed expert," Manning says. "People who would run the other way from technology or finance decisions suddenly think they are qualified to come up with a name for their company. Too often, what should be a business decision becomes emotional."
The process falls somewhere between art and science. "Each naming firm has its own 'scientific' methodology, which ranges from brand-alignment processes to the computerized equivalent of a thousand monkeys typing," Wreden explains. He says that consultants use everything from games and mood boards to focus groups and brainstorming sessions. "In some instances, a consultant seemingly appears from behind the curtain to present two or three 'right' choices," he adds.
At Igor, the process usually unfolds something like this:
1) Consultants develop an initial set of names that represent different strategic directions for a client. "In many cases, the words that have the greatest initial appeal lose their luster after a few weeks," Manning explains. "The problem is that they are too mainstream and too comfortable. They sound too similar to existing names and do not create any real sense of differentiation."
2) Over several weeks, as the consultant and company whittle down the universe of potential names to a handful of finalists, it's not unusual to develop prototype ad campaigns to make the concept more real.
3) Finally, the company sorts through the list and makes a selection. At some firms, such as NameLab, the process can take weeks as linguistics experts sort through the building blocks of language to create new words that do not exist naturally.
In the wacky world of name development, being counterintuitive can pay. Words that seem ridiculously off-target, even absurd, sometimes make the best names of all. Banana Republic, The Gap, Virgin Atlantic and Amazon are just a few of the companies that have carved out an image based on evocative words and a different business concept.
"These are names that never would have gotten past a marketing group because they would have been flagged for their negative connotations. 'Virgin' implies a new company that lacks experience. 'Banana Republic' is a slur against a third-world country. But in the real world they succeed. They create a brand image," Manning argues.
To a certain extent, names are a byproduct of the era in which they are created. A decade ago, as the Internet burst onto the scene, companies turned to unusual names--Blue Kangaroo, Red Hat Software and Fogdog--to stand out from the crowd. Others, such as eBay and PeopleSoft, looked to new combinations of words and letters. Still others began snapping up Internet domain names like Pets.com and Business.com for sums reaching as high as $7.5 million. Only a couple of years later, when many Internet startups began to go bust, some companies then changed their names to avoid the dot-com stigma.
In some cases, what might start out as a solid name can blend into the landscape as other companies develop similar names in an increasingly crowded industry or marketplace.
Naming falls somewhere between art and science, using everything from games to focus groups.
Igor's Manning notes that most consumers can't differentiate between a spate of Web search firms, including InfoSeek, LookSmart and Find- What. This can force a company to change its name. Other firms undergo a name change to escape a frumpy image or a name that has lost its luster. For example, in 2001 tobacco producer Philip Morris changed its name to Altria, which plays off a Latin root meaning high or deep, as in "altitude" or "alto."
Rob Blake knows all about business Scrabble. A few years ago, the vice president of marketing worked for an Englewood, Colo. firm known as Aucent. Last year, the company changed its name to Rivet Software [named by Igor]. The name search took about six weeks and involved more than 400 choices. After creating a top 10 list, executives chose Rivet because it conveys a message that the enterprise financial management software producer is "strong" and helps its customers "hold their data together." Says Blake, "We wanted something that we could build branding with."
At Vanilla Accounting, Will Keller pored over hundreds of names before settling on plain old Vanilla. "We're a radically different firm and we want to communicate that to the world. Another surname with an ampersand or the word 'Associates' in it would simply get lost in the shuffle," he says. Keller believes that the name has already paid dividends and helped him gain business.
The way Manning sees it, there's more to a name than meets the eye. The holy grail is to create a name like Kleenex, Xerox or Scotch Tape that becomes a trademark and a permanent part of the lexicon. Ultimately, "you can have a horrible name and succeed and have a great name and fail. But it's one factor--a very important one--in helping to achieve success."