It was 1998 and things were effervescent in the Bay Area. The first internet boom was booming. Startups were popping up like jets at the Bellagio. And so, despite the fact that naming hardly existed as an industry, the proverbial phone at our own startup was ringing from the get-go. We did two tech-y naming jobs before we even named our naming firm.
Today that firm—Catchword, named for a memorable or effective word that is often repeated—turns 25 years old.
It’s a heady birthday for us. We’ve come a long way from hanging our shingle in Oakland. Back then we were a team of three: Maria Cypher, Laurel Sutton and Burt Alper. Today a crew many times that size is wrangling full-service branding projects—positioning, naming, design—from offices in the Bay Area and Denver to Calgary and New York.
We’re popping corks, of course. But milestones being the reflective invitations they are, we’re also looking back on what we’ve learned during this quarter century—and just how far the naming business has come.
. . .
The nascency of the industry cut both ways in the late 1990s.
For the most part, this crucial aspect of branding was still under the purview of ad agencies and marketing departments. But the e-business boom created an urgent need for many more globally available trademarks, and those folks suddenly found themselves out of their depth.
Our founding partners had backgrounds (marketing, linguistics, MBAs) and interests (wordplay, writing, consulting) that made this niche perfectly appealing. The idea of starting a business dedicated to naming was nerve-wracking but exciting. Given the dearth of specialists and excess of need, it also felt like a solid opportunity. We ran a lot of business projections and cash-flow analyses in the months leading up to May 5, 1998, and, in the immortal words of the Magic 8 Ball, all signs pointed to “YES.”
Trademark needs have always been a factor driving clients to engage naming professionals. Though it’s a more labyrinthine process today, that was true even in 1998. There were other reasons to hire professionals, too: consensus-building, the value of an outside perspective, the prospect of discovering the sort of inspired, creative names that get everyone on the team excited.
Yet there was still a challenge in convincing some founders that there was value in the process. While most marketing and branding pros now understand the challenges of naming and the ROI of a name, two-and-a-half decades ago, the concept of hiring a dedicated agency was fairly foreign. “Selling” the service and convincing skeptical clients who had always just come up with a name internally was a big part of the job.
Happily, we were fishing in a big pond. In the early days, we were fixated on the new online world taking shape around us. We made endless trips down the peninsula and named a lot of companies—like Petopia, SquareTrade, and Medallia—that became well-known in the industry either in the moment or long-term.
We quickly built out the name development process, including trademark prescreening and linguistic and cultural research. Seeing this machinery effectively bring new names to the marketplace was a thrill, as was the sense that we were part of a new breed of branding professionals.
. . .
While we got to see a lot of names launch in the early days, many didn’t last. We started with Silicon Valley startups and the effervescence, it turned out, was a bubble. Even the clients who did last were rarely known to a wide audience.
This made it especially gratifying when our portfolio began to populate with mainstream consumer and business brands. By the early 2000s, regular people were starting to recognize the names we created, like Asana, Vudu, and Starbucks Refreshers.
At the same time, there was increasing respect for the practice of naming. Marketing teams understood that it was a distinct part of the brand development process and were setting aside budgets for it. Fast forward to today, and naming is no longer looked at as a loss-leader for other branding services. Clients (at least most clients) don’t wait till they’ve received a cease-and-desist to contact a naming firm.
Yet new hurdles have emerged to replace the old: chief among them are trademark and domain availability.
In 1998, there were around 2 million trademark applications worldwide. By 2021, that number was 18 million. And while we rarely needed to discuss domain name registration before we started creative 25 years ago, in 2023 it has practically become a blood sport.
For the past decade or so, it’s been imperative to understand up front whether a client requires an exact .com domain, has a budget to acquire an exact .com domain (and what that budget is), and is open to combining a name with a descriptor such as group. These practical matters have immense ramifications for the creative possibilities of any given project.
Then there are style preferences.
We’ve seen dozens of name construction types come and go. There were the Blue Martini–type names characteristic of the Dotcom Boom, compounds that combined a straightforward word with an unexpected one. Then the suffix du jour—like -ster (Napster, Friendster); -ly (Avidly, Bitly); and -ify (Spotify, Shopify). We’ve seen dropped-vowel names (Flickr, Grindr), misspellings for the sake of being different (Lyft, Fiverr) and, more recently, an obsession with the plus sign (Disney+, Paramount+).
Naming trends are often instigated and fueled by successful companies creating and exemplifying a new style—which everyone then wants to copy. The trend can be particularly popular if it helps companies find available trademarks and domains. Trends die when too many companies adopt them and it no longer feels fresh or cool.
The exception may be real words, precisely because they are used in common parlance and not overly associated with particular technologies or industries or eras. These are especially in demand today.
Clients want real, short words as brand names because they feel honest, reliable and friendly in a world marked by constant change, political polarization, general distrust and turmoil. Nest, Slack, Seamless, Purple, Denim, Ramp. You get the idea.
As it happens, the desire to have this kind of name can lead to even more difficulty on the trademark and domain fronts. The upside of this ever-complicating puzzle? There is an ongoing need for firms like ours to solve it.
. . .
Even as naming remains a core part of who we are at Catchword, we’ve expanded into other parts of brand creation, from positioning and strategy to logo and business system design. And the way we work has certainly evolved over the decades, too. Most recently, we’ve started to harness the power of AI as a creative tool.
The appearance of ChatGPT on the scene, as much as anything, shows just how far we’ve come in 25 years. But while we are humble enough to wonder what this kind of technology will mean for the future of creative work, we’re not particularly worried either.
Even if there are many practical parameters to naming, it is and will always be a very human process. At its heart, everything we do boils down to storytelling. And people know what makes a good story. After a quarter century, this has endured as the true art in what we do, and we’re grateful that there is a greater appreciation for our work than there was in 1998.
Here’s hoping we can say the same, beneath a still-swinging shingle, in another 25 years.