Why your project needs a code name and how to choose one

The military uses them. Apple uses them. Pretty much any kid with a walkie-talkie uses them.

So you’re working on a project that could become the next great company or product in your field. Wonderful! But at this point, you’re not quite sure what to call it or how to market it. One thing that can help you at this juncture? A code name.

The military uses them. Apple uses them. Pretty much any kid with a walkie-talkie uses them. And for myriad good reasons. Adopting a code name can help protect a secret or engender solidarity. It can sidestep technical jargon. It can (obviously) be fun. Code names can also help companies avoid tunnel vision, not to mention distraction, while they are in the midst of building something special.

Here are four tips on how to choose a good code name.

1. Choose a code name that belongs in the friend zone.

Code names can become official names. TBD, a now-defunct news site in the D.C. area, got its name after the editor used the initialism as a joke in his email signoff before the publication launched (“Editor, TBD.com”). In that case, the publication’s leaders said they decided to adopt the name once they realized the joke echoed a tenet of journalism: don’t assume you know the story before you report it.

But they were lucky (defunctness notwithstanding). At Catchword, we have often seen the conflation between a code name and brand name go awry. A company adopts a code name that could also be an apt product name, becomes attached to it, and then is heartbroken when it becomes clear the name can’t be trademarked. On top of that, because they’re already set on this unavailable name, the team may have a hard time ideating about a name that would really work best for the brand and its audience.

One way to avoid this is to choose something generic or playful, a moniker designed to stay forever in the friend zone. This code name generator includes categories—such as metals, colors, and birds—that could be good places to start. Blue Goose, for example, is something that could work internally without sparking the burning desire to be forever known that way in public.*

2. Select a name that is easy and quick to say and spell.

No one wants to Slack all day about “Project Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” If you decide to use a code name generator (there are several), be warned that some will spit out cumbersome combinations of two or even three long words. Although the likes of Maroon Titanium Beagle and Gutsy Epsilon get marks for zaniness, they’d quickly become tedious to use.

Contrast those with a word like Apollo, the famous code name for NASA’s third human spaceflight program, or Desert Storm, a three-syllable code name used by the US military during the Gulf War. For those projects/operations, of course, the names were selected for public consumption, but the lesson is the same: shorter is better.

3. Think about your team.

A cool code name is cousin to slang, language that exists to designate who is in the know and who is not. The feeling of being in on a secret can be motivating, energizing team members even when they’re toiling away on the wonkiest product feature. So think about words that might inspire or connect them.

It could be an inside joke. Take Gerald Ford’s Press Secretary Ron Nessen, whose Secret Service code name was Clam Chowder. (The elaborate backstory? Nessen reportedly liked clam chowder—and had a good sense of humor.) It could also be a sincere ode to the team’s ambition. Apollo, for example, was chosen by Abe Silverman, a director of NASA’s space flight programs in the 1950s, because he believed that “Apollo riding his chariot across the sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.”

4. Consider a theme.

Choosing a code name can be part of a long-term strategy. After all, maybe this project is just the beginning. And if you call this great idea Rutabaga, then the next can be Turnip and the next Golden Beet. Root vegetables may not be your thing. That’s OK. Whatever the theme, continuity can morph silly code names into serious company lore.

Apple has taken this tack with its Mac operating system, first naming successive versions after big cats (Cheetah, Panther, Snow Leopard) and then shifting to landmarks in the company’s home state of California (Mavericks, Yosemite, High Sierra). When Apple made the switch in 2013, a VP joked that after nine updates, they were short on felines. “We don’t want to be the first development team to be delayed by the lack of big cats,” he said. These were not code names, but the concept pertains: be strategic and think long-term.

It’s a good reminder not to hem yourself in with a narrow category, just as it’s best not to hem yourself in by falling in love with a name that is ultimately unavailable.

And if you need help transitioning from code name to brand name, give us a shout.

*This is said with all due respect to the Texas-based Blue Goose Cantina, which got its name after the proprietors bought chairs in bulk from an “adult establishment” called El Ganso Azul.


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