The Weird Science of Naming New Products

January 15, 2015
By Neal Gabler




The announcement came in November with two names attached: one famous, one not, or at least not yet. The famous name was Paul McCartney. Anyone who wanted to try a virtual-reality experience starring the former Beatle — replicating the sensation of standing center stage with him as he sang “Live and Let Die” to 70,000 screaming fans — had only to download a special video file, put the file into an app for their Android phone and slip the phone into a cardboard headset designed by Google. The not-yet-famous name was of the virtual-reality production process that created this experience. Reviewers said it was “mind-­blowingly cool” and an “exciting preview of the future,” but it was also so novel that it had been hard to think of a word to label it. Its inventors had wanted a name that would lodge in the public consciousness the same way Dolby and Imax and Blu-ray had. A name that could become a verb as well as a noun. An iconic name. A name for the ages.

Finding such a name wasn’t easy. Starting in April 2013, the production process itself went through what has become a fairly standard development story for tech start-ups: The three founders — Tom Annau, Jens Christensen and Arthur van Hoff, all computer scientists and “resident entrepreneurs” at a venture-capital firm called Redpoint — began with a flash of insight, then wrote code for the software, then assembled a hardware prototype, then raised more than $34 million from investors, including Google. But initially, they couldn’t come up with a name. The three batted around a few possibilities, Christensen says, but it “very quickly became apparent we weren’t going anywhere. We really needed help.” They had already hired a San Francisco-based branding and design agency called Character to help shepherd their production process to the marketplace, and it was Character that took them to Anthony Shore.

Shore, 47, is what is known in the arcane world of corporate branding as a namer. He is boyish, ebullient and voluble, which is only natural for someone who makes his living from words. As a child, Shore found himself entranced by language, and when he received the American Heritage Dictionary as a birthday present, he pored over a supplement on the roots of Indo-European words in much the manner that other kids memorized batting averages. (He still has the book on a shelf in his office in Oakland, Calif.) He studied linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and wrote a senior thesis on Latin and moraic theory. There wasn’t a lot of work for linguists, so he fell back on another preoccupation, fonts, and became a typesetter for a real estate magazine. Typesetting led him to graphic design, graphic design led him briefly to advertising and advertising led him to naming, beginning with cocktails at Hotel De Anza in San Jose. Shore spent 13 years at one of the oldest and largest branding firms, Landor Associates, and a year at the branding behemoth Lexicon before deciding in 2009 to open his own one-man naming agency, Operative Words.

Now he met the three entrepreneurs at their office in Menlo Park. They showed him their 32-lens camera — “something that looked like Sputnik,” Shore says — then he put on a headset, and they fired up a standard-issue V.R. demo. He was immediately teleported to a computer-generated Tuscan villa. Shore was impressed. But still, it looked like a computer game.

The engineers then loaded a new file, and when Shore looked around the room through the headset, he saw the three inventors tossing a Nerf ball. Only they weren’t. Shore was watching a virtual-reality movie of them tossing a Nerf ball. This time Shore was astonished. “It was completely real,” he says. “It was transportive.”

Shore had named everything from companies to products to websites to ingredients to colors. He was responsible for some 160 distinct names in all, including SoyJoy (the health bar), Lytro (the camera) and Yum! (the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell), as well as lesser-known names like Avaya, Enormo, Fanhattan, Freescale, Homestyler, Kixx, Mylo, Pause, Rig, Scribe, Spontania, Valchemy, Wanderful and Zact. But the new V.R. production process posed a particular challenge. It was manifestly different, Shore told himself. It could have a profound influence on entertainment culture and on how people connect with one another. He needed a name that would convey its magnitude — a great name.

For decades, corporations have turned to creative people for their naming needs, with varying results. In 1955, a Ford Motor marketing executive recruited the modernist poet Marianne Moore to name the company’s new car. The marketing department had already created a list of 300 candidates, all of which, the executive confessed, were “characterized by an embarrassing pedestrianism.” Could the poet help? In a series of letters, Moore proposed dozens of notably nonpedestrian names — Intelligent Whale, Pastelogram, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop, Varsity Stroke — but the marketing team rejected them all, instead naming the new car (in one of the great disasters, naming and otherwise, in corporate history) after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel.

Today roughly 500,000 businesses open each month in the United States, and every one needs a name. From Dickens with his bitter Gradgrind to J. K. Rowling with her sour Voldemort, authors have long understood that names help establish character. Politicians know that calling a bill the USA Patriot Act makes it a little harder to vote against. The effects of strategic naming are all around us, once we begin to look for them. “You go to a restaurant, and you don’t order ‘dolphin fish,’ ” Shore points out. “You order ‘mahi-mahi.’ You don’t order ‘Patagonian toothfish.’ You order ‘Chilean sea bass.’ You don’t buy ‘prunes’ anymore; they’re now called ‘dried plums.’ ” Maria Cypher, the founder and director of the naming agency Catchword, which named the McDonald’s McBistro sandwich line, will tell you that names “give us a shared understanding of what something is.” Paola Norambuena, the executive director of verbal identity at Interbrand, says they give us a “shortcut to a good decision.”

Most people assume that companies name themselves and their products. True, Steve Jobs came up with the name for Apple and stuck with it despite the threat of a lawsuit from the Beatles, who had already claimed the name for their record label. Likewise, Richard Branson chose the name Virgin, and namers venerate him for it. “Virgin gets a reaction,” says Eli Altman, the head of A Hundred Monkeys, a naming agency. There is no “way that would get through a boardroom.” Most executives aren’t as imaginative as Jobs or Branson. And that’s where namers come in. Some work within larger branding agencies, like Landor or Interbrand. Others work within boutiques, like Catchword, A Hundred Monkeys (put 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters, and eventually they’ll write a Shakespearean tragedy, or a name), Namebase and Zinzin (French for “whatchama­callit”). Some, like Shore, are lone operators.

For the process that leads to a single name, companies can pay anywhere from $3,000 to $75,000. If that name becomes the foundation of a branding campaign, they can pay tens of millions of dollars more to establish its presence in the commercial firmament. The results can be inspired, but they can also be laughable. When Stephen Wolf took over USAir in the late 1990s, he concluded that the name sounded like that of a regional carrier, and he hired the branding firm Luxon Carra to find him a new name that fit his larger aspirations. The new name was unveiled in February 1997 to great fanfare. USAir was now . . . US Airways. The process of rebranding, from reprinting the stationery to repainting the planes, took nine months and, by one account, eventually cost the company nearly $40 million.

The namer’s craft may attain its highest expression in the pharmaceutical industry, in large part because namers have to work within so many government restrictions. Every drug name must be analyzed by the F.D.A.’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research to make sure that it doesn’t make extravagant claims — the hair restoring medication Rogaine was originally named Regain, until the F.D.A. nixed it — and that it cannot be mistaken for any other medication, which is how Losec, a heartburn treatment, became Prilosec, so as not to be confused with Lasix, a diuretic. (The F.D.A.’s guide on Best Practices in Developing Propriety Names for Drugs is a dense 33 pages.) The F.D.A. even runs handwriting tests on potential names to see if pharmacists might mistake one scribbled drug name on a prescription for another.

The oddity is that for all the weight a company places on choosing names, the decisions arise from a process that couldn’t be less corporate. There are no naming metrics, no real way to know if a new name helps or hinders. The field attracts people who are comfortable with such ambiguity. Jay Jurisich, the founder of Zinzin, is a painter with an M.F.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jim Singer, who founded Namebase, was a jingle writer, and Margaret Wolfson, who now runs naming at Namebase, still splits her time between naming and performing one-woman shows around the world in which she recites classical myths. The renowned pharma namer Arlene Teck (coiner of Viagra, from “vigorous” and “Niagara”) writes haiku. Maria Cypher of Catchword fronts a rock band. Other namers are stand-up comics, photographers, rappers, linguists and poets. “A good name has the potency of any piece of art,” says Martin McMurray, a partner at Zinzin. Wolfson’s friend Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has told her that she is engaged in creating “practical poetry,” an assessment that Wolfson embraces, though she says she doesn’t use the term with all her clients.

What namers share is a love of words and a sensitivity to them, and they will tell you that that sensitivity is what separates them from amateurs. At Interbrand, they administer a test to aspiring namers. One question asks candidates to choose from a short list of names for a new margarine. Many select “Margi-Gras,” because it is festive and different. But, Norambuena says, a professional namer would see the negative associations with Fat Tuesday and reject it.

After Shore had his virtual-reality encounter, he got to work. The first thing he wanted to know was how the inventors defined the most salient characteristics of their production process: What made it new, different, amazing? In the naming business, this sort of interrogation is known as the brief. When namers ask these questions, companies often respond by giving them hundreds of pages of research or even slickly produced videos. But too often the executives struggle to articulate what makes their companies or products distinctive, and so namers must draw it out of them — which is why Jay Jurisich of Zinzin calls this first phase “corporate group therapy.” Shore learned that the inventors wanted something short, preferably one word. It needed to convey the idea of transport and also seem hip and consumer-­friendly, in a manner that suggested advanced technology. The founders wanted it to have a science-fiction feel to it. When Shore asked them about names they liked, Christensen said Tesla and Imax.

That was enough to get started. Shore settled into his home office in the hills above Oakland and considered his naming objectives, or what the name ought to do. Taking off from the inventors’ comments, he kept returning to the idea of transport: “It puts you somewhere else.” Shore says he always starts with a simple, concrete idea and then tries to “elevate it to some overriding, overarching idea that is much more abstract.” So he began riffing. Change of place elevated to motion, then motion elevated to speed, then speed elevated to physical space, then physical space elevated to just plain space. “So now I’m thinking about space and location.”

Eventually, he settled on six elements that would serve as the basis of his names. He calls these concepts his creative directions, though other namers call them buckets, places they can dump names that they associate with a given concept. Shore’s were: change (in location and time), entertainment, experience, immersion, presence and reality and, finally, WOW!

With his creative directions established, he set out to find names that gestured in those directions. He asked himself: What would be the sound of going from one place to another instantly? He began mapping the concept of instant travel to the sounds he decided upon. He knew that speed could be conveyed by what linguists call fricatives, which are consonants produced by forcing air through the narrow channel between tongue and front teeth or tongue and upper palate or tongue and molars: f, s, v, z. And he knew that the point of arrival could be conveyed by stops or plosives, which are consonants in which the air flow is blocked: b, d, p, t. The exercise produced names like Slide or Slyde.

The techniques Shore was using are a relatively recent innovation — one that makes the messy process seem more scientific. Will Leben was a linguistics professor at Stanford in 1988 when he got a call from Lexicon asking if its partners could visit him. At the time, Leben was teaching a course on the structure of English words, and Lexicon recruited him for a project: to create a list of morphemes, those parts of words that contain meaning. Using a thesaurus, Leben generated a long list of morphemes and the meanings of each — “pages and pages of morphemes,” Leben says, which Lexicon could then draw upon to create names that would express the nature of a particular product.

Continue reading the main story

A few years later, David Placek, Lexicon’s founder, asked Leben what he thought of a name they had conjured, Triples, for a new cereal from General Mills that contained three different grains. “It sounds like something that’s light and crunchy,” Leben recalls telling them. He says their jaws dropped. Could the sound of a word say as much as its content? The idea of sound symbolism went back to at least Plato’s “Cratylus,” in which he associated sounds with physical characteristics, but linguists tended to discredit it. It had long been a fundamental tenet of linguistics, Leben says, that “the association between the meaning of the word and its pronunciation is an arbitrary one. The reason why we call a piano a piano has nothing to do with the sounds p-i-a-n-o.”

But Placek was intrigued, and he asked Leben to conduct a study to determine whether sounds did indeed convey physical properties. Leben called his study Sounder. He administered a questionnaire to 150 Stanford and Berkeley students, asking them questions like: Which sounds faster, “fip” or “fop”? Leben found a consensus. “Fip” was faster than “fop.” Why? Because of the way the sounds were generated in the mouth, Leben says. “Fip” feels lighter and faster because the vocal tract is open only a small amount. There is less acoustic substance for “fip” than there is for “fop,” the pronunciation of which causes the jaw to drop and the tongue to lower, creating a heavier, more powerful sound. There were many similar discoveries among fricatives and plosives, leading Leben to conclude that “the physical characteristics of sound are what determine associations.” Significantly, Leben got the same results when the study was conducted overseas. Lexicon took the idea and ran with it. “Pentium” began with a plosive that signified energy, power and dynamism. The “S” of the Swiffer mop made it sound fast and easy. The “D” of Dasani water made it sound heavier. Leben says: “It doesn’t say ‘refreshing.’ It says ‘slow down,’ ‘cool off,’ ‘relax.’ ”

Next, Placek asked Leben if he could conduct a study to see if there might be an association between sounds and emotional states. That was Sounder II, conducted in 2002. “The results came out so clean, it was hard to believe,” Leben says. Certain sounds, for example, were associated with daring or liveliness or sadness or insecurity. But Sounder I and II concentrated exclusively on the initial sounds of a word — its first consonant or vowel or both. Sounder III, just concluded last summer, asked whether consonants and vowels in other positions in a word might have a similar or additive effect. They did.

Among the discoveries Leben made: Fricatives convey “faster” and “smaller” — as do vowels that are voiced near the front of the mouth, like the a in “bat” or the i in “hid.” Plosives, or stops, convey “slower” and “bigger” — as do vowels that are voiced at the back of the throat, like the o in “token” or the double o’s in “food.” So-called voiceless stops like k, p, and t are more alive and daring than voiced stops like b, d and g, while the voiceless convey less luxury than the voiced. And all sound-symbolic effects manifest differently depending on context. They take on properties of the product being named.

In his search for just the right sounds, Shore used an app, called Universal Text Combination Generator, to create a list of 7,500 names combining fricatives and stops. Getting some help from computers has become de rigueur among namers, who — perhaps in part to reassure their corporate clients — have devised proprietary and often highly confidential software to assist in the naming process. Some of these programs mash together roots of words to form new words. Some find rhymes. Some focus on speech. One company, Idiom, promotes a system it calls Lingtwistics, which, according to its website, is an algorithm that “deconstructs these naming ingredients, then reassembles them in unexpected ways.” (The name Lingtwistics was itself generated by the algorithm.)

Like most namers, though, Shore doesn’t believe that computers can replace human creativity. For Shore, sound symbolism was only the beginning. He didn’t just want words that sounded right. Shore liked “natural words,” words that carried semantic and even historic meaning.

He kept coming back to the notion that this invention was like something out of science fiction. Looking for inspiration, he watched the movie “Jumper,” which is about teleportation, and began examining a website called the Glossary of Science Fiction Ideas, Technology and Inventions. There were 2,400 entries, and Shore studied them all. Two, however, popped out. One was “Jumpdoor,” which referred to a teleportation device, still Shore’s go-to idea. And the other was “Jaunte Stage,” described as a “little place to teleport,” first used in a 1956 novel, “The Stars My Destination,” by Alfred Bester, which served as inspiration for a Stephen King story titled “The Jaunt.”

This is the point in his search at which Shore sits at his computer and opens window after window, making lists of words and then trying to make connections among the words on those lists and then putting potential candidates for the final name on a master list. It is an act of computerized mind meld, and it goes on for hours every day for days at a time. If the search seems chaotic, that is the point. The idea is to do everything — to leave no word unturned. He visits the website, which shows how words work with other words, or, which combs texts and concordances, flags parts of speech and shows how a specific word appears in billions of words of text. He visits to find all the words that rhyme with a word. That is how he came up with the name for an ideation application for the Palm Pilot — he began with “brain,” looked for rhyming words and concluded with BrainForest. For this project, he thought of words about travel, but also about entertainment, the sense of engagement, connection, energy, even spheres. And he laid them all out on an Excel spreadsheet — 1,200 names in all by the time he had finished.

For a single project, namers can come up with as many as 6,500 names. Big naming companies will do anywhere from 40 to 50 projects a year, and smaller ones 15 to 20, which adds up to a lot of names. Of course, only one name will be chosen for each project, and that is the only one the client will own. The rest, however, won’t necessarily go to waste. Every naming agency keeps a list of its discards in a computer program. These are then classified by message (at Catchword); by distinctiveness, appeal, memorability and concept (at Interbrand); or by whatever other way the namers might want to retrieve them. Catchword has 650 of these categorized lists. And many of the names will be recycled, which suggests that there is a kind of Platonic ideal of good names, independent of products good or bad — a name so good that it could work, if not on anything, than at least on many things.

Three weeks after he first experienced the results of the new virtual-reality production process, Shore paid a second visit to Menlo Park — this time with 61 names he had culled from his master list of 1,200. Using PowerPoint, he presented the names one by one with an explanation of the meaning of each. And he presented them in what amounted to a narrative, bunching all the names that connoted one characteristic and moving from that characteristic to the next in an arc that he thought had a strong beginning and a boffo ending.

The first name was Virch, for “virtual” reality. Then Amuzium (he thought the “ium” read “elemental”). Then Thrall, which was “emotive” but also had a negative suggestion of surrender. Then Thrillium. Howl. Mezmer. Joyager (the inventors immediately liked that one). Livit. Physic. Tactene. Tether (“tying one to an experience”). Lash. Splicefield. Velop. Engulf (“very direct”). Respace (another favorite). Skylume. Coil (“potential energy”). Midst (“I was interested in repurposing words from another era”). Zyde (from “reside”). Jaunt (“a short journey for pleasure”). Trav. Trave. Translo. Zonic (“sonic but faster”). Popover (“they loved this name”). When he was done, two hours later, Christensen, van Hoff and Annau listed their favorites, compared them and then handed the winners to Shore.

That was the end of Round 1.

Typically there are two rounds in each naming project, though larger clients and tougher jobs may require three or four. With the lists in hand, Shore retreated to his home to generate a revised set of 50 names, now that he knew what sorts of names the inventors seemed to like (Glidesight, Latch, Plasm, Sheen, Splicewire and Telescape, among others).

Getting clients to accept a name is the hardest part of a namer’s job. Shore calls it the brander’s paradox: Having asked for a whole new identity, the client is terrified to accept it. “We’re taxed with doing something different,” Shore says, “yet those are the very things that might be off-putting or scary.” This is one reason namers make a point of discussing the origins of their names; explaining the chain of reasoning behind an unfamiliar word can make it come to sound not just natural but inevitable. Even so, some of the best names wind up in the bin, which is why Paola Norambuena of Interbrand says she makes it a practice never to argue for a name or to fall in love with one. Naming will break your heart.

Then there is the issue of trademarks. Before any company or product name can be registered and legally protected, it must pass an evaluation by the Patent and Trademark Office to determine whether it has already been taken. Almost every naturally occurring word has been claimed, which is why namers so often arrive at portmanteaus (Accenture derives from “accent” and “future”) or drop vowels (Flickr and Tumblr) or change letters (Lyft). “Coming up with a good name is hard,” Margaret Wolfson says. “Coming up with a great name is even harder. Coming up with a name that passes trademark! . . . ” There are roughly two million active trademarks in the United States, and 5,000 new applications are filed with the trademark office each week. At least half do not pass, often because they happen to be merely similar to another name. Shore’s Respace, which the inventors liked, would be deemed too close to a digital-services firm named Redspace, so the name eventually dropped out. A company can try to buy out another company that has a name it covets, but it can get messy. That is why Shore and other namers subject their candidates to a preliminary trademark screening before a client becomes attached to a name it cannot have. And trademarks don’t have to be cleared only in the United States. For companies and products overseas, they have to be cleared in each country.

Vetting names internationally means considering cultural issues as well. Lexicon has 84 linguists around the world who make sure names don’t ruffle local sensitivities. By one account, linguists rejected the drug name Soarus because it sounded like tsouris, Yiddish for “trouble.” Similarly, Wolfson once had to convince a client that a product named Care 4 would not sell in China because the number 4 signifies death. One American company, Good Characters, is devoted entirely to coming up with Chinese names for other American companies wanting to do business in China.

In pharmaceutical naming, the hurdles are, of course, even higher — which has led some pharma namers to abandon semantically grounded names altogether. At ixxéo, a naming firm based in Switzerland, Denis Ezingeard, the managing director, has devised a method that focuses entirely on visual and aural names, on the principle that the less semantic freight a word carries, the better. He says his process draws on jazz, nonrepresentational art, bird-watching and Darwinian evolution. His rationale is that the names don’t mean anything in linguistic terms, which makes it easier for them to pass regulation. Ezingeard may be onto something in a business in which companies are running out of words. The company’s own name, ixxéo, is a product of its method. It looks and sounds right, but it isn’t a real word. It is an impression — something Ezingeard made up.

With the prescreening completed late in August, Shore returned to the inventors’ office for the last time with his 50 final candidates. Once again, he projected the names on a screen in context and explained his reasoning for choosing each. But by this time, Christensen, van Hoff and Annau were seasoned evaluators. “The names were even better,” Christensen says.

After Shore left, they wrote the finalists on a whiteboard on their office wall and began deliberating. The contenders included Popover, FarAcross, Jaunt, Jumpdoor and Lunge. Christensen lobbied hard for Jaunt, which had grown on him because of its science-fiction origins. But one partner thought it was too high-toned, too British-sounding. Jumpdoor was still a favorite, and Respace hadn’t yet fallen out. For days, the partners debated the possibilities, and the weight of the decision was considerable. “It is kind of all or nothing,” Christensen says about their name choice.

What Shore didn’t tell them was that even if the name they chose received a tepid reception, the power of their production process could still overcome it. Most namers will tell you, as Paola Norambuena puts it, that a “great name can’t fix a bad product. A great product can fix a bad name.” Accenture was met with derision for reminding people of dentures. Gap was an empty space. Yelp was a dog in pain. The iPad was confused with a tampon. Now these names have no odd connotations at all, thanks to the success of the things they name.

So it may have been that after hours upon hours of brainstorming and hours more of deliberations and still hours more of trademark searches, and after the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars, not as much was at stake as Christensen, van Hoff and Annau thought — at least not in commercial terms. Personal and emotional stakes were a different story. Christensen says selecting the name was a milestone, though he doesn’t remember exactly how or when they settled on their choice. Shore got the news via an email telling him that they had chosen a name and that it had been granted trademark approval. Now it was theirs.

It would be seven more months before the company was ready to come out to the public. In that time, the inventors moved their operations to Palo Alto. They formed a board of advisers, which included the chairman of Imax. They began making arrangements to record events like the McCartney concert and even make V.R. movies. And then, when they were ready, one afternoon last April, they invited the press to their unveiling. Reporters who entered the office were greeted by a large sign affixed to the wall with the company’s name in a futuristic-looking font. Of course, they had no idea what went into selecting the word on that sign. It simply said:


The announcement came in November with two names attached: one famous, one not, or at least not yet. The famous name was Paul McCartney. Anyone who wanted to try a virtual-reality experience starring the former Beatle — replicating the sensation of standing center stage with him as he sang…


Awards are a great way to boost your business’ accolades and credibility. Here’s how UpCity customers are taking charge. Awards...
What’s in a name? A lot, when it comes to small-business success. The right name can make your company the...
When the World Health Organization announced in May 2021 that it would start using letters of the Greek alphabet to...