brand story & messaging, language

What makes a name work? Here’s a gimlet-eyed view

Sandra Stewart | December 15, 2015

“What we thought would be a simple, summer-afternoon exercise was turning out to be much more difficult,” says Alex Blumberg in episode 5 of the podcast StartUp.

That’s a common experience when wrestling with most aspects of core brand communications (your main message, tagline, brand promise). In this case, Blumberg is talking about how to name your company. Like most episodes of StartUp, this one is relatable, insightful and funny. (And no, I have no personal or financial relationship with Blumberg or his company.) You should listen to it when you have 25 minutes.

But stay with me for two minutes and I’ll summarize the lessons. In naming their podcasting company, Blumberg and his co-founder, Matt Lieber, go down every dead-end path and experience every frustration encountered by everyone who’s ever tried to name any commercial thing—company, product, service, show dog, whatever.

They first try to do it over drinks. (Been there! Alcohol may loosen inhibitions, but rarely loosens good business names.) They come up with names including Resonance, Story Tone and Cream. (Cream? “It’s rich, it’s flowing, it’s top quality …” Lieber says. “I think that we’re both explaining our bad ideas,” Blumberg responds.) Blumberg observes that Lieber likes short, sleek evocative names appropriate for a tech company, while he likes “baroque, twee throwback names—more Brooklyn-based pickle company.”

First lesson: Figure out what kind of name all the deciders can get behind. Potential names fall along a wide spectrum, from literal and descriptive to coined words that evoke an idea or feeling but have no meaning until you give them one.

Blumberg and Lieber go down the road of descriptive names with personality and run smack into trademark law. Names like that without a conflicting trademark are rarer than unicorns. As Blumberg points out, this is why so many companies go the route of adding –ly or –ify to a word or dropping letters out of a word. (Please stop.)

The founders then try another favorite route: foreign languages. They briefly entertain Orelo (ear in Esperanto), but Blumberg’s wife bursts out laughing at the idea, barely gasping out, “That’s so dumb.”

Second lesson: Maybe don’t insist on doing this yourself. Blumberg and Lieber ultimately consult a professional naming company, the venerable Lexicon. They both respond to one of Lexicon’s “flyer” names: Gimlet Media. It has flavor, freshness, surprise. It links to gimlet-eyed—meaning a piercing or sharp glance, just like the incisive storytelling they want to do. They’re into it. And then Blumberg backpedals: “I couldn’t stop waffling or second guessing.”

Third lesson: As long as you have a name that’s not clearly off-target (Cream), it doesn’t have to be perfect. (When we named Thinkshift, we weren’t in love with it at first, just as our namer had warned.) The most important factor in making it work is the story you tell about it. If the story brings out what’s compelling about the thing you’re naming, it will work for you. If you’re successful, other people won’t give the name a second thought—it will just be what that thing is called. How else could Google become a verb that means “to search,” as opposed to, say, “to drool”?

So, Gimlet Media it is.

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