Please describe A Hundred Monkeys and your role there.
We’re a naming and branding company. We’ve been around since 1990 and we’re based in Berkeley. I’m a creative lead here, which means that I run naming projects.
The Naming Process
What should a business consider before beginning the naming process?
A lot of people jump right into naming. They’ll say, ‘I need a name, let’s get straight to the blackboard and start coming up with ideas.’ But before you do any of that, you really need to know who you are as a company. What makes you different? What story do you want to tell to the world? How do you want to position yourself within your market? It’s often pretty tough to do that on your own because you’re usually too close to the problem. If you’ve been working on something for a while, it’s hard to see yourself the way that the world sees you.
What are some of the stages you go through when developing a name for a company?
Our process is usually two to four weeks depending on trademark considerations, the number of rounds of naming that we do, and URL acquisition. In the beginning, we get to know the people and the company that they work for. We figure out the role of the name with respect to telling a story. We iterate on names, and after we’ve come to an understanding of exactly what kind of names they want, we help them come to a final decision. It’s pretty simple.
How does creating a brand story fit into the naming process?
It varies from project to project. The kinds of names that we develop are almost always real words and have something to do with your positioning. So we start there, and next, the most important thing is to find an opening line to a story because that’s really what a name is – it’s a handshake, it’s the first thing that someone hears. Finding the best first line—finding a way to have the name provoke that line in conversation—is really important to us.
What are some of the naming trends that you have noticed recently?
One trend is blank-and-blank names. These are names like Clove and Hoof, a meat market in Oakland; or Flour and Water, a restaurant in San Francisco. Sometimes they can be pretty cool. They can weird, too: Squat and Gobble comes to mind. With blank and blanks, and these trends in general, it’s about signaling and belonging instead of standing out. People are good at recognizing patterns, and name trends are no exception. Because meaning has been built up around this trend, a blank and blank name will signal that it’s a smaller business doing some kind of custom work, and they might have a typical Bay Area aesthetic. If it’s food, it’s all organic and simple. Or if it’s clothing, it’s locally sourced and sustainably produced.
Another trend we’ve noticed, one closer to the tech space, is a particular type of wordsmash. Wordsmash takes two disparate words and smashes them together. Tech’s been doing this a long time, and in particular, the industry is chock-full of wordsmashes with one “feeling” word and one descriptive word. We think it’s probably an artifact of all of those websites that automatically generate URLs for people: you type in one word, and it will just smash it with something else to find an available domain.
Probably the most famous one is Zendesk. Zen is supposed to telegraph a sense of calm, and desk is the classic descriptor for a customer service company. So, if you are also a customer service company and you think that you need to describe what you do with your name instead of doing something more interesting, you might put some word in front or behind of desk, so that people know that you’re a customer service company, and at the same time, you can make a claim about how you’ll make them feel. You can see this in things like SpoonRocket: food that comes fast. Or this crazy startup name, BoxBee; bee is about being busy, and then box is about storage, so it’s storage for busy people? Something like that.
Finally, the single-syllable noun trend. This is a reaction against the URL-driven names that I was just talking about: it’s a return to simplicity. Names like Box, Nest, and Stripe, feel like tech names today because so many tech companies have used this trend, and you understand what buckets to place them in based on the trend. But in the early days, a name like Nest really stood out against the complicated tech naming space. They do feel different from places like ZenDesk or SpoonRocket or BoxBee. In general, I think we associate them with grown-up brands: they probably have the money to acquire the dot-com domain space. Also, they have the legal resources to make sure that they’re locking down these marks, which admittedly are a lot harder to get than wordsmash marks.
What are some of the attributes of a strong, memorable, brand name that stands out?
Standing out is really important. One way to do that is to get a reaction from a name. If someone doesn’t notice a name the first time they see or hear it, they probably never will. They won’t think about it as the name itself, it will just be in the back of their heads. Unless you’re willing to spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns to build brand recognition, the best way to do it is with a strong name.
Memory is tied to so much more than the name itself. In the real world, names live alongside tons of other brand elements: your ad spend, good branding in general, and a good logo can go a long way to making names stick, as long as they’re all working in concert. The obvious answer to the question of which name type is most successful is: it really depends. It depends on how a name can help a company out the most. Do you need to spread that word of mouth? Is there a smooth conversation you need to have to differentiate you in a crowded field? Are you trying to evangelize some kind of idea that can be brought up by the name? These are all things that vary from company to company. Saying a descriptive name or an aspirational name is the best in any given situation is certainly not the way we think about it.
What are your thoughts on invented names? You said that you typically pick real words for the names you use.
What creates memorability and what makes names resonate with people is meaning, generally. Real words connect with meaning that’s already there in people’s heads instead of trying to build something brand new. When you go with an invented name, mindshare is one thing you’re guaranteed not to have. It starts with meaninglessness, and you build from there. When you do that, you’re sacrificing memorability in a serious way.
If you have a huge marketing budget, you can force anything down people’s throats. If you have a new brand named Xfinity, and you invent that word, you spend enough on it and everyone will know what it is and what it means. However, if you’re a new company with a limited budget, you’re just going to make it harder on yourself if you go with an invented name.
If we build out this idea of Xfinity as an invented word, does it mean expand and infinity when you think about it? Because for me, it doesn’t. I just associate it with all the things that people usually associate with it: bad customer service, monopolized cable, and all that stuff, instead of connecting to something the way that a real word would have done.
Has the need for a domain name influenced the way you develop names for companies these days?
It’s certainly important. It doesn’t drive our process but we deal with it every day. For us, it’s all about clearing up expectations at the beginning. What kind of URL process is going to make for the best project? Also, it’s about starting the URL hunt at the right time during the process. It’s a mistake to make the domain name drive the process in the very beginning. As more and more gTLDs are coming up on an ongoing basis, as the internet audience gets younger and more familiar with the realities of the web, and as everyone uses search – well over 90 percent of traffic is coming from search engines, not from someone typing in a URL in the top bar – domain stuff isn’t quite as important as it was in the early 2000s. Thankfully, a lot of our clients recognize that.
Do you think it’s important for a company’s name to match its domain exactly, whether it’s a dot-com or not?
I think another way to think about it is to ask what’s more valuable? Would you rather have a really strong name? Or would you rather have your name match your URL? If you want both of those things at the same time, you’re going to pay a ton of money, because the good names that match dot-coms have been snatched up and parked, or they’re already in use. If you think the URL is more important than the name— if you think that the URL should drive the naming process—that probably means that, fundamentally, you think about naming in a different way than we do. We’ll never believe that a URL can hold more brand value than a name. So if you say the name is more important than the URL, you’re speaking our language.
A couple of easy examples: Teslamotors.com and steampowered.com. It’s really easy to add a suffix that feels right, that tells people a little more about what you’re doing, and, if you’re a bit smaller, that even helps your SEO. Even when Google made the alphabet announcement, they used dot-xyz. These are massively popular brands that don’t have the matching thing going on. Unless you’re a Fortune 1000 company or so, it’s really not that important to match. It’s important to think of domains as a business tool. What do you want it to do for you? For big companies it’s about conferring legitimacy, so having it match should be important to them. For smaller companies, SEO is important. Having a good name is important. Saving money is important. Throw in a descriptor if you’re afraid there isn’t enough context around what you’re doing, and you can do all three. People know that all of the beachfront real estate is gone.
Benefits of Hiring a Naming Company
What are some of the benefits of hiring a naming company?
One thing that’s really important is that we see you the way that the world sees you. It’s often said about consultants that one of the real pieces of value they provide is a pair of fresh eyes. It’s true. Also, you aren’t naming your dog when you’re naming your business. This is a serious business tool in a way that your dog’s name isn’t. Your dog doesn’t have an audience to impress, your dog doesn’t have to stand out in a crowded industry, and you’re not going to use your dog’s name to launch into an elevator pitch...for your dog.
Finally, I think working with a naming company makes the process so much easier, no stressing or wasting time. If you’re running a company, you can focus on doing that, doing the things that you’re really good at, and let us get to work on what we’re good at.