Clutch spoke with Kristen Pembroke, the director of client services at the branding agency Catchword, as part of a series of interviews on the trends and best practices around naming a company.
Please start by describing Catchword and your role there.
Catchword is a naming firm that has been around for 17 years. We’re located in Oakland, California, and in the New York area. We have seven employees and work with a diverse set of clients, including technology, healthcare, and consumer products. I have been with the company for almost two years as the director of client services and my role is to guide our clients through our naming process from start to finish.
The Naming Process
What should a business consider before beginning the naming process?
One of the first things is to make sure that everyone who has a say in what the name may or may not be is involved in the process. It’s really important that anyone who has veto power participates from the beginning. The last thing you want is to start going through the naming process and have someone come in late and say ‘Hey, why are we doing this?’ It’s one of the worst things that can happen because it can derail the team. You want to make sure everyone is on the same page from the get go.
The other thing is to ensure that people know the amount of time it takes to develop and select names, legally vet the names, and acquire a domain if needed. There’s a lot of time involved and it’s good for people to be aware of that. Finally, there’s no epiphany in naming; it’s unlikely that you’re going to hear a name and say, ‘Eureka – we found it!’ It just doesn’t happen that way. We always encourage our clients to select a short list of names before they do the full legal vetting and make sure they’re happy with that short list. This ensures that they feel confident no matter which name survives screening.
In your experience, how long does the naming process usually take?
The name development process typically takes between six and eight weeks. We also conduct preliminary trademark screening, which is normally a part of that process. Depending on the client, they may have a legal team internally that can help with that process, so that can expedite the process. We’ve found that six to eight weeks is most common.
I noticed that you have a name visualizer tool on your site. Could you speak to the importance of the visual identity of a name.
At one time, there was a belief that a name needed to stand on its own. You needed to be able to think of a name in black and white. What is it going to look like printed in The New York Times, for instance. But the reality is that it’s very unusual for a name not to be seen or heard within the context of the brand.
The goal of Catchword’s Name Visualizer is to allow marketers to start visualizing what the name could look like as a brand. Within the Visualizer tool, we have a billboard, for instance, and other visuals as a backdrop for a prospective name. The goal is to see what it looks like up in lights, essentially. So that you can start to get your head around what will go into the brand expression and find a name that will become something that the marketing team will take hold of and steward in the long term.
Could you talk about the importance of a brand story?
What we find is that once we go through the naming process, many of our clients are able to speak and think about the name in really compelling ways.
When a new name is being shared internally and externally, it’s helpful to tell the brand story in order to communicate clearly what’s compelling about the name to your employees, partners, and of course, your target audience. The brand story helps to ensure there is brand consistency internally. It also ensures that the name is conveyed in a way that helps support the brand positioning externally.
What are some of the recent naming trends that you have noticed?
A lot of what goes on with naming styles and trends stems from the challenges of securing a domain or trademark. It’s gotten to be so challenging for major startups, and for everyone really, and so there are a variety of ways for businesses to get around that.
One of the things you see quite a bit of is combined words or two word names. Examples of this are Wealthfront, ClassDojo, and Blue Apron, or from our own portfolio, names like Upwork, Livescribe, and Keysight. What people like about this style of name is that they’re able to get a couple different messages across. It’s also less likely that there’s going to be a trademark or domain that exists with those exact two words, either put together or used in combination.
Another style is a slightly coined name, like Lyft, taking out the “I” and replacing it with a “Y”. Coining names is a staple in the namer’s toolkit. We just recently named Javiva for Peet’s (coined from java and viva), and Optane for Intel, coined from words like opt, obtain, and octane. These kinds of names are still suggestive of what the product or service is, but they’re tweaked to make them more unique, ownable, and memorable.
Also, we see a lot of real world names that are a little bit more arbitrary or abstract. Something like that is Jet, the new competitor going up against Amazon. Another is Uber, they’re trying to go for the idea of an “uber” service or something over the top, it’s unique for a cab company. They did something very different in the category.
Five or ten years ago, we saw the trend of dropping vowels, like Tumblr, for instance. Also, the use of the word Zen: Zenefits, Zen Desk, and even Zen Payroll, which is now changing its name to Gusto. One of the trends we’re seeing on the way out, finally, is the ‘ly’ ending, including use of the .ly domain extension incorporated into the name itself; we’re not seeing that as much anymore.
But we’re going to try to move you away from trends, because you don’t want to sound like a ‘me too.’ It’s important to be distinct and timeless.
What are some of the attributes of a strong, memorable brand name?
It has to be evocative of the brand. It has to be distinct among the competitors, and it has to be memorable. You don’t want to go so far out there that people are thinking, ‘Huh? What does that mean?’ You want a name that is going to support the brand positioning, but it’s also important to remember that a name doesn’t necessarily work alone.
Assuming a company’s products or services are top notch, if the name is communicated clearly, is unique in its category, and supports the brand positioning really well, it’s going to be successful. The name should be easy to say and not have any negative associations globally –those are also key.
Are there certain types of names that are more successful in different industries?
It’s difficult to say when a name is more successful than another because if it has a fantastic product and a really cool brand, it’s tough to beat a name with that kind of support. You do see trends, for instance in tech finance where there are quite a few combined word names right now. Many startups are using one word abstract names; Uber, Tumblr, Lyft, with alternate spellings.
Has the need for a domain name influenced the way you develop names for companies?
It doesn’t influence the way we develop names, but it certainly affects the types of names companies are looking for, absolutely. The name development process is still similar. One of the common questions we ask during our name development process is, ‘Are you looking for a pure dot-com name? If so, are you willing to modify a name with a supportive, descriptive word?’ If they are looking for a pure dot-com, we ask, ‘Great - what’s your budget?’ It’s really pricey to get a real word dot-com, most particularly, but any dot-com can be a challenge. It’s hard to find one that’s not already in use or affordable.
Do you think that companies should have a dot-com extension, or that these alternate extensions are just as good?
Dot-com has been going strong for 20 years, and it’s always going to be the preference. If you have a dot-com, you’re going to appear established and you’re going to look like the real deal.
With the introduction of hundreds of new gTLDs, things are clearly changing. Look at dot-xyz, for example; Google’s new Alphabet holding company has the domain address abc.xyz! While most clients we work with will still want the dot-com, we do encourage them to also register the logical alternative gTLDs to hedge their bets — like dot-health for a healthcare company.
Benefits of Hiring a Naming Company
What are some of the benefits of hiring a naming company?
Often, we have found that internal teams don’t really know how to go about the naming process. It’s tough to do anything like this internally. It’s almost like, ‘I need to redesign the interior of my home,’ but where do you start? You hire someone and they tell you where to start. It’s the same idea with naming. Someone’s coming in and giving you a process to work from. It also can be very empowering for marketing teams to get executives involved when there’s a clear process outlined.
Also, we see internal teams that are actually talking to themselves more than they realize. A benefit to having a naming agency come in is having someone from the outside asking questions that may appear simplistic, but are things that hadn’t necessarily occurred to the marketing or executive team. That can be really helpful. Or just have a third party come in and introduce some out of the box thinking. That can be very critical, particularly with naming.
Naming can be very subjective, so you need someone to come in and push the envelope. You need someone to challenge the traditional thinking that’s become common within internal meetings and conversations. Someone to make sure that you’re seeing a wide spectrum of ideas for a name and making sure that, in the end, there’s some consensus.
While many folks can come up with creative solutions for their product or company, it’s another thing altogether to come up with a list of thousands of interesting possibilities — which is often what it takes these days to get a great name through legal, domain, and linguistic clearance.
Like I said in the beginning, it’s important that anyone who has veto power is part of the process from the get go. If you’re all on the journey together, you’re going to have a really successful outcome in the end.