Clutch spoke with Margaret Wolfson, the founder and chief creative of the naming agency River + Wolf, as part of a series of interviews on the trends and best practices around naming a company.
Please describe your company and your role there.
My company is River and Wolf, and I’m the Founder and Chief Creative.
The Naming Process
What should a business consider before beginning the naming process?
Before embarking on the actual work of naming, it is important to get an in-depth understanding of the tone and style of names within your industry. Once you’ve amassed this information, you’ll want to decide whether you want to stay with or depart from industry standard.
An example of a company that broke ranks is Oscar, the startup insurance agency whose founders drew their inspiration from the name of a physician relative. Oscar suggests there is a doctor in the house and as such, represents a striking departure from the industry’s use of rocks, shields, and other imagery associated with power and protection.
Another name departing from industry traditions is Virgin Airlines. Branson steered clear of names that mapped to countries, regions, or continents. Instead he went rogue, choosing a name that emphasized freshness and newness.
What are the stages of developing a name?
Once you’ve taken a snapshot of your brand’s landscape, you’ll need to identify your brand’s key communications. Names are like a small package—they cannot contain everything. For example, Amazon communicates vastness and power whereas Apple conveys simplicity of design and education.
Or consider the spinning class chain SoulCycle. The partnership of “soul” and “cycle” takes us by surprise. In joining these unlikely words, the name implies that furious cycling leads to a religious experience. Whether or not I believe that pedaling and pounding music is the way to Nirvana, doesn’t matter. It’s a five star name.
But if you are unclear about what your name should communicate, don’t worry. Part of the naming process is to find that clarity. This is one of the benefits to working with a naming agency. Naming experts are trained to draw out hidden ideas, sharpen existing communications, and untangle twisted thinking.
During the early stages of naming, you’ll also want to consider the personality of your brand. Just as people have different personalities, so do brand names. Recently, I re-named a platform for interior designers. The original name—Whole New Home—was completely different in character than the playful new one —Kabuni—a Swahili word meaning create.
Once you’ve developed a strong list of name candidates, the list needs to be winnowed down. At this stage, I encourage clients to develop a name story for some of their favorite candidates and then to share that story with others. The story of my own company, for example, is based on the attributes and qualities of the river and the wolf. Sometimes a river twists and turns, responsive to the lay of the land. Other times, it is an unstoppable force, carving its way through solid rock. As to wolves, they’re known for their deep instinct, keen intelligence, and sense of loyalty. And since no two wolves make the same sound, the wolf is considered a precise and original communicator.
Telling the story behind your name is a great barometer for testing your comfort level. If you struggle to explain your name of choice, you might want to consider other options.
The final step in the naming is trademark screening. Unfortunately, many startups skip this step, thinking they can change their name later should trouble arise. This is understandable given tight budgets, but it’s not a smart move. Re-branding is not only expensive, but can result in the loss of hard won marketing and media collateral.
What are some of the naming trends that you have seen lately?
Invented words have been a popular trend for some time, in part because many business founders only want an exact match dot-com. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with first-class coined names. In fact, they have an illustrious pedigree. It’s rumored that Shakespeare created more than seventeen hundred neologisms—including such wonders as moonbeam, eyeball, and besmirch. Today’s namers develop coinages in similar fashion: joining or blending existing words or morphemes, adding suffixes and prefixes, and using nouns, verbs, and adjectives in bold and unusual ways.
But more recently, there has been a trend towards randomly dropping or adding vowels and consonants, employing odd spellings, and creating senseless mash ups devoid of any sense or style. These approaches to name development should be avoided.
Another trend is the use of a proper name for brands. These are not, as in the past, the names of the founders—they are unique names that telegraph a mood or attitude. Along with the aforementioned Casper mattresses and Oscar insurance other proper names include Mikey and Yeti, two digital microphones now strutting their stuff at the Apple Store, and Zoey, an e-commerce platform.
What are some of the attributes of a strong, memorable brand name?
For me, memorable names possess great music and have picture-painting power. When I hear a name like LuluLemon my ears feel good, and at the mention of Amazon, I can’t help but picture surging currents, tree lined banks, and parrots flashing through treetops.
Is there a type of name that’s more successful than others?
Great names exist in all styles. An invented name like Lunesta, the sleeping pill, which is a lexical blend of “luna” for moon and “esta” from “siesta”, is no less brilliant than a metaphorical name like Gilt, the online luxury retailer that evokes both “guilt” and “gilded” as in wealth and privilege.
How does the right name type vary by industry?
In the past, more abstract, science-like names might have been preferred for technology. But that’s changing—the practice of constructing (and in some cases, jerry-rigging) names from Latin and Greek morphemes is less common today than ten years ago. I’d say that most industries are open to a wide variety of naming types, though B2B names are generally a little more risk-adverse than B2C names.
Has the need for domain names influenced the way you develop names for companies?
At River + Wolf, we stress that a good name is more important than an exact match dotcom. But if a client must have an exact match, we will focus almost exclusively on the creation of unusual compound or invented names since these have a greater chance of securing an exact match dot-com.
What do you think about the alternate domain extensions that are coming out?
It is very hard to break the obsession with dot-coms. Every so often ICANN—the non-profit organization in charge of maintaining and coordinating the Internet, specifically the Internet Protocol addresses and the Domain Name System—introduces new extensions. Despite repeated efforts, dot-coms remain the extension of choice for business. But as so many are either in use, parked, or for sale at jaw-dropping prices, entrepreneurs are slowly warming to other domains. Many technology start-ups now use “io”, which stands for the Indian Ocean. For unexplainable reasons, it seems to have caught on.
Benefits of Hiring a Naming Company
What are some of the benefits of hiring a naming company?
Naming is not for the faint at heart. Besides the challenging of coming up creative work, a naming professional must have an enormous capacity for research, a working knowledge of trademark and URL issues, and the ability to intuit market and language trends. For these reasons, and so many more, an experienced namer is a worthwhile investment.
Do you have any last thoughts to add?
Whether working with an agency or developing names on your own, it is important to get past “like” and “dislike”. It is far better to select a name based on a solid set of criterion than an emotional response. It’s also important to remember that names can grow on you over time. Holding out for a passionate affair with the perfect name just doesn’t make sense. A good name is more analogous to a friendship, it accrues strength and power over time.
And remember, names don’t exist in a vacuum—graphics, taglines, and copy can transform a good name into a great one. Above all it’s important to remember that while a good name can enhance a quality product or company, it can’t save a bad one.