Clutch spoke with Phil Davis, the president of Tungsten Branding, 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.
Tungsten Branding is a corporate naming and branding firm based in Brevard, North Carolina. We’re a boutique, brand identity creation firm. By that I mean we help people who are either starting up or people that are going through a corporate version of a mid-life crisis, where they have a legacy name that no longer serves their purposes, or it’s inaccurate or misleading. We help create a new identity that’s more congruent and indicative of who they are and what they do.
The Naming Process
What should a business consider before beginning the naming process?
That’s a great question and one that everyone should ask. There are two primary points I would make. First, the number one question that people need to ask themselves is, ‘What business are you really in?’ I find that most entrepreneur startups, and even companies that are five or ten years along, got into the business they are in because of a particular skill set that manifested through a product or service. The product and service becomes outdated, transitions, or evolves, but they created the identity of the company based on the initial product or service offering, instead of on the skill set or the attributes that originally produced it.
An example of this would be Steve Jobs. He was extremely innovative and it manifested through a computer, but he’s not really a computer guy. If he created his identity and called it International Computer Company, he would have quickly outgrown that identity. That’s one of the critical mistakes people make; they create service and product identified brands that end up pigeonholing them and constricting their growth as they evolve. So, what business are you really in? Steve Jobs was really in the innovation business, or cool IT business, or digital consumer business. He wasn’t in computer hardware per se. That’s just the manifestation or the first iteration of his business.
The second thing is along the same lines of ‘What business are you really in?’ Try as best as you can to identify what the gooey center of your business is. If this were a doughnut, what would your jelly center be? I sometimes call it the pivot point of your company. What is that one thing around which all your goods and services revolve? In basketball, you don’t create an infraction–you can move as much as you want, you can go completely opposite of where you started off, you can do an about-face, 180 degree move–if the one foot never moves.
If Apple creates a new product, it’s not traveling or a foul if they create something different, like a phone instead of a computer, as long as it’s small, cool, thin, lightweight, hip. The pivot point would be those attributes; the pivot point would not be a computer. Most companies have something around which everything they do generates a common thread. If you can understand what your pivot point is, you can build a timeless brand by naming it after that immovable point.
What are the stages of developing a name?
I have a hash-out session, which some of us call the brain dump, and it’s mainly to flush out the pipes. What ideas have you thought about? What are names that you like? What are names that you don’t like? Was there a name you loved but had a trademark issue, and therefore you couldn’t get it? Sometimes, by putting everything out in front of yourself, you start identifying common threads. What is it in all of this that you’re moving towards? Is there any commonality’s to this? Then ask yourself how these thoughts and these directions line up with who you are, assuming you have done your original work and you know what your pivot point is.
Sometimes, you will find a disconnect. In other words, people might be trying to do these real literal mash-up names. They realize that doesn’t really convey innovation, so we might need to regroup.
We start with a discovery process. Where have you been? What have you done? What have you thought about? Then, how does that compare with who you are as a company? From there you can start the process of saying, ‘What direction do we need to move forward in? Do we need to continue down this path and find a name that works, or do we need to move in a different direction?
When you have a sense of what the company is about, then the next questions is: what kind of naming strategy will best capture that pivot point? You could come up with a completely invented name from different word parts. We created a company that did a lot of insight, clarity, visioning, and transparency in the IT space and we named them Claricent–it resonates of clarity and magnificent.
You can come up with a positive connotation name, that’s like your OnStar names. It’s just two words that are blended together and have the same essence as the direction of your brand. GM has a product that navigates and instead of calling it the NaviTech 2000, they call it OnStar–going forward, on versus off, star versus black hole.
There are positive connotation names, there are invented names, and there are descriptive hybrids. An example of a descriptive hybrid is JetBlue, which is the industry with an evocative word and as long as they’re always flying jets that will be fine. Then, there are evocative names, and in your case it’s Clutch. It creates that sense of vital, essential, mission critical, clutch, a clutch-play. That’s an example of using an evocative name because it stirs an emotional element.
Take your pivot point, the core essence, the common thread that runs through your business, and then ask, what is the best way to convey that? Is it a metaphor? For speed do we use a jaguar? For diversity and abundance do we use a word like amazon? When we create a metaphor do we create a positive connotation name to create an invented name? Some companies just want a clean slate. They don’t want any meaning at all, they want to build their own brand; hence names like Xerox and Kodak, they’re all empty vessel names.
You marry the essence of the brand with a brand strategy, then you create naming candidates from that list, and then begin the process of winnowing them down. Are they available from a trademark perspective? Linguistically does it sound good? Is it long, is it short? What matters most? Is it the pronunciation, or is it how it appears on the page? What factors are going to make this name the best name out of the bunch? A lot of that is simply a judgment call.
What are some of the recent naming trends that you’ve noticed?
You’re seeing a slight shift towards more inventive names, in part due to the lack of available English words. Some of that is need driven; however, some of it is a trend. People will look at what one company did and create a similar strategy or naming strategy, but it doesn’t work because there’s art to it, not just a mechanical welding of two words together.
An example of these mashed up names, if you take the word ‘connect’ you want to convey the idea of connecting. Then, you like the idea of a nexus or a connecting point, so you blend the word connect and nexus, and you get Conexxus. That might sound intuitive, but you can’t take quality and electronics and call it Qualetronics. It’s like dance or singing – there’s a certain tonality to it, and some people are just tone deaf.
You are seeing a movement towards these invented names. Some people are playing with other top-level domain extensions, there’s a little more experimenting with these top-level domains that incorporate the ending into the name.
What do you think the most successful type of name is?
There is no perfect brand name except for the brand name that works for you. There’s not an objectively perfect brand name. It’s very much fit to concept; what is it that your company most wants to convey?
To have successful branding, it’s not so much the word itself, the technique, or how you get to it. The more overarching point, and the question to ask, is, ‘Does the name lend itself to a deeper discussion about your business?’ The name should be an introduction to your business, like hello is an introduction followed by a conversation, it should not stop the conversation. A good name is one that invites people to know more about your company and allows you to build a platform of marketing language around the name.
For example, Tungsten is the metal in a light bulb, it allows me to have conversations about brilliance, insight, enlightenment, aha moments, turning the light bulb on. It gives me a platform to further build the brand. If the company name were Indigo Taco, it would be like; ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’ and then it would just stop.
Does a successful name vary by the industry that the company is in?
There are industries that have a higher degree of latitude on being more evocative; it’s just more acceptable. The right fringe is the creative fringe, on the far right creatively, you would have your web 2.0, 3.0, and your startups. It’s almost expected that you’re going to have a crazy name. It’s gotten to the point where even misspells are acceptable. They used to be frowned upon but much has changed.
If you’re in a more industrial industry, you need to be careful to not sound too crazy; the same goes for financial companies. That’s not to say that everything in the financial category has ‘trust’ in it, or ‘united’. Ally Bank is a great example of a nice blend; it’s not too stogy, it has a key attribute. ‘We’re your ally in the banking business, we’re on your side,’ which is way different than First Federal United. There’s a name that works and it pushes the envelope a little bit. That would not be a crazy name at all in the web space it would be very tame.
There is a temperament and a range in every industry. Industrial is probably even more conservative, but again, I would refrain from naming an industrial company by its product or service. I would talk about how it’s manufactured, how it’s made, more than what is being made.
What do you think about companies with the industry embedded in their name?
I think it is okay as a descriptor word behind your name. Again, it was Apple Computers, and then about four or five years ago they officially dropped the word ‘Computers’ off. There’s a company called Wellspring Health. If health goes away, they become known as Wellspring. Some of these constrictions work well because they can live and exist on their own.
If your name has a word like ‘health’ embedded in it, Health Star, then you will always have to make sure that you’re absolutely, totally, in the health business. You have to ask, ‘Is this the space that we’re going to inhabit forever?’
Has the need for a domain name influenced the way you develop names for companies?
Yes definitely, on several levels. There are people in my industry who–because of the sparseness of domain names, and sometimes the high-inflated prices that some people ask for their domain names–have avoided naming their companies in ways that are intuitive and natural because they’re trying to circumvent this whole domain thing. Sometimes, people are so afraid of not getting the domain, not getting the right messaging, that they go around and end up with one name and a different domain, and it gets confusing. Our name is this, but online we’re this, and it becomes problematic.
My approach has been to aggressively seek domains from the very beginning. Since I got into this business years ago, every time I do a naming project I keep all my names, all my little brand leftovers. I call them my brand children. Over the years I’ve gotten about 3,000 brand-able domain names. If I have a shoe store, I better have shoes in my shoe store.
Every time I look for a new solution, I don’t just rely solely on that. I try to make sure I have the dot-com inventory available, because I think it’s really important to name it what you want and have the matching dot-com. Not everybody would agree with that. However, in my own experience when I first came up with Tungsten Branding, I called my company Pure Tungsten, like the very essence of tungsten. People would write checks out to Pure Tungsten, introduce me as Pure Tungsten, and I thought I was creating brand confusion.
I think the domain name should match, and the only time that you can get away with something different is if you just add a word after your name. I think that’s okay if it’s an industry word– Tungsten Branding. Whatever your industry is, as long as you’re going to be in that industry for the foreseeable future, but don’t invent that word in your name.
What do you think about alternative domain extensions?
This is what I tell people all the time; the dot-com is always going to be the Manhattan real estate, and everybody argues, ‘Well, people are using different ones.’ Yeah, they’re moving to New Jersey too, right? You’re always going to have to emphasize, ‘Now, when I say blank, it’s actually dot-blank.’ You run the risk of someone assuming it’s that name.com and going to the competition on a direct type in.
It’s not the end of the world, people are doing it more. Startups are doing it because they want to avoid the initial expense, and they have a limited budget to purchase a domain name. I think what’s going to happen is one of two things. There are either going to be more and more people doing this, but it will still be a minority; maybe 70 percent dot-com, maybe it’ll have evolved where there’s 30 percent that’s spread over dot-ninjas, and dot-everything. Or, that’ll just be the sign of a startup company, and as the company matures, and they have the industrial muscle of a bigger company, they will go back and buy the name.
When we started off, we named pods but we couldn’t get pods.com, at first. It was four letters and spelled something real, but eventually, as the company grew, I was able to make that purchase.
With an alternate domain extension, what ends up happening is you’re kind of a victim of your own success. As you become more successful, the owner of the dot-com knows that and you’re chasing an evolving figure over you. For at least 95 percent of the people that we name, we get them the exact match dot-com. We never want to have to revisit that issue.
Benefits of Hiring a Naming Company
What are the benefits of hiring a naming company?
It’s like anything else that you want to do thoroughly and professionally. If you have that rare skillset of the art of finance and linguistics, knowledge of domain names and how to look them up, putting a story together, even then it’s a question of whether that’s the best place to spend your valuable resource of time.
I’ve run into companies that have been doing their own process, and its taken upper management three to six months of meetings. Why not outsource that to somebody who lives in that space? I tell people, it’s like firewood at a campsite. You stay at the most popular campsite, then when people who have not done a naming exercise start off, they start looking for firewood right around the campsite, and they think of the names everyone thinks of. The only difference with me is that I start by running as fast as I can away from the campground because I know there’s no firewood right around the campfire.
You have to go around and look for one-off, unique words, words that tell a story. You have to think differently, and to do that most people spend the first month or two scouting around the campground going, ‘Gee, there’s just nothing here.’ They either, get discouraged and give up, or they start contorting words because they’re desperate. It’s like climbing up the tree and breaking off raw branches. I think there are a lot of benefits. The down part of it is mainly just money.
Some people starting off don’t realize that they should set some money aside for their brand identity. They get caught flat-footed, and they don’t have the income to do it. In that case, they should read and become a student of branding. You make the best educated attempt at it that you can until you get it right, or you can come back and look at it later, but it’s always expensive to re-do it.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
I think people generally underestimate the value of brands. Some brands that we’ve been involved with as intellectual property have gone on to be worth tens of millions of dollars. We’ve had a couple companies that were acquired and people said, ‘One of the main reasons we acquired you is your brand,’ and it’s so cool. It adds that sex appeal and tangible ‘it’ factor when it’s done well, as opposed to having a really clunky, mechanical, descriptive, literal, generic, boring, geographic, service-based name.
A lot of times, people’s brand identities are confusing, misleading, and counterproductive. There’s a company in Clearwater called Just Brakes, and they had to pay to have a jingle played on the radio that said, ‘At Just Brakes, remember we’re more than just brakes.’ They’re creating an identity and then spending money to say, ‘We’re not that at all.’
A company that we got a few years back was called Wholesale Landscape Supplies, and it sounded like a Yellow Page listing. Their customers couldn’t even remember their name, and 25 percent of their business was retail. In this case, we wanted to create an identity that says, ‘Whether you’re a retail customer or a wholesale customer, we’ll supply the same quantity to you.’ We renamed them Big Earth, and we put a globe there. We moved the descriptive literal part underneath the name, and it became Big Earth Wholesale Landscape Supply.
To go back and do it right from the beginning would be priceless for these companies. A lot of people’s attempts at naming, what they really come up with, is their descriptor phrase. It’s not a bad name, it’s that it’s in the wrong place; it needs to be the subtext, not the headline. I would encourage people to really think that through and make sure that their name invites people in, encourages further conversation, and that it doesn’t stop them at the door.