What's In A Name: Sometimes you've got to call in the name whisperer

By James Robinson , written on October 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Molly Davis has a unique job. As a communications strategist for MetaDesign -- a global design firm with a base in San Francisco which specializes in reshaping corporate identities and creating new "brand worlds" -- part of her dominion is helping lost companies refocus in their quest for the perfect name. When I reached her to talk, she was currently helping four companies on this journey. As she explained to me, it's a visual, as well as a written process, spurring the creative process by creating boundaries, examining meaning and trying to tell a long story in one word.

Editor's note: This article is part of Pando's "What's In A Name?" series in which we look at the stories behind how some of tech's biggest companies got their names. The series is sponsored by Braintree, so you'll only see their ads around "What's In A Name?" pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. Braintree had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

Why do you think something like your job is needed?

Naming a company is an art and a science. It is not as easy as someone would think. MetaDesign started helping companies with names about eight years ago and this work has really started to pick up in the last couple of years as startup culture has really taken off.

On your company blog, it says you start helping companies find a name by creating “naming clusters.” How does this work?

It helps give boundaries. Otherwise, when you’re trying to find a name for your company the sky’s the limit and that’s not always good. After we have a work session with a client and find out what it is they’re looking for, what they want a name to express, the emotions they want it to bring up we come up with clusters of potential names for them.

What defines a cluster?

It's a group of related names playing off something about the company. Ceph, which is a sort of online storage software, came to us wanting a name for their new enterprise offering. They’re a very quirky company and wanted a name that could speak to companies like NASA. They wanted it to demonstrate a level of trust, but still communicate storage, while also relating to the cephalopod, where they got their original name. So we came up with a cluster of potential names around storage, a cluster of names around sea creatures, and so on. We ended up coming up with Inktank. It’s very reminiscent of thinktank. It’s not descriptive but it’s functional. Which is one of the marks of a very good name. It’s different, unexpected, but relevant. It’s fun in any language.

How many clusters do you usually make?

We tend to create six different cluster categories. It can be anything from the function of the product, the history of it, the founder, and so on. It all depends on what is revealed during the initial workshops with the company.

With the naming clusters, are you advocating that companies have a name that is at least tangentially relevant to the product?

Not always. I think that for me personally, a good name tells a story in one word. In my presentations to client, I tell the story about how Hemingway was allegedly challenged to come up with a novel in six words (For sale: baby shoes, never worn). Names have to tell their only little story, but it doesn’t always have to directly relate.

How do you think that the culture of naming a company is changing?

People are having more fun with names now, which can be fun. I don’t know if it always works. Too often you can’t say it or spell it. You end up with things like that company called oooooc, that nobody knows what it does or what it means. They’re always touted for having a bad name, even if it does get them press.

Do companies have many set ideas when they come to you?

More and more lately, companies want their name to be short, like three or four letters short. I think short names are kind of vogue now: like Lyft, Uber. Everyone wants that simplicity of four letters. Definitely with apps, companies need to fit the letters on a tiny space on the mobile home screen which adds to this desire for short names. I’m of the opinion that length is not something that matters, that it’s more about the story. We forget names so quickly. Last time I checked there’s 280 million URL trademarks. So with the longer names, at least they have time to impregnate in the brain a little bit longer.

What’s the hardest part about your job?

What’s really difficult for me is when there’s not a consensus. There’s no four letter word that is going to make everyone happy. So the most important part is setting everything aside, putting opinions aside and asking, does this express the right idea?

At MetaDesign, you go past choosing the name into bringing it to life with logos and graphics.

Our brand strategists and designers work hand in hand on this, it's really important that process happens together.

When you get into the visual parts of this, you’re relying on tremendously subtle cues to bring the names to life.

It really is a fine and minute process. It’s definitely an art. I think the key to success in having a great new name come to life with a beautiful visual experience is having that hand in hand relationship between strategy and design, making sure the design team understand the client and how they can move the story forward.

Can bad design and a bad logo ruin even the best company name?

Absolutely. There’s no examples I’d want to use publicly, but things like packaging and logo, if they’re not right, they really distract away from the story a brand is trying to tell.

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[photo by Daniel Zedda]