Dunkin’, Disney+, Impossible Burgers: Who comes up with this stuff?
For a while in the early 2010s, every brand name seemed to contain an ampersand. The product didn’t matter — it could be jewelry (Stella & Dot), athleisure (Kit & Ace), makeup (Smith & Cult), lingerie (Me & You), perfume (D.S. & Durga), watches (Larsson & Jennings), shoes (Mara & Mine), hair care (Original & Mineral), eyeglasses (Sheriff & Cherry), swimwear (Kopper & Zinc), or teen clothing (Pull & Bear), okay, you get it. The ampersand, it was thought, added a cutesy, homespun touch.
It also didn’t matter where you were shopping; You could be in a crowded department store or behind your computer screen and these brands at least sounded like they belonged in a charming boutique just off Main Street.
These days, you won’t see a ton of ampersands anymore. We’ve moved on to other things — simple, conversational phrases like “Hello Fresh” and “feelings” words like, say, “impossible.” Naming trends, just like design trends, come in waves, and they typically respond to those that came before them.
To keep up with this constant zigzagging of which forms of English can sell, brands hire people like Rachel Bernard. She’s had some extremely cool job titles, like the Director of Naming and Vice President of Verbal Strategy at major agencies, and is now a freelance creative strategist, where she helps companies determine product strategy.
I spoke to Rachel, who comes from a background in linguistics, on how companies land on names for everything from pants to pizza, how AI is changing the way we name stuff, and why becoming the “Kleenex” of a category is actually a kiss of death.
How’d you get to become a professional brand namer?
It’s kind of a funny story — I have a degree in linguistics and classical languages, and I wanted to move to New York and started working retail until I could figure it out. I was working at the JCrew in Rockefeller Center and any time a woman that looked remotely successful came in, I would ask them “What do you do? Do you like it? Do you think I might like it?”
There was one woman who actually took pity on me, and I said, “I have this linguistics degree and maybe I can be a copy editor for legal documents.” She said, “You seem like an interesting person and that sounds phenomenally boring. Have you ever heard of branding?”
I originally came from Kansas, I didn’t have much of a network in New York, so I was working my network as hard as I could and got my first job at Interbrand in the verbal identity team.
You’ve had some really cool job titles, like the Director of Naming, Vice President of Verbal Identity — what does someone like that make?
If you’re working at a branding agency and you’re consulting and solving bigger challenges, that’s $100,000-plus territory.
There are lots of people that you’ll find on LinkedIn that are namers and they’re just churning out big lists of names in their basement. The way I would look at it is the difference between a creative director and a freelance designer.
What’s a name that you’re really proud of coming up with?
Most businesses or most brands don’t want to admit that they couldn’t do it themselves. There’s that origin story of, “We were a brand built in a garage and were walking by campus and saw an apple and thought, ‘Why not just call the business Apple?’” Everybody is craving that origin story and nobody wants to admit that they didn’t name their own baby. My NDAs are pretty tight.
What comes first, the design or the name?
If you work in consumer packaged goods, most of those people came to creative director positions through design. A lot of them want to start with a design and then treat naming as an afterthought, and I think that’s one of the most significant pitfalls when it comes to naming. A name’s trademark makes it super precious and really valuable, versus design, which doesn’t have that trademark process unless you’re talking about a logo. The design can work around a name, but the name can’t work around the design. I’ll look at brands on the shelves and be able to recognize that they started with a design and had to slap this name on it at the last minute. They have no relationship to each other.
How do you know when something’s a good name?
What separates people who do this for a living from people who don’t is you have to be really flexible in your voice. When I hire, I’m looking for people that can write in super technical European automotive speak and switch into something that’s very conversational and consumer-y.
The name that is most successful is the one that fits the strategy, and that strategy is going to be really different. Sometimes the project calls for a descriptive name and it needs to be really boring. But sometimes they need to be crazy and disruptive because there are tons of people in this category and in order to stand out, you need a really unique name. Both of those can be really successful.
I’m just looking for believability. Things that are ultra-contrived, where the spelling is tortured or it has that nineties dot-com [sound], where I just put this random word together with this random word, like “BlueRocket” or something, those don’t get very far.
Tell me what you mean by descriptive versus disruptive names.
Vitamin Water is the most descriptive name that exists. It really is tied to an expected functional benefit of the product. If you’re in water or hydration, anything that talks about purity or crispness or a source, those would be more descriptive. Something more abstract would be either completely made-up and coined, or it has little relationship to the category itself, is disruptive.
When you’re looking at whether to go with a descriptive or disruptive name, is that one of the first conversations you have?
A lot of times you would use a disruptive brand name to mitigate risk, so if the corporate company thinks it makes sense to go into this business but it’s maybe not aligned to what their corporation stands for, it’s almost the naming version of creating a shell company.
If you really want to separate in order to protect an asset, you would do that. So Google, when they created Alphabet, it set the stage at a corporate level of saying “Google is a really highly valuable asset and what that has done for us is take this spirit of being courageous and making bold business choices away from us,” because the risk to Google was so tremendous. What it does as a brand is incubate those discussions. So there’s Google, which is a little less risk-averse, that’s doing all of the things that you expect Google to do, but the parent company has freed itself up to make bolder, riskier choices.
Could it work the opposite way? Say someone wants to start a brand but they’re not quite sure about the viability of the industry, so they gave it a really vague name so that they could then pivot to something else?
For sure. I think if Apple had to do it over again, they would not have named their streaming platform iTunes. They would’ve named it “Stream,” or named it after a river, where it was more tied to the benefit of a streaming portal, versus music.
You gave the example of BlueRocket, which is really funny. How else do you know when something is a bad name?
First and foremost, the names I see on every list: Mosaic, Apex, Forte. Those are the type of names where I can really tell somebody went straight to the thesaurus. The other — and I think we talked about this is contrivance — anything that’s too tortured in its origin but also really hard to say or pronounce.
How do you decide on a masculine-sounding or feminine-sounding name?
That’s changed a lot, which is really exciting. Masculine and feminine used to be something that would appear on a clients’ creative brief in early days of my career and it was easy to understand what that meant. Feminine was soft and liquidy sounds, like “ooh” and “aah” or lots of vowels. Masculine sounds were always going to be hard stops, rougher edges, or shorter. And now, they’re just not useful. Culturally, we’re expanding a lot more in what our definition of femininity is and what masculinity is, so they’re just not as useful as they used to be.
I did work on what was supposed to be an energy drink for women and I fought and was not really successful in preventing them from saying “energy drink for women” on the can. It’s one of those messages that’s better left unspoken. That’s always my guidance to clients.
I imagine you have some strong feelings on the new line of makeup for men called War Paint?
I do. I have a group text with all of my namer friends [about it]. I feel like they didn’t do a lot of consumer research. If you’re already participating in that category, you’re already interested in it, you don’t need to over index on “war” or overcompensation.
Where do trends in naming come from?
They happen in the same way design trends happen; it’s just catching up with the culture. Wherever there’s economic opportunity, marketers are going to follow that. The other thing that happens a lot is there can be technology or trademark factors that constrain naming more than other marketing fields. For example, we used to have all of these really abstract names like Dasani or what Kraft did in becoming Mondelez and that’s 100 percent a tactic about overcoming trademark hurdles.
The other factor coming up a lot more is voice recognition and AI. Names that are spelled weird or might have a tough time pronouncing is not a trick you can use anymore. As a compensation, we’re seeing interesting symbolic language or metaphors, like calling your makeup Herbivore, because it’s plant-based makeup. It’s a real word, easy to spell, a lot of people know it, but it’s just kind of slightly outside the category that it makes it ownable, but it also helps with the constraints that technology is presenting.
Also podcasts — it’s a cool throwback thinking about how your brand would sound on an audio medium versus television. I think those are two really interesting factors that are emerging and I don’t think we’ve had a really good solve for it yet.
Is there a naming trend that you have very strong feelings about?
Faux origins, like Haagen-Dazs, which appears to be German. The ampersand, Williamsburg, Brooklyn brand, like, Stanley & Kerr, that faux-heritage “random-word-ampersand-random-word.” I hardly see any of that anymore, thank goodness.
What are some naming trends you’re noticing right now?
Everybody read this marketing and branding book called Start With Why, which is about why you exist as a company, and [companies] took it literally, like naming your brand Method or Ethos or Impossible. There are only so many of those thinking or feeling words, so what I do see is people playing in more symbolic territory. Don’t just give me the dictionary definition of what your purpose stands for, come up with a symbol that encapsulates that or represents it.
We’re also starting to see a lot more banal, conversational names, like Hello Fresh or a convenience store called Yes Way.
What’s causing a lot of head-scratching is voice activation and the role names that are said and not seen. Are you going to say, “Alexa, order some detergent,” or is there a word you could use to force the brand back into that conversation, whether it’s Tide or Gain, so being top of mind and almost being associated with the category itself. Typically, that’s not a good practice in naming. That’s how you lose your trademark, like Xerox almost losing its trademark because it became category generic.
Are you saying it’s bad marketing for brands like Xerox and Kleenex to become shorthand for the entire category?
There’s a technical term for it — “generified” — and I have a lot of clients that say, “I want to be Kleenex! I want to be Google!” But for every one of those, there are hundreds and hundreds that have actually lost their trademark. “Trampoline” used to be somebody’s trademark, but through that process, they eventually lost it. It’s a cautionary tale that I have to tell lots of clients, but everybody is optimistic and thinks they’re going to be Google and not “trampoline.” It’s very hard to police consumer language.
Have there been any naming controversies recently that you can recall? I’m thinking of the one episode in 30 Rock where they name GE’s new pocket microwave the “Bite-Nuker” and it turned out to be a swear word in French and Dutch.
Oh, sure. In addition to trademark screening, we always do linguistic screening before we present names to clients. I’ve never worked on a naming project where there isn’t something on the list that is really offensive in other languages. It’s just the nature of language that there are only so many syllables and sounds that you will more likely than not find something that sounds offensive.
The one thing that makes me cringe right now is I worked on a project for the [Japanese] retail brand Rakuten. Many years ago, before they made the move to the US, they were planning on expanding globally and they wanted a linguistic disaster check. I helped them with it, and it means the c-word in, I want to say, Norwegian. I checked with multiple native speakers living in the country and they all said yes, it is an obvious association. I’m very curious if they’re marketing it in that part of Europe.
Another thing we’ve seen a lot of lately is brands tweaking their name to something more general, like Dunkin’ Donuts dropping the donuts, Domino’s Pizza dropping the pizza, and Weight Watchers going to WW. What’s that about?
That’s future-proofing your brand name. Name ambitiously and name for what you think your category might likely evolve into. Pizza Hut really tried to make the “Hut” happen because they find themselves in the same scenario that other pizza brands do: It’s a declining category, and what made sense was to have a descriptive name in the beginning. But that’s not going to serve you in the long haul. Domino’s is a much easier name because it has a really ownable element, compared to Pizza Hut. But you will never overcome the hard work of what comes next, which is credible standing for something more than pizza. People aren’t knocking down their door to get a sub.
Dunkin’ is going to kill it. They’re doing a great job, because people already call them Dunkin’. There was nobody calling Weight Watchers WW, and that’s where they are struggling. Consumers give you your nickname, not the other way around.
Lastly, what’s your favorite brand or product name of all time?
I’m going to give a shoutout to Impossible Burger. I just love that name, I think it’s such a bold choice. It’s accessible and passes my believability test. I also just love the guts — if you’re going to name it something like that, you better have a product to back it up.
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