Why Can’t We Just Sit Down Over A Beer, And On The Back Of A Napkin Write Some Names Down?

What’s In A Name? We Explore Company & Product Naming Insights With Mike Carr Of NameStormers

“Why can’t we just sit down over a beer, and on the back of a napkin write some names down?” Mike Carr knows this is the attitude most people have about naming a company or product. But as we’ll see, his 33 years of experience running a naming firm in Austin, Texas has shown him the hidden complexity within the seemingly simple task of naming companies and products.

Mike’s company is called NameStormers. They’ve worked with corporations including Revlon, Discovery Channel, IBM, BBC News, Canon, Nestle, Honda, Citibank, Raytheon , 7-Eleven, TGI Fridays, and many more. Mike has a large team contributing to their naming process, yet he remains hands on for every project.

I sat down with Mike at his home in Austin for my podcast, T-Shirts & Ties, where I chat with Creatives and Strategists. Below are some highlights from the podcast, including:

> The golden rule of naming.

> The unbelievable price tag of a coined name.

> When purposely misspelled names can work.

So That’s How We Got Into The Naming Business

“We wrote the first commercially available PC program for creating names,” said Mike. One of the companies who used it was Microsoft. Instead of consulting an agency like they usually would, they used his program to help them name the database management system they created for the Microsoft Office Suite. And thus the name Microsoft Access was born. Yet that success wasn’t enough for Mike.

“We sold thousands of copies and quickly learned that software really wasn’t the answer. You could only do a very small piece of what clients needed. So that’s how we got into the naming business.”

The Origin Story Of Mike’s Company’s Name: NameStormers

“The best names are often laughed at and made fun of. There’s no such thing as a perfect name. When we first named this company back in 1985, before we knew what we were going to do, we called it Salanon. Well, Salanon is a mathematical term for four semi-circles. There were four of us that started the company and it was a ready-made logo, and it sort of looked like the Texas Longhorn head (and we were all in Texas).

But it was a terrible name for a firm in the naming business. People couldn’t remember it. They couldn’t spell it. It didn’t mean anything to anybody. Some people thought it was a Salamander. It was just terrible. So we said okay, this is not going to serve us well. Plus, it shows that you make mistakes. You make mistakes all the time and we try to learn from those mistakes.

So we said, “What do we need the name to do?” And back then in the 80s, most people, not only had they never even heard of a firm that would just create names, they couldn’t believe you could even make money.

We wanted the word ‘name’ in our company monicker. We felt it was important for our name to identify the business we were in. So instead of ‘brainstorming’ which is part of the naming process, we usurped that word which everyone was familiar with and we called it NameStormers.”

How Much Can It Cost To Name A Company? Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars.

“Some clients come to us and they say, “We want a coined made-up name, like Lexus, that doesn’t mean anything in any language.” So we’ll ask them some questions. The very first question we’ll ask is, “How much money do you have to spend to build that brand?” Because if you don’t have nine figures, and that’s what it takes, it’s not eight figures. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars. And if you don’t have years, that kind of name probably won’t work for you. [Lexus] is a great brand because Toyota has invested so many hundreds of millions of dollars and so many years to build the Lexus brand.” [Emphasis mine]

What Would You Name A Hard Cider From Boston Beer Company?

“Boston Beer Company came to us. They were coming out with a hard cider because a lot of women did not want to drink beer because of the alcohol and all the calories. One of the names we gave them that they ended up using was Angry Orchard. Well, Angry Orchard is suggestive of a hard cider. Once you understand that it’s an apple cider based product and it’s got some alcohol in it, it relates to that. But it doesn’t say hard cider. So it’s a name you can own and protect as a trademark. It had an attitude and persona that engaged the millennials, especially the females, and it allowed them to build a brand and tell them a story that really set them apart from the competitive set.” [Emphasis mine]

Want more naming stories?

Listen to the full podcast, T-Shirts & Ties, to hear the story behind these names:

> PowerShot for Canon

> Itzakadoozie for Nestle

> Heavenly Blend for 7-Eleven

Lyft? Wii? Scribd? When Can You Create A Purposefully Misspelled Name?

“Misspelled names can be cool and hip, especially for millennials and Gen Z. But if the name is mostly spoken or it’s going to be heard first and seen second, then you don’t necessarily want to go with an intentional misspelling. If typically you’re going to see it in print first, or see it in an email or on a website first, and you want something that comes across as a little bit cooler, hipper, or contemporary, then an intentional misspelling can buy you some engagement and some equity, and some differentiation.”

It’s Brilliant Now. Yet Apple Began As An Embarrassing Brand Name.

“I can remember when Apple first came out, walking into a CEO’s office and he said, “I want to show you something.” He had a coat closet and he had a tray, and he had an Apple II. And he pulled the Apple II out of the coat closet and he sat in front of me and he showed me VisiCalc, which was a spreadsheet that proceeded Lotus and Excel. Then when he was all done showing me VisiCalc, he carefully put it back in the coat closet.

I said, “Why are you hiding it in there?” And he said because it’s an Apple computer. He said, “As the CEO of this company I can’t have an Apple computer sitting on my desk. People would laugh at me. Clients would say, “This is weird.” I wouldn’t have the respect of new customers. …That name had to overcome tremendous resistance in the business world.

People talk about how Apple is this brilliant brand name. It’s brilliant now. You have to be forgiving. You have to be willing to consider things that at first seem very different, odd or unusual. Because quite frankly the more unusual and the more different, is an indicator of the true potential of a name. And the names that are familiar and safe (“That sounds just perfect,”) those are the names that often, are yawners. They score terribly on memorability, yet you’ll be able to sleep at night. But they aren’t going to deliver anything in terms of excitement, energy and buzz and all the other things that you’re after when you roll the thing out.”

The Golden Rule Of Naming

“How do you know if a name is any good? It’s like the 10 commandments. Not everyone knows what the 10 commandments are. But there’s one commandment that’s the most important. It’s the same with naming.

There are a bunch of things that people want in names. They want them easy to say, easy to spell, relates to your value proposition, is legally available, differentiates from the competitive set, etc. But there’s one thing, if you’re talking about a new brand name or new company name or new sub-brand name, that’s an order of magnitude more important than everything else. And that is memorability. You’ve got to be able to remember it.” [Emphasis mine]

When we test names, and we test names all the time, you cannot ask somebody which name is most memorable. Because you can’t answer that question. So what we’ll do is we’ll go through research and we’ll ask questions like;

> Which of these names do you think really fits what it is?

> E.g. Does PowerShot really fit what this camera is more so than these other names over here?

> Which name would make you the most interested to buy it or try it?

> Which name is the most unique or differentiating?

> Which name do you like the most and why?

> Which name do you like the least and why?

We want to look at polarization. We like names that have two-three percent that really hate it. We don’t want a name that zero percent hate because then it’s boring. If nobody hates it then typically it means it’s a watered down yawner name that doesn’t generate any interest or excitement. If the name is a little bit controversial then it tends to spread organically on the social media venues. Google was a controversial name. Amazon was a controversial name. Everybody thinks they are great names today, but when they first came out, they were controversial. [Emphasis mine]

[On Google’s name] Nobody knew what it was! It was weird. They were competing with names like InfoSeek. InfoSeek was an existing search engine at the time. And everybody would say InfoSeek is a lot better name than Google because you hear info seek and you know exactly what it is. You hear Google and you don’t have a clue. But… InfoSeek was a boring name. Nobody cared. Okay, InfoSeek. Google? I have no idea. Tell me what that is. It peaked the imagination and curiosity of the general public. Then once you heard the story it was sort of cool.

Let’s say we were coming up with the Google name back whenever they did it. And we had Google on the list, InfoSeek on the list, MagicSearcher on the list, and a few other names that sounded like search engines. We’d present it to 600 people, so we have a fairly large sample. We ask them, “Which of these names do you like the best?” I can guarantee you that Google would not have scored number one because it was too unusual of a name. Most people would have said InfoSeek or SearchMaster.

Then what we do, is we thank them very much, and we let at least one day go by, not more than two, and re-contact them and we say, “Hey, remember those names of that search engine thing? Which one’s can you remember?” I can guarantee you, I can almost bet, it would be hard to prove this now obviously, but Google would probably outscore the names that people said they actually prefer because people prefer names that are familiar and comfortable for most categories.

In most cases when you test names, [people] are going to go with names that sound like other names that are already out there because that sort of fits the category and that’s what they’re familiar with, that’s what they’ve seen advertising about. Unfortunately those are the names that are either easily confused with existing names or they’re quickly forgotten because they sound like everybody else’s name, whereas a ‘Google’ is sort of a stand-out. It’s like – what in the world is that? So they’re probably not going to forget it and they’re not going to confuse it because it’s so different to everything else that’s out there.

It would score very high on memorability awareness and if you can do that. If you can come up with a name right out of the shoot that gives you high unaided awareness scores, even if you have a limited budget you can spend it on building the brand and building preference. But if you don’t have a name that’s inherently memorable and differentiating and catchy, it makes no difference how much money you have. You’re going to spend all that money trying to get your unaided awareness scores up where they need to be before you can start building preference and doing all the other things you want to do from a branding standpoint. So that [memorability] is the golden rule of naming.” [Emphasis mine]

If Creating A Name Is Easy, What’s The Hard Part?

“Coming up with really interesting names is just not that hard. If you do it all the time, you’ve done it for thirty years and you’ve got a great team of people, we’re going to come up with some great names. What is really hard is getting them through legal. That is a nightmare. It’s really tough. Much harder than it was even 10 years ago. The second thing that’s hard is, depending upon the client and their background, and how creative they are, and where they’re coming from, getting them to take the giant step and go with a riskier name because most clients are risk averse. Most clients want a name that feels comfortable.”

How Do You Shape Up Against A Professional Namer?

You’ve been introduced to the naming profession and have learned a few tips. It’s time to put yourself to the test. For a few different industries I gave Mike a choice of three company names and he picked his favourite. You can play along. Here are your choices:

Running shoes:

1. Nike

2. Asics

3. Puma


1. Tesla

2. Mercedes

3. Lotus

As a bonus, I put some celebrity baby names to the test:

1. Blue Ivy (Beyonce & Jay Z)

2. North West (Kim Kardashian & Kanye West)

3. Prince George (The Duke & Duchess of Cambridge)

Picked your favourites? You can scroll to the bottom and see how your answers compared with Mike’s.

The Full Podcast With Mike Carr

On the full podcast we go into more depth about naming. Some insights Mike shares include:

> What is the trademark process for creating new names?

> How can we create unique names?

> More naming origin stories (Nestle, Canon, 7-Eleven)

> Why is the ROI of new names is so difficult to measure?

> How can you persuade clients to accept a great but controversial name?

You can listen to the podcast here.

Need Help With A Name? Want To Learn More? Who Am I?

> You can find more about Mike and his company at www.NameStormers.com.

> The podcast is named T-Shirts & Ties where Creatives and Strategists share their insights with us. It’s available here.

> Who am I? I’m Tom Chanter. You can connect with me at @TomChanterSays, or email me at trchanter @ gmail.com.

A: Puma, Lotus, Blue Ivy. Mike explains his reasoning on the podcast.