A Product By Any Other Name

Neal Gabler introduces us to the folks who name “everything from companies to products to websites to ingredients to colors”:

Today roughly 500,000 businesses open each month in the United States, and every one needs a name. From Dickens with his bitter Gradgrind to J. K. Rowling with her sour Voldemort, authors have long understood that names help establish character. Politicians know that calling a bill the USA Patriot Act makes it a little harder to vote against.

The effects of strategic naming are all around us, once we begin to look for them.

“You go to a restaurant, and you don’t order ‘dolphin fish,’ ” [namer Anthony] Shore points out. “You order ‘mahi-mahi.’ You don’t order ‘Patagonian toothfish.’ You order ‘Chilean sea bass.’ You don’t buy ‘prunes’ anymore; they’re now called ‘dried plums.’ ” Maria Cypher, the founder and director of the naming agency Catchword, which named the McDonald’s McBistro sandwich line, will tell you that names “give us a shared understanding of what something is.” Paola Norambuena, the executive director of verbal identity at Interbrand, says they give us a “shortcut to a good decision.”

Naming is more art than science:

The oddity is that for all the weight a company places on choosing names, the decisions arise from a process that couldn’t be less corporate. There are no naming metrics, no real way to know if a new name helps or hinders. The field attracts people who are comfortable with such ambiguity. Jay Jurisich, the founder of Zinzin, is a painter with an M.F.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jim Singer, who founded Namebase, was a jingle writer, and Margaret Wolfson, who now runs naming at Namebase, still splits her time between naming and performing one-woman shows around the world in which she recites classical myths. The renowned pharma namer Arlene Teck (coiner of Viagra, from “vigorous” and “Niagara”) writes haiku. Maria Cypher of Catchword fronts a rock band. Other namers are stand-up comics, photographers, rappers, linguists and poets. “A good name has the potency of any piece of art,” says Martin McMurray, a partner at Zinzin. Wolfson’s friend Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has told her that she is engaged in creating “practical poetry,” an assessment that Wolfson embraces, though she says she doesn’t use the term with all her clients.