New York Times Magazine

April 8, 2001

How to Invent a Brand Name

As of December, Bill Nguyen had nearly everything he needed to start a successful business. He had a grand vision for the post-PC world: the current technobabble of cell phones, PDA's, pagers and other wireless gadgets could be woven into a unified global data-information network by a single company offering the right software. He had a proven record; at age 29, he had already been a key player in five start-ups, three of which had gone public. He had $34 million in venture capital and 60 eager employees. What he still didn't have, with his company's March inaugural date just two months away, was a name.

With the Nasdaq's swoons causing widespread intestinal flutter, Nguyen knew a lot would hang on the first impression his company made. He wanted a name that would radiate strength and credibility, something with a dawn-of-an-era feel. He didn't even know where to start.

1. Seek professional help. The 90's economic boom transformed the business of naming -- formerly a casual sideline for advertising agencies -- into a feverishly competitive industry, with rival firms touting systematic "naming modules." Their techniques include analysis of such linguistic properties as "speechstream visibility" (will a consumer read the name properly?), "phonetic transparency" (is it spelled as it sounds?) and "multilingual functionality" (is it as intelligible in Dubai as in Dubuque?), as well as focus-group testing to rate how potential names convey qualities like "caring toward customers."

Seeking a more personal, offbeat approach, Kate O'Sullivan, Nguyen's vice president for corporate communications, selected A Hundred Monkeys, a two-man operation in Sausalito, Calif., that spurns what it terms "pseudoscience" in favor of gut instinct. "Now that we've done this a million times, it's intuitive," says A Hundred Monkeys' Danny Altman, who along with his partner, Steve Manning [now Managing Director of Igor], is continually on the hunt for evocative names -- in old reference books and volumes of poetry, on television, on street signs.

2. Whatever your competitors are doing, don't do that. "If you went to a company trying to name their airline and gave them a choice between Trans-AtlanticAir and Virgin, they'd take Trans-AtlanticAir, because it sounds like something people would take seriously," Manning says. "The problem is, with that name they become one of the trees in the forest." Nguyen grasped this principle immediately: "There are literally 30 or 40 wireless companies called Mobile-something -- Mobileum, Mobilocity, MobileOne. We had a rule we'd never pick a name with 'mobile' in it."

3. Test your tolerance for going 'out of the box.' In its first presentation, A Hundred Monkeys tossed out 50-odd names, including Ironbit, Snafu, Gargoyle, Alpharay, Carbon8 and Blowfire. "Everyone says they want something unusual," Altman says. "The classic line is, 'We want a name like Yahoo.' But when it comes down to it, the obstacle is always fear. We help them see that their fears aren't based on what happens to brands out in the world. It's like Banana Republic. People don't see the name and think, 'Whoa, an ugly racial slur -- I'm not going to shop there.' It's all contextual."

4. But don't get carried away. "There's a reason a name like Blue Kangaroo wouldn't work," Manning says. "It doesn't mean anything. It has no depth. Our philosophy is, a name should connect with something already in the collective subconscious. You're trying to make an emotional connection."

5.Don't involve too many people. According to Manning, it is the effort to appease too many different viewpoints that leads large corporations to choose bland, made-up names, as Andersen Consulting and Bell Atlantic recently demonstrated in rebranding themselves as Accenture and Verizon. "The best way to get 100 people to sign off on a business name is to come up with something that has no meaning and offends no one," he says. While vast advertising expenditures can eventually wear down a consumer's resistance to an awkward name, smaller ventures can't afford such a luxury.

6. Don't panic -- in the end, it's just a name. With the opening just weeks away, Nguyen's team began to worry. Blowfire and Ironbit were leading contenders within the company, while A Hundred Monkeys was pushing for Gargoyle. ("I just couldn't imagine saying, 'Hi, I'm Kate from Gargoyle,"' O'Sullivan says.) Finally, a dark horse emerged from the field: Seven. On its face, the name didn't exactly say "wireless infrastructure," but then again, does Apple inherently suggest computers? Indeed, Seven's abstract, slightly mystical quality, Nguyen reasoned, was the essence of its appeal. "It has so many different connotations," he says. "Seven Wonders of the World, seven days of the week, on the seventh day God rested. It's the number of perfection, the good-luck number. There's also a data language in the telecom industry called SS7, which the companies we deal with will appreciate." When Nguyen announced the choice to his employees, it was met with enthusiastic applause.

Josh Rottenberg is a freelance writer living in New York.

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