TechCrunch co-editor Erick Schonfeld throws down the gauntlet:
Let me just say before I begin that I think everyone should come up with their own names. I could never understand why companies pay naming consultants to come up with empty product or company monikers that nobody can remember anyway. (Unless you are Altria, and you just want people to forget that you are really Phillip Morris). Well, now companies can ask strangers on the Internet to name their product. I’m not sure this is a much better idea, but it is more fun.
The "ask-a-stranger" concept is NameThis, which was launched last Friday by Kluster, "a turbo-charged collective wisdom machine." Schonfeld describes NameThis like this:
A company pays $99 to put up a challenge describing the product or entity to be named, the community suggests names and votes for the best ones by investing their allotted ‘Watts.” The people who come up with, influence, or invest the most in the top three names split $80 among themselves, and Kluster keeps the rest as its fee.
Now, even Schonfeld admits in his next sentence that "there are obvious problems with this and with crowdsourcing in general." One of the problems is idea theft. But there are even bigger problems with Schonfeld's argument that "everyone should come up with their own names." For one thing, a glance at the TechCrunch company index should make it painfully evident that most do-it-yourself naming efforts are failures on the most basic level. (See, for example, DimDim, GumGum, and SeyHeyHey. Talk about "empty"!)
But maybe, you protest, those bad DIY names are exceptions. Why should a company hire a namer? Why can't everyone "come up with their own names"? Why should anyone pay more than $99 for a name, anyway? Or as NameThis asks, "Why spend time and money gambling on the ideas of a few, when you can have the market bounce ideas off you?"
A name is not an elevator pitch. Remember how hard it was to distill your product's features and benefits into a 25-word spiel? Finding one word that brands your product compellingly, appropriately, and memorably is logarithmically harder.
"The market" doesn't know your business, or your brand personality, well enough to name it. Sure, there may be an unemployed naming genius out there who gets lucky and tosses you a gem. But you'll have to sift through a lot of dross to discover it.
Generating a lot of name ideas is the easy part. You've probably already generated a lot of names yourselves. There's a reason they didn't succeed: You lacked a strong creative platform and the tools for evaluating those names.
Language is probably not your strong suit. I'm going to be blunt: People who are really good at developing products and starting companies are usually not people who love studying words, sounds, and meanings. Company-builders may be fluent only in their native language. They may have PhD's in quantum physics but never read anything except professional journals and product manuals. Professional namers, by contrast, are word specialists. We understand sound symbolism, etymology, and name extensibility. We can explain what makes one name sound corporate and another sound trivial. Perhaps most pertinent, we can turn literal descriptions--which make weak brands and weaker trademarks--into powerful metaphors.
There's a method to our madness. Sitting in a conference room with a case of Red Bull and shouting out names till 1 in the morning is not a "naming process." Professional namers don't develop any names until we've interviewed you, researched your competition, and written a detailed brief that describes your naming objectives and criteria. Only when we know what we're naming, what we're not naming, and what effect you want your name to have do we begin developing lists. And we aren't doing our job unless we compare every name to the objectives and criteria in the naming brief. "I just like it" is not an acceptable reason to select a business or product name.
How much time do you have? A typical naming project takes dedicated effort. (I often spend as many as 100 hours and develop more than 1,000 names to narrow the field to three or four promising candidates.) Are you willing to drop all your other business-building activities to do nothing but create and research names?
Do you know the pitfalls? Suppose NameThis brings you the name of your dreams--and it isn't available as a domain or a trademark. What will you do then? Professional namers have a checklist--written or internalized--of all the ways in which a name can go wrong: language conflicts, trademark challenges, unintended double entendres. We also know all the ways in which ego can interfere with the naming process, and we have strategies for reaching resolution without anyone's losing face. We're not just name-generation machines; we're consultants and process-managers and advisers. We're on your team; it's in our interest to help you avoid embarrassment.
There's more to a name than an available .com domain. A name needs to be memorable, pronounceable, and evocative as well as available. Many "taken" domains are in fact available. And trademark challenges are a far more serious and potentially costly concern than domain availability.
There's more to a name than the name. Can you build a product nomenclature out of your corporate name? Can you recognize tagline clichés? Do you know how to avoid them? Can you tell a rich, meaningful, engaging story about your name on your website, in speeches, to members of the press? Professional namers are equipped to give you good advice in all of these areas.
Not all companies necessarily benefit from professional naming services. If your own name is your brand--if you're starting a restaurant, hair salon, coaching service, law firm, or retail boutique and want it to reflect your own credentials and personality--don't listen to anyone who tells you that "Ffrrooxx" would be a better option. (But do make sure, before you open Susie's Shirts, that there isn't already a Susie's Skirts across town.) Many nonprofit organizations are best served by straightforward, descriptive names (although it doesn't hurt to engage a naming consultant for some objective feedback).
But for most other businesses, professional naming help is as important an investment as professional accounting help. And it doesn't have to cost a fortune (although it will cost more than $99).
On the other hand, if you devoutly believe in the wisdom of crowds and don't want to spend a dime, there's a free, time-tested alternative to NameThis: WordLab, created 10 years ago by San Francisco naming agency Igor.
For more insights into professional name development, read my series of posts on the mysteries of naming.
I suspect that your profession suffers from the twin "How hard could it be?" and "You paid someone for _that_?" syndromes. The first, as we know, is the default attitude by people who have never come anywhere near your job and haven't the faintest idea of what goes into it. This is, I believe, a general attitude toward any job that involves creativity, because _after the fact_ it always looks easy.
The second comes from people who see occasional (in their opinion) less-than-stellar exemplars of the craft and conclude that everyone who does the job is a moron. As John McIntyre has put it (with some editing, sorry), "Readers don't see how hard we work, what obstacles we face, how good our intentions are. They see the product. When the product is defective in some way, they conclude that we are dim-witted, lazy, incompetent or all three." If a person is cynical about Phillip Morris to begin with, they're ill-disposed to the idea of a new brand for the company, and might well conclude that this naming business is just a bunch of corporate self-serving hooey.
It's not really that different from the law, I think -- everyone is scornful of lawyers. At least, up till the moment they need one. :-)
Posted by: mike | June 09, 2008 at 08:38 PM