4 naming projects. 12 gifted kids. Chaos.

Naming is much harder than you think.

Hi. I’m Candice. I have a background in linguistics and have been naming products, companies and services for about 17 years. I survived that headline up there and now I’m going to tell you about it.

First, some context for naming. I think that when you attempt to name something, you attempt to capture its essence. Pretty powerful stuff, right? And when you get that right, it is really powerful. Because a good name doesn’t just capture or describe something. It also serves as an invitation to the world to participate in the new “something.” Think about how you’ve come to use the name “Google,” for example.

I recently had the privilege of running a naming workshop for 12 fourth- to sixth-graders enrolled in a summer Start-Up Strategies class at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development. The program is designed specifically for gifted students who are practiced at exceeding expectations. So I was told to set the bar high, and I did.

Before I met them, they’d spent two weeks working up detailed specs for four invented products. Now, working in teams of three, they had to name the products and write a fundraising pitch. Enter me, the “naming expert,” excited to work with kids on something I love. How did it go? Read on.

Distinguishing brand from product is crucial, but hard to do.

I started the workshop talking about brand thinking and how it forms the foundation of voice and verbal identity. To make this idea concrete, I showed the group a range of familiar sandwich-shop logos, and there was an energetic discussion around the many ways Panera differentiates itself from Subway, Potbelly, etc. These kids could discuss, with some sophistication, how names, taglines and logo treatments work together to communicate brand pillars. In the case of Subway, for example, flow, convenience and freshness are pillars that are pretty clearly communicated.

I was impressed. They got it! My workshop was going according to plan. So I asked them to work in their teams and establish a few brand pillars for their own products. How did that go? Total failure. In part, because they’re kids. But their struggle is also testimony to the fact that brand thinking is a particular sort of thinking. The sort of thinking that’s crucial to creating the storytelling pillars necessary to sharing what your brand and products stand for.

We ultimately got to some productive generation of names by talking about the tangible product attributes. What made each product a “cool new thing”? How did they work? What problem would they solve for people? If this approach worked, you might be wondering, why didn’t I just start there? Because in the real world, a name not grounded in a solid brand story is an empty shell. So even if I’m naming a tangible thing, I’m never really naming just the “thing.” My job is to convey, to some extent, the broader brand promise.

When you’re close to a product or service, naming it is hard.

That sounds a little counterintuitive, right? But it’s true. Like most of our clients, these kids were very close to the things they had to name. Each team had spent two weeks immersed in the invention, cost analysis and design of a new product. And now they had to name the thing and write a pitch. Lack of naming experience aside, they struggled to find the heart of the story because they were standing on top of it.

Naming something you aren’t excited about is hard.

These 12 kids had been shuffled around so that no one was working on a name or a pitch for the product they’d invented. A couple of them were clearly chafing against this. They didn’t like the product they had to work on. They “just weren’t excited about naming it.” And they were also working in groups riddled with team (and kid!) dynamics. Wow. As an ex-teacher, my response to this was direct: Get past your feelings, fast. And they did.

Quick side note: Again, this is partly because they’re kids. But experience affirms the fact that after months of R&D, soliciting buy-in and countless internal meetings, professionals can get pretty pouty too.

Naming is really hard.

Naming is a disciplined, creative process and should really be thought of as verbal identity strategy. Those of us who do it for a living have creative processes that we’ve tried and tested over time. We have developed springboards into the work and our own ways of disciplining ourselves. And, if we’re good at it, we bring very strategic thinking to what often looks like a wacky process.

Naming for me relies on the ability to make linguistic connections. Because a good name triggers rich associations. There’s nothing wrong with solid, descriptive names (American Airlines, Budget Rent A Car), but they don’t do much to fire your imagination (and they’re very hard to trademark). Zipcar, Swiffer, PowerBook, Lyft and (spoiler alert) Boiga, on the other hand — those are crafted names. Designed to fire all sorts of meaningful connections in your brain when you hear them.

How do you create names like this? Well, with a top-secret sauce created over decades of building associations. Just being in the world for a while, reading, conversing, watching, listening and then applying all this to naming. These kids, while wonderfully imaginative, had neither the life nor language experience and exposure to step into this territory alone.

There’s tremendous energy in the right name.

It wasn’t easy. But when we got there, having good product names re-energized the teams. They had a new way into writing their pitches. They had new language for highlighting features and benefits. And the way they thought about the products and how they’d be perceived by outsiders shifted. Giving an imaginative, evocative name to an otherwise quite ordinary thing opens the door to storytelling. Which strikes me as a little magical sometimes. And it’s why I will always love the process.

Side note: These kids loved being given permission to make up words and explore other languages! Below are snapshots of their final poster presentations, brief product descriptions, the names and suggested taglines. I helped shape their ideas and provided strategic rationales, but the names are theirs. The taglines came from me, because I couldn’t help myself.

Candice_naming

The Knife Glove

Product description: A high-quality knife sold with its own protective, conditioning sheath.

Alternative names: Blade ‘n’ Glove, The Blade Benivolus

Suggested taglines:

On the cutting edge of safety

Working together to protect you from the edge

>You’ll always have safety in hand

Boiga

Product description: A hip, affordable earbud organizer. Because tangled earbuds are “super frustrating.” (“Boiga” is the name given to a type of snake.)

Alternative names: Overhear, Luxanizer

Suggested taglines:

Untangle your buds with Boiga

Boiga your buds!

Meet Boiga, your earbud buddy

WingIt!

Product description: A collapsible hanger that allows a garment to simply fall off. The key benefit is speed. Apparently we all spend (and waste) a lot of time taking garments off hangers.

Alternative names: The Velocity Hanger, Rapid Hanger, Rapid Up

Suggested tagline:

Why hang it when you can wing it?

Mosaic

Product description: A high-end, finely crafted modular filing system with infinite design options depending on need.

Alternative names: Docu-drawer, Tesselation

Suggested taglines:

The art of organizing

Art. Science. Organization.

Where art meets organization

Interested in having Simple Truth come teach your own group of sixth graders?Happily.