A few months back, at an overpriced San Francisco juice shop, I met up with a woman interested in becoming a professional namer.
After 10+ years in the naming world, I’d had this conversation before. When people hear I’m a namer, their response is often some combination of, “That’s a job?” and “I think I’d be good at that—how can I become a professional namer?” But this time I got a question I hadn’t heard before: “How do you come up with name ideas?”
Surprisingly, I realized I’d never answered this question in detail. Furthermore, I’d never asked anyone else in the professional naming community whether they do it the same way I do. I decided to find out.
Over the following months, I conducted over ten in-depth interviews with some of the world’s top brand naming experts; nine of these conversations were published as season one of a new podcast, How Brands Are Built. Each namer answered similar, naming-specific questions: “What process do you follow?” “Do you have ‘go-to’ resources?” “Any advice for writers block?”
As I took stock of what I’d learned from the conversations, I realized they contained insights that go far beyond the niche world of naming and speak more universally to best practices for all creative pursuits. The result is the following list of five imperatives for creativity, each supported with one or more quotes from the podcast interviews.
Even if you’re not naming companies and products for a living, these ideas will likely help you expand your creative process.
2. Think of technology as an opportunity, not a threat.
Amanda Peterson, formerly Head of Naming at Google, added machine learning to her own name generation process to “kickstart it into insane testosterone drive.”
And Jonathan Bell, Managing Director of Want Branding, explains, “I’m not too worried about those concepts [like online crowdsourcing], because I think the key with naming is really holding the client’s [hand] through the process. I always say that our job isn’t to create a name, it’s to help you pick one.”
And Clive Chafer, a 30-year naming veteran, adds, “exercise is terrific at reframing the brain—at throwing the pieces up and letting them fall down in different places.”
Scott Milano adds, I like how it just kind of lets me forget the words themselves, and just kind of float, conceptually, and find new territories.”
And Jonathan Bell says, “[Developing name ideas] can involve just individual brainstorming in our offices [or] it could be group brainstorming where we actually sit and whiteboard or review ideas.”
5. Attack the problem from an unexpected angle.
Anthony Shore describes what he calls an “excursion,” saying, “By thinking through an attribute as it appears somewhere else, you are able to find ideas that are differentiated but relevant, because when you take a word from a different category and drop it into a relevant category, it immediately becomes relevant to that new category.”
When Shannon DeJong works on a naming project that calls for “more tranquil, open, expansive ideas,” she may drive “an hour away to a more beautiful setting … [to give herself] physical space and physical beauty.”
And Eli Altman, Creative Director of A Hundred Monkeys, recommends thinking of bad name ideas first: “People are actually a lot better at coming up with bad names than they are at coming up with good names. … Once you do it, you have some fodder in front of you to look at and figure out, ‘Well, what makes these bad?’ And then, if I know that, then [I can] flip that equation.”
Naming is a niche within a niche—only a small percentage of the world’s brand consultants fully dedicate themselves to “verbal identity,” which includes naming, messaging, and tone of voice. And unlike other services, such as creative writing or graphic design, naming is severely constrained by challenges like trademark availability and linguistic viability, not to mention the misconception that anyone with a creative streak and a thesaurus can come up with great brand names.
But all creative services share some fundamental, underlying features: the distillation of complex inputs into relatively simple outputs, exploration through divergent thinking, and an iterative process of refinement. These core similarities allow experts from one creative niche to identify broadly applicable best practices that easily “cross-pollinate” into other fields.
By sharing these ideas, I hope to inspire other creative professionals to hone their techniques. Beyond that, I hope to encourage similar sharing of ideas, both within and between niche creative fields like brand naming. At the very least, I hope the woman from the juice shop is pleasantly surprised by what a simple question and a $9 juice can get you these days.