Amanda Peterson considers CamelCase a crime
On this episode, I spoke with Amanda Peterson, formerly the Head of Naming and Leader of Brand Management at Google. While there, she helped establish Alphabet, Google’s parent company, as well as sister companies like Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car company. Before Google, Amanda headed up naming at HP—before I held that role—and also worked at Logitech and Landor. She recently left Silicon Valley and is now Head of Marketing and Communications at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Amanda and I go way back. I first met her when I was Director of Verbal Identity at Interbrand San Francisco and she was my client at HP. And then, funny enough, when she went to Google, I went over and took her place as Global Head of Naming at HP.
Amanda and I talked about naming briefs—what makes for a good or bad one—and her approach to name generation, which often starts with mind mapping. And she shared the backstory behind one of her favorite names: Bluetooth. When I asked her to share books and online resources she references while naming, she turned to the shelves behind her and read out a list of titles, including the following*:
Amanda has a few pet peeves in naming, like when “ex” is replaced by “x” to create misspelled words like “xtra” and “xtreme.” And she considers camel case (when brands have a capitalized letter in the middle of their name, like “FedEx” or “PayPal”) a “crime against linguistics.” We ended the conversation talking about her experience working on the name “Alphabet” and, as always, finding out what she likes most about being a namer.
To learn more about Amanda, you can find her on Twitter: @amandacpeterson. And, if you get the chance, check out the Milwaukee Art Museum, where Amanda describes her role as “making the world aware of a world class art museum in the center of the country.”
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.
* To see a complete list of online resources listed by namers in episodes of How Brands Are Built, see our Useful List: Online/software resources used by professional namers.
ROB: Hi Amanda, thanks for making time to chat.
AMANDA: No, no, of course, of course. Thanks for having me.
R: Well, when we talk about naming it feels like a good place to start is with the naming brief, of course. And I know that you’ve been, prior to your current role, had been doing naming for a very long time at a lot of different organizations and with a lot of different types of projects. So, I’m curious what kinds of briefs you’ve seen and what makes an especially good brief or if there are different types of briefs.
A: So, I’ve seen some really wonderful briefs and I’ve seen some really terrible briefs, and I would say it’s less about the format and more about the insight. So, I would say that the worst briefs are the ones that presume to know naming better than the namer. Things like, “must be a verb.” You know, like, criteria that isn’t measurable, isn’t useful, and doesn’t actually have any linguistic bearing, right? Those things that are like, “must be something a child could say,” and you’re like, “well, child from what country, from what culture, with what background?” You know, those kinds of ridiculous things that are prescriptive and arbitrary and really armchair naming. Or, things like, “must be cool.”
R: That’s on every brief.
A: I would say what are good aspects of briefs are if they’re insightful enough to go, “Actually, we want something that sounds like our competitor because we don’t have enough market to build marketing to build a brand from scratch.” Like, being honest with the namer about the problems with the product where it’s like, “Hey, it’s really good at XYZ but it’s really terrible at this, so stay away from those stories.” A little bit of brand therapy is actually really useful for naming. And, I would say other names that the stakeholders have thrown around. But I would say some of the best briefs are actually when you write the brief together with the client and say, “Okay, what names do you like out there in the market? Is that because of the campaign out there? Do you like the sound of it?” Where the namer themselves actually breaks down and probes the aspects of the name. “Oh, do you like it because it’s fanciful? Do you like it because it’s evocative? Do you like it because it’s eponymous? Do you like the story behind it?” You’re able to extract things that, unless you have an insanely good strategist that you’re partnering with, normally wouldn’t show up on a brief when it’s like a panicked client who’s pulling it together. They’re like, “We need something cool that speaks to millennials.”
R: “Our version of Apple” or “our version of Uber” or something like that.
A: One of the best things about going to work for Google was after years of working on the consulting side and everybody would say, “We want something fun like the name ‘Google,'” and I would say, “Aw, but the name ‘Google’ is only the name ‘Google’ because the product was amazing. The names kind of silly.” And so, going over to the Google side, it was a lot of fun to be like, “Yeah, the name still is silly.”.
R: Let’s talk about name generation. So, we talked about a brief a little bit, so let let’s assume you’ve received a brief and it’s one of the better ones and you sit down to start coming up with names. I’ve never really talked to you about how you do that versus, I guess, how other namers do it. So just at a really high level, walk me through what you do first.
A: So, some of it is I do a mind map where I really let myself be non-linear, so I’ll put the core concepts on a whiteboard or on Post-it Notes. I look a little bit like a conspiracy theorist because I’m like posting things, or writing things, and showing connections.
R: A Beautiful Mind.
A: Exactly. And so, what I’ll do is kind of lay out all the possible territories that the strategy that everything else is going towards and try to establish some stories. And those can be emotional stories like “fun” and “lively” and this. They can be stories about, “Well, actually, this has a sense of art and metaphor or this has speed, so what else is fast? Let’s look at this and that and the other thing.” So, I’m always trying to make as far-fetched a connection as possible. And then the process really depends on the brief for me. So, my favorite names to do are the ones that sound cool but are intellectually deep. So, the name that I wish I came up with was “Bluetooth.” I really love it. I love it in so many ways because, in a world of BlackBerry, where everybody was coming up with these arbitrary names, they came up with a name that sounded arbitrary but actually had this deep, like, super Wikipedia-credibility meaning.
R: And, what is the meaning behind “Bluetooth,” just really briefly?
A: “Bluetooth” is the nickname of the king that united all the Viking people into a single fighting force. There were all these competing standards and they were bringing it into one, wireless standard. And so, they decided to bring that together. And so, if you just think it’s a fun…if You’re an end consumer and you just think it’s a fun name and it’s very memorable, but if you are an engineer or just somebody who’s going to spend…or a developer who’s going to spend a lot of time with it, that idea of this deep…
R: Backstory, right?
A: Deep meaning and backstory. And if you look at the logo, that’s actually the runestone for, I guess, Admiral? King? Bluetooth’s…that’s his rune. So, they carried it out really nicely. It’s kind of a beautiful brand.
R: You just mentioned a couple of tools that you use. You said whiteboards and Post-it Notes. So, just a really tactical, in the weeds question: What other tools do you use, whether they’re digital or analog, are there other programs or materials that you frequent while naming?
A: Yeah, I have an insane collection of reference books. I love paper reference books, so I have…right behind I and have The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Dictionary of the Occult, Dictionary of Symbols, Elements of Style. I have a biology textbook. I have some brand books. I have Crabb’s English Synonyms. I have lists of words and references. The Secret Language of Symbols.
R: Are there some that you feel like you pick up more often than others or a few that you feel like you pick up on even the majority of projects?
A: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of my favorites. It brings together a lot of nonlinear thinking. The Flip Dictionary, which I think is every namer’s favorite book, is a good place to start. I would say the reference books that are actually about language, like The Describer’s Dictionary or The Flip Dictionary are better for extending my mind mapping than they are for finding the end name. I love Wikipedia. I love OneLook.com. It’s just amazing.
R: Anything else online that you go to a lot?
A: I think Wordnik is fantastic. I love what they’re doing, because they’re pulling together a lot of different resources and how language is actually used rather than the prescribed way. I use a lot of Google searching.
R: We talked about digital versus analog resources. What about just tools that you use? Do you work in Word? Or I know a lot of namers will list out name ideas in Excel so that they can be sorted.
A: Well, I think having been at Google, I always use Google Docs. So, I start in Docs and then I dump it into a Google Sheet for the sorting. And, you know, I have a little script for de-duping and stuff like that that I write. But I actually still prefer just Docs or a text document. Because anything that gets in the way, even thinking about jumping to the next cell, you can lose your ideas. But I think that’s kind of a raw dump.
A: When I started a Landor, I was doing some naming at Mervyn’s when they were owned by Target. And I thought I was clever when I came up with 25 names, and I’d be like, “Here’s 25 names, let’s narrow it down to five. Okay, let’s get these five to legal and one of them will be our new dish line.” And I was like, “I’m a namer!” And then I went to Landor and I turned in my first name list and Anthony Shore, who was the Head of Verbal, Naming at the time at Landor was like, “Where’s the rest?”
R: Yeah, where are the other 150 ideas?
A: And I was like, “In my head.” And he’s like, “No, no, I want your notes. I want all…” and I was like, “But some of them are bad,” and he’s like, “The bad ideas are what inspire the rest of the team.” And he really got me…he changed my work process from quality through quantity. One of the things leading brainstorms with non-professional namers is giving them those first 200 ideas and going, “It’s none of these.” Right? And so that you get the most obvious hundred out so that you don’t have to have a conversation about calling it, I don’t know, Nimbus or Cumulus for a cloud product. Like the most obvious connections, they’re bad, they’re gone, and they’re not getting us anything.
R: That’s a good tip for getting the ball rolling especially in a group brainstorm session. Do you have any other little tips or tricks that you use whether it’s individually or with a group?
A: I’m not a huge fan…I’ve never seen a brainstorm actually generate, from start to finish, great names.
A: What I think, brainstorms are really good at establishing new stories. So, just like I talk about with the mind map of, “Hey, what are some territories for exploring?” Like, “Oh, radio history.” Then I’ll go off and do research on the history of radio and suggest some of those names kind of thing. But I actually think that there’s some intelligence, whether that’s linguistic intelligence or doing research, that you don’t get in a brainstorm. If you can get it in an hour, well, somebody else has already gotten that name in an hour. So, it’s great to come up with the stories or it’s great to bring a list of a few hundred and narrow down in a group and maybe add a few inspired by that. But I think it’s a really unrealistic expectation that you’re going to get anything…like, that your team somehow is going to come up with something brilliant in an hour that your competitor didn’t come up with in the last year and a half.
R: I completely agree. I always tell clients that the brainstorm we do together, or even if it’s just one person, one-on-one, is a start point, not an endpoint.
R: Anything else that you use to…I don’t know if you ever feel like you’re sort of at the end of your rope on a naming project…or just things that help you expand your creative thinking?
A: Well, I would say putting it down and coming back to it. There’s that sense of the best ideas I’ve always come up with are the ones when I’m not working. And so, that’s the walk to the bathroom. That’s the walk for coffee. And I don’t mean like walking with a co-worker, and talking, and talking through the problem. I mean, honestly, the white space of walking away from it and then going back to it and that’ll bring in those kind of nonlinear things that I really like.
R: Do you follow any kind of, even, rules of thumb around time management while working on naming? Do you feel like you need to sit with it for a solid chunk of time or you need to be away from it for a solid chunk of time in order to really be productive?
A: I really like having long chunks of time. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of manager time vs. worker time or programmer time vs. project manager time. It’s the sense that people who are in meetings professionally are really good at finding half-hour chunks to be really productive in. But people who are deeply creating, you spend the first 15, 20 minutes getting back into a headspace where you’re creative. And whether it’s a phone call, whether it’s a co-worker stopping by, whether it’s Facebook, whether it’s whatever, every time you’re interrupted it takes so many minutes to go back into flow.
A: And so, I would never schedule less than four hours for actual creative generation. And that’s four hours off the grid, out of office.
R: Yeah, that four hours seems to be a pretty consistent rule of thumb that I’ve heard from namers, so that’s good to hear another vote for that amount of time.
A: And if you talk to programmers it’s very much the same as that. That sense of flow.
R: What about the mistakes or pitfalls that you see people making, whether they’re amateur or sort of new, younger people trying to get into naming as a profession, or just clients or maybe only doing this once in their entire careers?
A: Well, I would say it’s a little bit of every happy family is happy in the same way and every miserable family’s unique, in that there’s a lot of different pitfalls. Having worked a lot in Silicon Valley, I would say hubris is really…is an issue. Where people assume that they’re smarter than their competition. But on the flipside, I would say one of the great things about working with Silicon Valley is not absorbing too much of the “no,” right? What I learned being in-house is trademark is a lot fuzzier than a trademark lawyer who’s not invested in working with the namer would have you believe. There is no “no go.” So, whether that’s, “Hey, we’re going to acquire this company because we love that name and they have some interesting IP,” or “We’re going to…we like this name but we can’t get it, so why don’t we look at names around it?” Like, that idea of, there’s a balance of don’t think you know better than everybody else but don’t think that just because you can’t go there that somebody else can.
R: So, speaking of pitfalls, you mentioned—just kind of jokingly—Cumulus and Nimbus as names that people suggest for cloud products. I’m just wondering are there any names or naming tropes that you feel like you’ve heard so many times you’re sick of them? You know, things like the startups that end with “-ly” or other overused ideas?
A: Hey, as somebody who worked on Verily with an “-ly” and I was so afraid of being on you know on the…
R: Fritinancy, or…
A: Yes, exactly. I was worried about being on her Pinterest as yet another “-ly” and I’m like, “But it’s a dictionary real name I promise.” But if the “x”s in the, like “x”s replacing “ex” in “extra,” “extreme,” I can’t stand. Maybe the people who think of camel case, you know the inner cap? You know, I did research that said, “Oh man, that looks so 90’s and dated and B.S.-y, and don’t use camel case it’s awful.” Maybe they’re aging out maybe it’s been long enough since the first era of the dot bomb that we can use camel case again, but it just, aw, there’s no reason to use camel case. I think it’s a crime against linguistics. Just personally. I would say that on the flipside, folks who think that young people want super super clever, obtuse, made-up names without looking at the brands that are actually popular with millennials and younger. Vitaminwater’s the example I always use. Vitaminwater is cool because it does what it says on the tin in a surprising way. Whereas, I don’t know, “extreme something” or “radioactive” or…
R: Right. Something trying way too hard?
A: I think anything that wears its strategy on its sleeve too much. If it’s called “Cool Juice” as opposed to something that actually evokes a sense of the kind of cool you want to be, then your name is bad and you should feel bad.
R: Feel bad about yourself. One other thing I wanted to talk to you about, specifically, is, just because you did naming at Google, I’m curious if you have a take on how technology can affect the naming process or might affect it in the future.
A: Well, I would say that there’s a lot of possibility for technology in naming and that’s some of the things I was really excited about being at Google. It’s one of the largest employers of linguists. So, natural language processing is their jam. So, if you want to use machine learning and say, “Hey ‘Nest’ is to ‘home’ as this new name is to ‘cars,'” and you have the machine learning pulling the algorithms, that’s really exciting to me. Because then, what you get down to is really looking through that raw generation of lists you kickstarted into insane testosterone drive. So, what you’re doing is, it’s like having a team of junior namers who aren’t really clever and aren’t really good but are gonna make some really interesting connections. And you see Twitter bots that are doing that with looking at established patterns and coming up with new, cool, fake color names or fake Coachella band names. And people laugh at them and stuff, but you look at those raw lists and they’re really good—as raw lists. So, when you’re establishing a new company or a new category or something that’s way far out there, having machine assistance to really do that volume so that as a strategist, as a naming strategist, in the upfront, you’re really thinking about the relationship between words that you want to train the AI on. And then you’re really going through and thinking about the stories you can build and doing shortlisting without having to go through OneLook for eight hours. That’s really exciting to me for the industry in general.
R: And specifically, because Alphabet was—I don’t know if you would say this but—I think, one of the bigger, probably one of the bigger names you’ve worked on, or certainly one of the bigger ones while you were at Google. Anything specific to that process that was unique or especially challenging, or fun?
A: Well, it was incredibly fun. Because it was such an important project, I basically had two of the best graphic designers I’ve ever met in my life working with me from the very start. So as opposed to handing a graphic designer a name and a concept I was working with a fantastic strategist and, like, basically the two best designers I think I’ll ever meet in my career. And we were beating every avenue to death. So, we were trying computer assisted, I was going through research, if you want to know about the Etruscan history of why it’s called “alphabet” and all that, trust me I know. If you want to know any quote about “alphabet” from any great thinker, as well as if you want a corpus breakdown of everything that Larry Page has said publicly, everything that Sergey Brin has said publicly, everything that Asimov has ever written…
R: Were the designers helping you come up with name ideas or were they more there to help visualize ideas as they popped up?
A: A little of both, because what we were doing is designing around those territories. We were like, “Oh here’s a territory, here’s a territory.” So, it was a little bit of mood boarding and things like that. But we were taking all ideas. It wasn’t just our small team. We were taking all ideas and really evaluating them and going, “Does this have design legs? Does this animate? Does it meet the criteria?”
A: Now, for me, it felt like a traditional naming job, probably because something’s broken in my brain. But a traditional naming job, you come up with a lot of ideas, you narrow it down into territories, you have some recommendations, the client wants to see the longer list, you say no, but then you capitulate. But most of the time it’s not with some of the most powerful people on Earth.
A: But I have this thing broken in my brain that I will talk to Larry Page the way I talk to you over coffee.
R: Well, that’s because I’m just as important as Larry Page, though, right?
A: You are! Where’s your Greek island?
R: I haven’t found it yet.
A: It’ll be there. But the real important question is what you’ll name it. So no, Alphabet was the same except, you know, we were in a locked room with no windows.
R: It’s such a cool story. I think you probably already answered this but just a final question: What would you say is your favorite thing about being a namer, generating names.
A: For me, it’s I have the kind of brain that loves just knowing things. Knowing facts, knowing trivia. Addicted to Snopes, addicted to Wikipedia. But I get to learn about the radio, you know, the history of radio, or the history of television, or the history of salsa, or how tequila is made, down to the roasting the piña and all that stuff. Because you have to. You have to become a micro expert. So, I just have the kind of brain that loves that.
R: Well, that explains why you know the whole backstory on Bluetooth.
A: That’s What excites me, so. And I love doing it and I love being able to kick anybody’s butt in bar trivia…unless sports are involved.
R: That’s funny. Yeah, you wouldn’t think it but naming makes you better at bar trivia than it does at Scrabble. Great. Well, thank you so much, Amanda, for spending some time with me and I hope we’ll talk again soon.
A: Thanks, Rob. All right. Bye.