Mini episode: Brad Flowers and The Naming Book
For the second mini episode of the podcast, I’m talking to Brad Flowers, founding partner of Bullhorn, a marketing company in Lexington, Kentucky. Brad is also the author of a new book entitled, The Naming Book: 5 steps to creating brand and product names that sell.
Regular listeners know that naming is an area of focus for me, so when I heard about Brad’s book, I couldn’t want to read it and ask him a few questions.
We started out talking about how there aren’t too many books about naming out there (here’s a list, which now includes Brad’s). Brad wrote his book because he’d had trouble early in his career finding something that documented a replicable process for his team. The five steps Brad recommends are:
- Establishing Criteria
- Compiling Names
- Expanding Your Knowledge
- Deciding on the Final Name
Within each step, Brad includes short worksheets and exercises. One that I especially like comes right at the beginning, when he asks readers to pick any three brand names and post-rationalize where the names came from. Brad says it “gives someone the opportunity to take a step back and start to just recognize the names that exist and how they’re working, so that when you start to think about your name, you can understand that while Apple seems like a great name, on day one it felt like a really risky, and probably a pretty dumb name, really.”
While Apple seems like a great name, on day one it felt like a really risky, and probably a pretty dumb name.”
We rounded out the conversation talking about the benefits of sometimes going “off brief,” how to ask other people their opinion on name ideas, and Brad’s favorite naming story (involving his five-year-old son).
To learn more about The Naming Book, visit thenamingbook.com. It’s available now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.org. To learn more about Brad and Bullhorn, visit BullhornCreative.com, or find them on social media.
If you liked this episode, please let me know—leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. While you’re there, you can subscribe to hear more of these mini episodes as well as the next season. And of course, you can also listen on Stitcher, Spotify, SoundCloud, or wherever you cast your pods.
You can also follow along on social media and visit the site at HowBrandsAreBuilt.com for show notes, blog posts, the newsletter signup, and more.
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.
ROB MEYERSON: Brad Flowers. Thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.
BRAD FLOWERS: Hey, thanks for having me.
R: So, as you know, we talked about this a little bit in advance of the show here today, there aren’t a whole lot of books about brand naming. So, what made you decide that you wanted to write one? Why now? What’s unique about yours?
B: Sure. So, I’m a self-taught namer. We were hired to do it early on. I started Bullhorn in 2008. Like a lot of companies like ours, when you first start you take any business that you can get and then over time narrow. Well, while we were still taking any business we could get, we took a naming project. It was great fun. I have a background in English literature. So, I really enjoyed it. But as we grew, and the team grew, I had a hard time, other than basing things on intuition, I couldn’t really provide a process for people to help or places for people to slot in.
So, I did what anyone would do, probably. I started reading all of the books about naming. I realized that most of the books out there about naming fit into two general categories. There are books that are telling stories about how names were created, or what they mean, or something like that, which is pretty interesting but not necessarily helpful if you have to create a name. The other category, they tend to be people who are good at naming, and it’s what their preferences are. They outline why they think certain names are good and why other names aren’t good, which is also interesting and helpful.
I couldn’t really find a really solid process at the time. So, I didn’t really set out to create a book. I set out to create something for my coworkers. I realized over time that there was this gap in the market. The more I thought about it, as I was thinking about entrepreneurs, there are these people who have these great ideas that could change the world and they come to market with a really lousy name. So, I thought, “If I can’t figure out how to do this in a systematic way, they certainly can’t.”
R: Yeah. It seems like you definitely developed a system. In fact, there are five steps. One of the things I really like about the book is how prescriptive it is. I mean, I’m sure, I would guess that you would tell readers that they can maybe bend the rules or something, a little bit, if they find that it works better for them, but you’ve also given them a really clear and well prescribed structure that they can stick to if they want to. How did you come up with the five steps that you have in there? If you wouldn’t mind, just rattling them off for listeners, what are those five steps?
B: Sure. So, as I was thinking about it, I realized there were two hard things about naming. The first is that it’s hard to know what makes a good name. So, the first step is about building your criteria. I think this is the step that most people, entrepreneurs especially, skip over, and they skip straight to trying to find a good name, not thinking about, “Well, what does the name actually need to do?” So, the first step is building the criteria.
The next three are all about how to generate lots of names. So, I think the second hard thing about naming is that it’s hard to have a wide range of ideas. Most of our education is based around this convergent idea that you need to come to one answer, when, really, naming isn’t like that. It’s a divergent exercise.
R: Yeah, the more the merrier, at least at first, right?
B: Yeah. You need lots of ideas to weigh against your criteria. So, I have three full steps dedicated to how do you brainstorm, which, again, I think a lot of people have a hard time with that blank page. How do you actually compile names based on your brainstorming lists? I break out a wide range of types of names for people to start slotting and building, so that when they do start to decide, they actually have different ideas. I think, a lot of times, people end up with different versions of the same idea. So, hopefully, we can actually have different ideas to talk about.
The fourth step, rather, is expanding your knowledge. So, how do you use research? How do you use the internet to find obscure words, interesting words, things that might be useful when building out your list. The final step is how to decide.
R: Right, which is also, I think, one of the hardest choices, especially when you have built out that long list.
B: Oh, it’s so hard. We try to have around 200 words or so coming into the decision stage at Bullhorn, and it gets down to 30. Usually we can get it down to 30 fairly easily. From there it’s pretty tough.
R: Yeah. What a lot of people don’t realize is that as hard as it is to pick one name on your own, the second you’re … If you’re not a solo entrepreneur, if you’re in a 10 person company and you’re trying to get everybody to agree, the chances that everybody thinks the same name works well are almost zero, unless you’ve got some pretty clear cut, objective criteria set up from the beginning.
B: That’s exactly right. People will oftentimes forget the criteria.
R: They just knee-jerk go to whichever they like or don’t like.
R: So, the first, you have this series of worksheets in the book.
B: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
R: The first one asks readers to just take three brand names, they can choose, I guess, any ones they want, and post rationalize each name. So, sure, you say you like Apple, but without necessarily knowing what the story is behind that name, just come up with your own story. I thought that was a really interesting way to get people warmed up to the idea of naming. How did you come up with that? Why did you decide to start there?
B: I think jumping into brainstorming lists first is a little boring. Most people, unless you think about naming all of the time, take the brand names that surround you totally for granted. I think most people, while we really sweat a lot about the specific names, most people just don’t care at all. They just don’t know or care. It’s just, “Does this product suit my needs or does it not?” So, I think just taking a step back and thinking a little bit that someone might actually think about what a name means is an important first step for someone who doesn’t do it often.
So, when you look around in the first, probably, 10 minutes of your day, you probably come across 100 brand names that you don’t even recognize or think about. So, this just gives someone the opportunity to take a step back and start to just recognize the names that exist and how they’re working, so that when you start to think about your name, you can understand that while Apple seems like a great name, on day one it felt like a really risky, and probably a pretty dumb name, really.
R: Right, right. Yeah. Exactly. I think you’re right, that people don’t really acknowledge brand names unless they think it’s a real stinker. People are easy to jump to, “Oh, that brand name sucks,” but all these names that they either think are good or just okay, they ignore. Eventually, we get so used to things like Google, whereas the first time you heard Google … I remember the first time I heard it, I mean, it sounded ridiculous. Of course, I had no idea that it was going to kill all the other search engines and become the behemoth that it is. Now when people hear it they don’t think twice. It’s become this verb. So, I just think opening people’s minds to the fact that the brain is a very flexible thing is a great way to get them into the right frame of mind.
B: Yeah. In the criteria list, I talk a little bit about meaning. I think some names, like Google and Apple, they go from having a literal meaning at the foundation, and then, over time, they just really become symbols for the experiences that you have with the products. You don’t even really think about the name anymore. You just think about what they do. So, that’s another thing to consider when you’re thinking of your name as a criteria point. Do you want something more like Skype, which is pretty empty, or do you want something like Apple, which brings stuff along with it in the trunk, so to speak?
R: Right. One thing that’s interesting, and I really want to touch on, because this is, in a lot of ways, the process that you’ve outlined mirrors the type of process that I would take, or recommend that clients take. But a couple of things diverge a little bit. One of them is you really encourage your readers to explore every type of name. You mentioned compounds a minute ago. There are coined words, real words, descriptive names, and so on.
A lot of times, in my experience, we ask clients to try to narrow it down on the front end. So, what types of names do you think you want? Sometimes that’s easy because we’re trying to match some naming strategy that the company has been using consistently for years. So, we know we’re not going to look at, even explore, certain types of names. I think it’s really interesting in this case, where let’s say it’s an entrepreneur just naming their company, to force them to explore every type of name. So, even if their gut reaction is, “Oh, I hate all those made up words,” I like that you’re saying, “Well, hold on a second. Let’s just see if there are any that might change your mind on that,” and have them explore everything. Is that purposefully done, and something that you encourage with your clients to have them keep an open mind.
B: Well, not always. I think, like you mentioned, sometimes if you’re naming a product or service, you don’t really need to do all of the different types of names. It’s going to fall within a certain system, and it has to make sense within the brand architecture that’s been laid out. So, products and services are a little bit different there. Also, depending on if it’s for an organization. For example, recently, we were hired to name a development.
R: A real estate development?
B: Exactly. Yeah. So, for a real estate development, being contextualized in a neighborhood, some foreign language words probably just don’t make sense. Made up words seem a little strange because they feel like it doesn’t fit in that market. We cut it down depending on the project, but I do think if it’s someone starting from the beginning, if it’s a new company, I would really encourage them to pursue all the different types. Frankly, you can be really surprised. It happens almost every single project. I’ll go into it and I’ll be thinking, “Oh, it has to be, probably, this type of name,” and then someone, sometimes it’s me or sometimes it’s someone else, one of the other writers at Bullhorn, comes up with an idea that’s perfect and it’s totally surprising. That’s when, I think, it’s exciting and fun. I would definitely encourage people to pursue as wide a range as possible, because you can surprise yourself.
R: Yeah. I find that even when we have a really tight naming brief at the front end of a project, sometimes it pays off to go off brief and show a client, “I know you said you wanted this, but let us just show you a couple of ideas that are not technically on brief.” At risk of upsetting a client that you’ve gone off brief. A lot of times, like you said, those surprising ideas either are the answer or can help you get to something that’s maybe a little more interesting than where the brief would have taken you had you stuck to it, to the letter of it.
B: Yeah. I think so. I think often the client will appreciate that it’s, “Look, we followed the brief. We have some ideas here, but we have these other ideas, too, we’d like you to consider.” I mean, I think the fact that you’re thinking about it, working at it, putting in the time, I think the thoughtfulness is appreciated, even if the brief is pretty tight.
R: Towards the end of the book, I guess it’s pretty much all in step five, I thought you had some really good advice for people around, I think, parts of the naming process that, maybe, people don’t even think about when they get started. Everyone knows you have to come up with a bunch of name ideas, and that’s why you’ve allotted so much of the book to that process. But then after you’ve got them, there’s the process of narrowing it down, the process of, maybe, asking people for advice, whether you do some more formal naming research or you’re just doing an informal focus group of friends or colleagues. There’s launching the name, which is a whole thing unto itself. So, any bits of advice toward the end of the book that you’ve found are, I don’t know, especially useful with clients, or that people that have read the book early, what’s resonating with people?
B: Yeah. I think the part that you have to handle the most carefully is, inevitably, you’ll go through and you’ll have a few names that you really like, and you’ll want to show people. That’s the most perilous part of the journey.
R: Right. The whole thing can go up in flames at that moment.
B: Oh, man. Yeah. The wheels will fall off. You’ll show someone and they’re like, “Yeah. Don’t get it.” That’s the least helpful thing that anyone could ever say, but it’s a really hard question to ask somebody. “Would this be a good name for a company?” “Well, what does the company do? What’s your strategy?” You have to tell such a backstory that to get someone up to speed is pretty hard, unless they’ve gone through the whole process. But I do think getting initial reactions can be useful.
So, what we do at Bullhorn, one of the things we do, is when we come down to a short list of, say, 20 or 30 names, I’ll put them into a presentation. People are really sensitive to imagery and typography. So, I’ll usually put each name over a couple of different images and with a couple of different typefaces, just to give a sense of what it might feel like in all caps, or what it might feel like in serif typeface or something. So, then we’ll go through, and I’ll have people rate it one to 10. This is the worst name ever, or I think this is a great name. Also, any initial reaction.
So, it’s nice to get the reaction of people who, number one, aren’t as close to the project, and, two, maybe have a different vocabulary than you do. Maybe, if you think about names a lot, you probably have a larger vocabulary than the average person. So, you’re making some assumptions about what people will know. So, it’s helpful to get some initial feedback on no one could ever pronounce this word, or no one could ever spell it. “I’ve never heard of this. It doesn’t make sense.” It doesn’t necessarily kill the name for me, but it is good to know what barriers might exist out there for the average person.
R: I want to clarify one thing for listeners. When you said that you’ll put the names over different imagery and different fonts and things like that, do you then do the same thing for each name to avoid any bias? So, if one name is in a serif font and one’s in a sans-serif, that could, obviously, shift people’s perceptions.
R: So, did I understand correctly that you choose what you’re going to do and then you do the same thing for each name idea?
B: That’s right.
B: Yep. I’ll pick, usually, two images that somehow loosely relate to the business or product or service. I try to pick different things. So, for example, for this development, one image was an image of an old building that had, obviously, been refurbished. The other image was a group of people at a party. Those are two images that you could imagine relating to the final thing, but they’re pretty different. On one image I used a sans-serif, and on the other image I used a serif. I try to be consistent throughout the presentation to try to, again, eliminate bias. I want people to see possibility but not be biased.
B: When it comes time to show the client, sometimes we will try to lead them in certain directions. So, we’ll put something in a certain typeface because we think it works better. That’s a whole nother story.
R: Then I want to come back to this great point you made about people having different vocabulary. I think, even beyond just how big of a vocabulary somebody has, there’s then, obviously, people with different language backgrounds, right?
R: So, even if they’re English speakers, maybe they speak other languages. So, there’s some classic mistakes that some brands have fallen into, not recognizing, “Oh, this word means something else in another language.” I’ve found, even for native English speakers, I’ve had British people look at names, and I didn’t realize that the word was slang in England and meant something. That’s why we always call it linguistic and cultural.
R: We call them disaster checks, because it’s not just about what language do you speak, but people speak in English or Spanish, in LA versus New York, could have very different perspectives.
Yeah. Great. Well, I have one last question for you, and I’m going to try to get you to tell at least a little bit of a story that you used to wrap up the book that I just love so much.
R: You mentioned that you hate this question, that all namers, I think, hate, which is just what’s your favorite brand name? Because there’s so many different ways to answer that, and it really depends on context. But then you do have a great story about one name that you love, and it’s one that your son came up with. I think he’s five or six?
B: At the time, yeah.
R: Yeah. So, can you just tell a little of that story? What the name is and why you like it so much.
B: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. I try to go to extremes through the book to say that my preferences really don’t matter, that the name should work for you. It should meet your criteria. Inevitably, people want to know. So, at the end I talk about my son. He was at school. He had recently learned about refugees. We had done a project with a refugee resettlement agency here in town. He wanted to do something to help. At the time he was really into making these little bracelets. So, he decided he was going to make bracelets at this market that is a holiday market, and we were going to sell it and donate the proceeds. So, eventually, my whole family’s sitting around making bracelets before dinner, after dinner, first thing in the morning. It got a little out of control.
R: All hands on deck.
B: It was all hands on deck. I wasn’t necessarily a great bracelet maker. I’m going to be honest. But I thought, “Okay, when it comes time, what we’re going to call it, this is really where I can come in.”
R: “This is where I shine.”
B: “We’re going to have a fantastic name.”
B: So, I was like, “Okay, George. We need to make a sign, and we need a name. I’m going to help you come up with a name.” He’s like, “I already have a name.” I was like, “How do you already have a name?” He was like, “Yeah, we’re going to call it George’s Jewels.” I was like, “Oh, man.” There’s no way I could do better than that. George’s Jewels. It’s what it is. There are these little bracelets. Even though it was funny on that front, too, because they’re these little plastic trinket things.
R: Right. Not exactly jewels.
B: They’re not really jewels.
R: But to a five-year-old …
B: But the items, they were kind of jewels, jewelry. All of the connotations with George’s Jewels.
R: Some unbeknownst to him.
B: Yeah. He didn’t know at all. I thought it made a great name because it caught people’s attention. As they were going by and they saw this sign, they stopped and laughed. They looked at it. He got to tell the story. He sold $250 worth of these little things. [crosstalk 00:20:09]
R: Good for George.
B: To give to the refugee resettlement agency.
R: That is great. It’s amazing. It’s a great story. I love the name’s got alliteration. It’s got everything.
B: Yeah. It’s genuinely good. Maybe he’ll be my successor. I don’t know.
R: Or maybe you can just have him help you brainstorm on the next project.
B: Yeah. Why wait?
B: He’s obviously already good at it.
R: Awesome. Well, Brad, thank you so much for making time to chat. Congratulations on the book. I’m going to add it to a list of books about naming that I keep on the site. I wish you all the best. Hopefully we can chat again sometime soon.
B: Great. Thank you so much.