Merriam's Guide Naming

We have seen the best minds of our generation, destroyed by madness, dragging themselves hysterically through thesauri and rhyming dictionaries to find that one word which will encapsulate for a client everything they are, have been, and ever dream to become. We speak of “naming”, an exercise that strikes terror into the hearts of many copywriters, and rightly so, for many of the reasons that Lisa Downey Merriam illuminates here in this terrific volume.

Merriam is President of Merriam Associates, and consults with branding, advertising and marketing agencies around the world. Prior to that she was brand strategy director at McCann-Erikson’s FutureBrand consultancy, and one feels that it was in this role (despite her credentials as a copywriter) that much of the insight that makes her guide to naming so valuable was developed. Because this is not just a handy list of tactics (although there’s a bit of that, thankfully). It is a strategic approach to developing a useful brand asset for your client – and as such is chockfull of the kinds of things that most briefs should have, but don’t.

For example, Merriam starts by drawing some very sharp parameters for the task at hand, writing:

Your name is a crucial piece of you brand, but it cannot, by itself, be your brand

And while this may seem like a nuanced bit of sophistry to those who have not had to come up with names for clients, those who have will immediately understand the importance of it. Clients put the weight of the world on a name. Indeed one feels the name makes tangible to them the formless company or product or service they’ve been working on. Thus they have endowed it with ever more guardrails and watchouts than can ever be communicated in a simple, six letter locution. “It must be this, but not too much” and “it must be that, but not in this way…” and on and on until they have described something that ultimately means nothing, not even to them.

And we think we know why: Marketers are afraid to stand out.

Because no sooner will you set off down this path than you will be met with comments like “oh, we can’t say that, we might get letters” or “I don’t think everyone in our organization will understand it.” Sentiments that on the surface appear to be attempts to be inclusive and collaborative and sensitive but are in fact camouflage for a desperate desire to be anonymous.

And we get it: in a world as polarized as this one, you’re always just one tweet away from being the most talked about mis-step of the day, week, month or year. Indeed, with the power of social media, the downside of drawing attention to yourself has never been greater, and has never so outweighed the upside.

And not just externally, either. How many large companies have you worked on marketing for knew, despite all their protests to the contrary, that all they really had to do was not get in the sales department’s way? God forbid they should actually do something that would help them, of course. Because that would require taking a stand, drawing fire, drawing attention to themselves. So they don’t. And the reward? Modest gains.

Combine this with the general lack of support companies give to people who do aim high, and you end up with the kind of chaotic demands and direction that come to a head during the naming process. Because there’s no way to hide the name of the thing. It’ll be on everyone’s business cards, it’ll be on the sign over the door, it’ll be on your damn website. Hell, it’ll be the thing your kids tell your neighbors you work at. A print ad can be pulled, a tweet can be deleted, a TV spot recut – but your name? Nothing will remain as front and center as that.

Which is why Merriam starting this particular book with that particular safety valve is so important. Your name is not everything, Mr. Client. It’s one part. So focus on the whole, see the name as one lever among many that you can push in order to succeed. And act accordingly.

Now, if that were all Merriam did here, the book would be a valuable one to hand out to any marketer or agency starting on the naming process – or indeed starting any marketing process whatsoever. But she goes further, dismantling the dangerous flipside of “standing out” – “likeability”, the old saw that clients and others will throw at you as you propose names that will draw attention: “I don’t think everyone will like it” “I don’t like it”, “We all voted and this was the one we liked the best”:

In fact, ‘likeability’ as an evaluation criterion dooms your naming effort to failure. Likeability is an entirely nebulous concept that is impossible to objectively define and varies from person to person. In fact, likeability can actually be harmful as criterion of a ‘good’ name. Years of research have shown a strong link between likeability and familiarity. People like names that are in their comfort zone of the known and conventional. That means likeable names are not going to stand out as different and they are less likely to be memorable. Being distinctive is the most important quality your name can have. A likeable name could be counterproductive. Naming is about risk taking, not risk avoidance. [Italics added]

Which she doubles down on later, writing:

The more provocative the name, the more negative feedback you will get – and paradoxically – the more potential it will have.

To be clear, neither we nor Ms. Merriam are advocating offending people. But there’s a difference between being provocative and being offensive. That marketers have widely forgotten that distinction explains much of the terrible advertising that exists. That the culture as a whole has forgotten it is of course more distressing, but is, sadly, beyond the scope of our current brief.

Merriam’s Guide to Naming by Lisa Downey Merriam was published by Red Toad Press on 05/01/2013 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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