How to find a name you can grow into

by Brook Barman

No Name Brand

In some Native American communities, a name is something that is developed, not given. Children come into life with their own innate set of skills and talents, and live without a name until the community has had a chance to see those proficiencies unfold. The individual’s name is chosen to reflect who that person is and becomes an inextricable part of their identity in society. In short, names matter.

It’s a nice idea, this earning of names, despite our own inherited Western relationship to the process. We name our kids and dogs after things that sound good, film characters we enjoyed, influential past personalities, and increasingly (and increasingly disturbingly) foodstuffs. Identity and name are not intertwined; names are decorative, not transportational. They are not designed to take us anywhere.

Except in business, where names have to do much more than beautify. They have to play an important role in letting the world know something about you. And here in lies a big problem. We have not been trained to realize the importance of a good name, to honor the totemic quality of what it means to be well-named, and so we naturally underestimate its importance. We use the same old strategies we’re familiar with to name our companies something we like, ask a few close friends for feedback, and pray for the best.

But naming a company or book or product isn’t the same as naming a parakeet. It isn’t about likability, cuteness, tradition, or being overt. It isn’t about things being easy to spell, or, like naming your kid, blending in as much as possible to avoid stolen lunch money. In the world of business, it should be a lot more like the Native process of becoming your name, not picking one out of a hat. And once again, they matter.

Consider that people don’t buy things, they buy into things. It doesn’t matter how great your craftsmanship, how rigorous your testing, or how large the need for whatever you’ve made, without an engaging story, you’re just another object on the shelf. People become die-hard enthusiasts not because of a product, but because of the story around that product, and the name is the first part of writing your story well. It creates a camp for those people looking to be part of something compelling. Imagine the silver panorama of an Apple storefront bearing, not that infamous pome,  but a name like “Quantum Technical Solutions.” No mystery, no style, no cult following. No story to draw people in.

Because you can’t tell a great story without a great start. You can’t be iconic without a name everyone loves to recognize, and great companies know that. They choose names that evoke wonder, that defy expected ways of interacting, keep people guessing, and yes, even make them do a little work.

There is a reason that Google changed their name from PageRank. Sure, the original was more informative, but it does little for the imagination. Juicy, Amazon, Target, Skype–not one name says what they do. But they tell us something even more important: the risks they’re willing to take, the personalities of the people behind the scenes, and the energy and individuality of the brand. These kinds of names throw a wrench in the endless stream of information flowing in one ear and out the other of America’s over-saturated consumers. They create room for the story you are writing.

But that means knowing the story you’re writing, beyond the kinds of words you think sound good together. Great names are the result of serious introspection into the kinds of people you are, why you are doing what you are doing, and how you want that thing to play in the world. Think of it as a thesis statement. It is a way to inform and curate the experience you are creating.

Because remember this: no one out there knows or cares about you. No one knows how brilliant you are, how tireless, how unique and inventive, and you can’t tell them if they never stop to listen. Your name has to do battle out there everyday for the hearts and minds of people, and its character will inform every other expectation they have of you. It has to be strong enough to exist totally without context and to communicate your personality in just a few well-selected words. That’s a lot of pressure for a little string of letters.

So give the process the respect it deserves. Like anything worth having, a good name takes work. It takes time. It takes looking beyond the product or the bottom line to the story that threads every piece together, and the insight to see its greatest strengths when they’re in front of you.

And, like the Navajo people believe, it takes realizing that only when you have taken the time to know something completely, will the right name manifest itself.