A pink ferret by any other name

I had a call from an entrepreneurial friend a day or two ago.  “We’re launching a new business very shortly,” he told me.   “We’re into the final countdown.  But there’s a problem:  we haven’t fallen in love with a name yet.”

My job, obviously, was to get out my special Magic Naming Thesaurus and provide that eureka moment.  But I was feeling pompous that day (yes yes, like every day) so instead I delivered a lengthy and I’m sure unwelcome lecture.

“You’ve got this naming thing completely wrong,”  I told him.  “The way you’re imagining it, it’s a flash of inspiration, a moment of genius scribbled on the back of a fag packet, everyone immediately knows that’s the one, and you’re away to the races.  One in a thousand times, it might be like that.  Nine hundred and ninety nine, it absolutely isn’t.”

Almost always, I went on, naming is a slog.  It’s a Marathon (or should that be a Snickers these days?), not a Sprint (which recently became a T-Mobile).  There are many steps from blank sheet of paper to triumphant launch of company, product or service, and each one of them is usually harder, slower and more painful than you could have ever thought possible.

Coming up with the ideas – or at least, coming up with good ideas – is really hard.  Don’t be fooled by those stupid brainstormings where people in the project team come up with 500 names in a couple of hours:  they’re all useless, most of them being a combination of a colour and an animal (Pink Ferret, Yellow Baboon etc).  All that those sessions achieve is to give the participants something to grumble about when their ridiculous ideas don’t even make the long list.

When you have eventually produced a long list, your next problem is recognising anything on it that’s any good.  The hardest part of this is the fact that everyone on the team will have an opinion, and of course no two people will agree.  You own favourite is the one everybody else most hates.  If there are five clients, they’ll usually have at least six different and irreconcilable opinions. 

But what’s worse – what’s actually worst of all – is when all five of them do agree, share a eureka moment and fall passionately in love with a single idea.   Because what’ll then inevitably happen is that when you take it forward into due diligence, starting with the various availability checks, it’ll promptly fall over. It’s not available as a dot.com, it’s already registered by Barclays, the Philippines .ph version is a porn site, whatever.  And now you’re in the nightmare scenario of telling the clients they can’t have the name they all love, and it’s your job to come up with the alternative.   And they will hate every single alternative you come up with, and tell you more and more bitterly in each subsequent presentation that nothing you’ve done for them is half as good as the one they can’t have, and that maybe they ought to get some other people to have a look at it.

Talking of availability checks, they always take miles, or rather months, longer than you thought they would, especially if you’re thinking you might like to use the name outside the UK.  (And by the way, if that’s the case, all sorts of linguistic and cultural checks are necessary too:  are you sure the name isn’t a bad word in German, or impossible to pronounce in Peru?) 

But what’s worse than the time this all takes is the inevitable ambiguity of the feedback – it’s never, ever black and white, especially if IP lawyers have been involved.  You – or more accurately your client – will be faced with the thorniest of dilemmas.  The favoured name isn’t available as a .com, which is already in use as the name of an American tech firm’s newsletter, but it is available as a .co.uk.  Or it’s not available as a .co.uk either, but you could get .net.  Or you can’t get that, but you could use a prefix or a suffix – how about mypinkferret.com?  Or pinkferret4u.com?  (Used to be very popular, that 4u thing, but always sounded really crap and has rather fallen out of favour now.)  Also, you should know that pinkferret.com is a Philippino porn site.  And the name has in fact been registered in Class 36, Financial Services, by a big American bank, but they’ve never used it and they don’t do business over here, so the lawyers think it’s unlikely they’d take any action.  And you could always spell it slightly differently (PinkPherret?), so you could argue that it couldn’t possibly be passing-off.   But the lawyers say it’s a judgement call – which means it would depend a lot on the judge.

Faced with this kind of ambiguity, most clients become hopelessly lily-livered and you’re back to square one again.  A few, vice versa, become frighteningly gung-ho and go ahead despite the presence of amber warning lights flickering all over the dashboard:  they’ll be the ones who get the solicitor’s letters within days of launch and have you rummaging panickily to check out the excess on your public liability insurance.

On a more positive note, you really ought to spend some time – if you have any time or indeed enthusiasm left – investigating what you could do with any names that actually seem to be available if you went with them.   A lot of names – including a lot of the best names – only come to life when you attach them to some sort of idea.  It might be a typographical idea (the famous arrow in the FedEx logo), or an idea about colour (Orange as a telecoms brand comes to life when you see it in its black-and-you-guessed-it colour palette) or a graphic idea (maybe the slightly less famous arrow that joins the a and the z in Amazon).  Or it may be an idea that needs advertising executions to bring it to life – just think of the brand value that’s been created by the similarity in pronunciation between the words “market” and “meerkat.”

And of course if you’re a proper marketer you really ought to do some research, although hardly anyone ever does because they strongly suspect, probably rightly, that if they did their favourite idea would be the one their target group most hated, and if they did we’d be too close to deadline to go again and come up with something else.

After all that, it should be obvious that if you started off with only one runner in the race, the chances of it completing the course are extremely slim.  And that’s why this is completely the wrong approach.

What you should do, instead of waiting for that single eureka moment, is draw up from your long list a short(ish) list of all the names that at a push you could live with, send them all off around the circuit and see if any of them come back with a complete set of green lights (metaphors getting very mixed here) from the process.  And if any one of them does, even if it was the one you liked least on the short(ish) list, you should grab it with both hands and go with it.

Because the thing is, if your business, or product, or service, flies, then within a year or two the connotations of the name will change completely.  Pink Ferret will no longer convey any sense of pinkness, or indeed ferretitude, any more than Pink Floyd says pinkness or floydicity.  It’s just the band that did Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall.  This whole question of what a name says, or means, only matters for the first year or two.  Which, you’d be right to observe, makes it even more irritating that it’s so hard to resolve.

And there’s one other aspect of the whole business that’s irritating for me, at least.  For as long as people like my entrepreneurial friend think that it’s just about a moment of inspiration and a note on the back of a fag packet, it’ll never occur to them that my contribution really ought to have a hefty price tag attached.      

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