Tangent: This photo is from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It was one of my favourite reads. Will it be one of my favourite movies?

The people who name products, services and enterprises fly-cast into the wide deep pool of language, hoping to hook a big one.

So say Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland in “The Making of a Name.” In their book, they make a thorough exploration of the fascinating craft of naming, which is the applied branch of onomastics—the study of the history and forms of proper names.

Fishing can be an uncertain sport. I recall endless hours in a boat as a child with my Dad plying the small lakes in northern Washington State looking for trout. I don’t recall catching many, although I do recall simply enjoying the scenery and the long quiet chats with my Dad. While I no longer do much fishing, I do like to approach the exercise of naming with rigour, focus and a substantial dollop of patience. The linguistic scenery can be captivating, the conversations illuminating—and  it can’t be rushed.

As with most pursuits, good preparation and the right equipment improve your chances immensely. Here’s my To-Do list when I start with a client on a naming project:

  1. The first question is: Do you need a new name?  Most of my clients are looking for new names for existing products. You need a yes or no answer to this question first of all, but either way,  you’ll also need to articulate the compelling reasons to engage in a naming process—or not. Those reasons create a case for the change which justifies the effort it will take to get to that new name. You’ll need your case for change while plowing through the “messy middle” where people’s spirits and energies flag, and the goal seems impossibly far away.
  2. Craft a positioning statement to frame the exercise   I wrote about positioning statements in a January blog. Do have a look. Why it’s important here is that all the stakeholders involved need to hold the same image and understanding of the entity they are responsible for naming. Often, the compelling reason for changing the name is that it no longer encompasses the full meaning or intent of the entity. Making sure everyone’s onboard with the same understanding at the beginning of this exercise is critical.
  3. Choose the right people to be onboard  We’ll get into the process in a future blog, but for right now, the other foundational  element for a good naming process is to have the right people onboard at the right time. Ideally, you want to restrict the group who will be making the final decision on the name to as small a number as possible. On the other hand, you want to engage as wide a range of stakeholders as necessary to give your decision-makers the right information to work with.

It takes a tiny hook, a deep pool and a practiced arm to snag the big one.

Next week: The responsibilities of a good name