Where are the most creative names?

This question was asked by a namer on the LinkedIn VERB forum:
Where do you think the most creative names are? Cars? Internet companies? Racehorses? My personal favorite is Boat Names...and here is a site with 10,000 of them. What are your favorites?
It's an interesting question. Pondering its answer has led me to some interesting observations and conclusions.

First, what's creative? I'd venture that creative here, as elsewhere, means unexpected juxtapositions. So any name will be creative if either:
(1) the name itself is an unexpected juxtaposition of sounds, words or word parts
(2) the name is a real word applied to an unexpected context.
It is by virtue of their essence or referent that names are creative.
Browse through a list of products for kids and you'll find lots of names that are intrinsically creative. Rhyme, alliteration, reduplication and letter substitution all lend a fun, playful and off-beat bent. These same techniques are used, for better or worse, as web-based company names.

These child-like brand names are creative by their construction, rather than their context:
Chuck E. Cheese
Tinker Toys
Lincoln Logs
Balloon Lagoon
Juicy Juice
Hannah Montana
Names for web-centric companies, driven by the perceived need for an available dot com domain, can also be creative by construction. Many are...but to a fault.
I discuss the pitfalls of these types of names in The Washington Post.

Brand names can be creatively constructed without being silly:
Here are some I've developed:
Wanderful (interactive storybooks)
Chemetry (safer, cleaner chemical production)
Lytro (the world's first commercial light field camera)
Brainforest (idea development software)
Flying Spoons (Embassy Suites casual dining restaurant)
I am particularly fascinated by creative names which are not born creative, but become creative when thrust upon a product unexpectedly. Names that are metaphors or borrow from far-flung domains tickle our imagination and offer layers of meaning that simple wordplay can't match.

For example, Sanctuary would be an expected, uncreative name for a spa. But as a name for ultra-powerful security software, Sanctuary is quite creative.

There are entire categories of products that, by their nature, demand creative names. As a general rule:
Products that defy literal or objective description have creative names.
Consider perfumes.

Perfumes are ethereal. Their scent is chameleonic, as variable as skin. Perfumes are subjective. Their names are rarely descriptive. Instead, they boast attitude, exude mystique and incite with provocations.

Perfume names are creative because they are arbitrary. A rose-imbued perfume called Rose would not smell as sweet as one named Eden or Chianti or Renoir.

I think Kane would be an excellent name for rose-scented perfume.

Here are some creative perfume names:
No. 5
Grey Flannel
Flowerbomb (though rather descriptive, this succeeds because it confidently yet imaginately flaunts category convention)
Wines are also ripe for creative naming. Like perfumes, their beauty is subject to the beholder. The relationship of the liquid in the bottle to the name on the bottle is mostly arbitrary.

I like these names:
Lost Vineyard
Summer in Napa
Frog's Leap (the cork says "ribbit")
Layer Cake (a suggestive name that's marvelous)
I gave a winery the name Scribe. Though in and of itself interesting, it's this name's potential to inspire great packaging, merchandising and promotions that really excited my clients.

Cheeses and cocktails, like wine, perfumes and other hedonic products, also lend themselves to creative names. Cocktail naming holds a special place in my heart. My very first professional naming gig was in 1989 at Waxman Wool Advertising in San Jose, naming cocktails for the Hotel de Anza. Oh, how I'd love to see my first naming list from 20 years ago.

Like other things that defy description, band names are invariably creative. I recently bought All Known Metal Bands, a hard-backed, black-clad tome listing thousands of heavy metal band names. Each name offers a different perspective on the dark side of humanity.

Some choice morsels:
Organ Harvest
As I Lay Dying
Made in France
Lady Winter
I named a friend's band, Marrow. Their music isn't metal, but it is dark. If you're the kind of person that prefers Fuck You, Penguin to Cute Overload, you'll want to give them a listen.

Perfume, wine, cheese, cocktail and band names are categorically creative because of the arbitrary relationship of name to product. There are exceptions, chiefly those that follow very traditional naming conventions. The name of the source, whether person (winemaker, cheesemaker, perfumer, guitarist, celebrity sponsor, etc.) or place (district, appellation, region, farm, etc.), or ingredients makes an obvious, indistinct, uncreative, fall-back moniker.

To wit (or lack thereof):
Dave Matthews Band
Beringer Wines
Rum & Coke
Napa Valley Vineyards
California Premium Cheese
Chateau Lafitte
Carlos by Carlos Santana
There's one category of creative names that's not just arbitrary, but intentionally obfuscatory: code names.

Code names deliberately hide what they refer to. Companies use code names internally for products in development. Some companies have established nomenclature systems for theirs. Intel code names their chips based on "geographical names (since they can never be trademarked by someone else) of towns, rivers or mountains near the location of the Intel facility" (Alviso, Klamath, Covington, etc.). Apple used cats as code names for versions of its operating system; the cat is incorporated into the official product name (Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, etc).

Though it typically begins life as a ruse to obscure, a code name will become part of a company's everyday lingo as it's used by employees and becomes familiar to them. When typed in emails and product specification sheets, and uttered in hushed tones around the water cooler, the code name sheds its strangeness. And, as observed by fellow namers in this article, "a popular code name can help engineering teams build an emotional attachment to the product". When it comes time to brand the product for the real world, the code name might be the most compelling name in consideration.

One unintended benefit of code names is that, by virtue of their arbitrariness, they are also likely be clear as trademarks.

Code names can actually make great go-to-market brand names:
  • They are arbitrary and don't directly refer to a product's features or design. They won't age or become outdated like feature-based names.
  • Code names are often based on imaginative metaphors. They can trigger many personal associations and thereby foster an emotional bond.
  • They are often free to use as a trademark.
This is why a code name will sometimes be adopted as the final go-to-market name. These brands started as internal code names:

In the 1980's, the Big Three were fighting Japanese car makers for dominance of the US market. GM believed their struggle was analogous to the U.S.-Russian space race three decades prior. In that spirit, GM executives code-named their new product initiative Saturn, inspired by the Saturn V rocket that first brought man — a U.S. man — to the moon. A vehicle called Saturn won the space race; maybe it could win their race too. A different kind of car name was a great way for GM to demonstrate this would be "a different kind of company, a different kind of car". GM recently shuffled off the Saturn brand. It's been bought by the Penske Automotive Group.

Ford Taurus
I have heard, though can't find the original source, that the name Taurus was inspired by astrology. Two people working on the project discovered each others' wife was a Taurus. Despite its basis in astrology, and regarded as a pseudoscience or superstition by many, the Ford Taurus became one of America's best-selling cars.

Apple Macintosh
Yes, another code name.

As a namer who has faced the challenge of selling-in arbitrary names, the success of code names encourages me. A name that would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to rally an executive team around, stands a better chance if it sneaks by through the subterfuge of a code name. The exposure effect makes the client more and more comfortable with the name over time. Thus what was once arbitrary may become inevitable.

It would be instructive if my clients gave me a list of possible code names for whatever I'm naming. I should try that sometime.

Results are not always rosy when a code name is revealed to the public. One notorious example has changed how many high-profile companies choose theirs:
Apple meant no ill-will when its Power Macintosh 7100 was code-named Sagan. They chose Carl Sagan because his trademark catchphrase, "billions and billions", reflected their hopes for astronomical revenue. But the astronomer took offense, perhaps because other Apple code names included an anthropological hoax and a scientific pariah (Piltdown Man and Cold Fusion, respectively). Sagan sued Apple and lost. Apple, none too happy it was sued, then changed the product's internal code name to BHA, for Butt-Head Astronomer. Sagan sued again and lost. The Apple team finally changed the internal code name to LAW, Lawyers Are Wimps.
The lesson for companies is that if a code name leaks, litigation or embarassment could ensue. Code names are not be chosen lightly.

An instance of an ill-chosen military code name was Operation Infinite Justice, the U.S. Department of Defense's named response to the 9/11 attacks. Muslims took offense to the name, believing that only Allah can mete out infinite justice. This code name, it was thought, would make the military's job harder, so it was quickly changed to Operation Enduring Freedom.

Military "code words", like those in the private sector, are also creative though they are constructed using a prescribed, regimented methodology and approved set of source words. I wonder if the name Operation Infinite Justice followed the Department of Defense guidelines, or if it was created ad hoc?

This page details Department of Defense code name, nickname and exercise term nomenclature. Fellow verbivores will salivate over the Code of Names Handbook (pdf) which lists all two-word code names prior to 1983.

Here are some creative examples. Some seem fitting; others ironic:
Beartrap: USN, classified anti-submarine aircraft program
Big Belly: Conversion program to enlarge conventional bomb load of B-52Ds, 12/1965-
Big Stick: A new Navy bomb-carrying canister for use on A-4, A-6 and A-7 attack aircraft
Blow Hole: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort connected with target location and identification
Cold Flare
: Study of solar flare activity at high altitude, in preparation for polar or high-altitude supersonic flights
College Girls: High level intercept activity against U-2
Face Lift: An Air Force recovery procedure
Idealist: CIA codename for development of U-2
Ranch Hand: Operation, spraying of more than 18 million gallons of 'Agent Orange' and other herbicides from UC-123s over South-Vietnam, 1962-1971
So, where are the most creative names?
Products for kids
Web-based companies
Code names
Find lists of those things and you'll find the most creative names.