Run Client Run: Stories from a 17-year relationship

There's nothing wrong with a one-time fling. It can be fun and fulfilling -- up to a point.

But in my experience, there's no substitute for the deeply satisfying connection when two people are committed to each other for the long run.

I'm talking, of course, about client relationships.

I've been lucky enough to have a relationship with one particular client for over 17 years. Last week, this client -- who has also become a good friend -- launched another business that I named.

I wanted to honor and thank my client by sharing our stories -- and the 11 brand names we've created. I'll also describe my thinking at the moment I named his latest venture, Run Brain Run.

In 1992, I applied for the position of Creative Services Manager at Aladdin Systems, a small software company that specialized in utilities for the Mac. David Schargel was Aladdin's  president and in charge of marketing  -- as all company presidents should be.

Working for a Macintosh software company would be dreamy. I had been an Apple fanboy ever since my Dad got an Apple II+ when I was 12. Aladdin Systems was known for StuffIt, the Mac's de facto compression standard; working for a standard-bearer like Aladdin would almost be like working for Apple. Kinda. Sorta. OK not really. But still....

After David hired me, he said my effusive cover letter got his attention. As I recall, I gushed "I eat, sleep, dream, and drool Macintosh". It sure ain't "bleed six colors" but seemed to do the trick.

And just this week -- 17 years after he first interviewed me -- David revealed the exchange that actually got me hired:
By far, my most memorable moment during your hiring was when I asked you, "Do you drink so much coffee that you sometimes start to shake?"

You did not hesitate for a split-second and said, "Is that going to be a problem?"
Not my clever cover letter. Not my creative chops. Not my enthusiasm. It was my predilection for caffeine that really won him over. And just maybe, he had a hunch that I was -- thanks to my beverage of choice -- quick on my feet. Jittery, but quick.

David and I shared an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny polka dot of an office. During the months we worked in close quarters, I learned a hell of a lot about real-world sales, marketing and customer service. He was a true mentor who also showed me how perfect a boss could be. To this day, I envy his ability to manage people, keep them happy, and help them perform at their best.

The first name I created at Aladdin was SITcomm, easy-to-use telecommunications terminal software that incorporated StuffIt compression.

SITcomm ostensibly stood for Simply Intuitive Telecommunications, but savvy users would spot the StuffIt file extension -- .sit -- built into the moniker. Like the company behind it, the SITcomm name was fun and breezy. Easy for online newbies, but with enough insider-appeal to appease the early-adopter, unduly-influencing, geekier-than-thou critics at BMUG.

As Aladdin Systems' Creative Services Manager, I wore a lot of hats during my three-and-a-half years: copywriter, production artist, designer, ad agency liaison, product marketing lead, product manager, spokesman, product demo guy. I had been there a year or two when David asked me to design a new corporate identity for Aladdin Systems. It would be my first-ever CI project.

The inherent difficulty of designing a logo was made more difficult by the parameters set by the company's senior management team:
  • It had to be an A
  • It had to include a lamp

This is the logo I designed for Aladdin:

To all the brilliant Landor designers I've worked with: Go ahead. Laugh away. Get it out of your system. Hopefully someday -- maaaybe -- I can recoup some of your respect.

David has always been an entrepreneur. He left Aladdin (which he co-founded with Jonathan Kahn, another longstanding client who deserves his own future post) and went into the mobile software business. This was back when Palm Pilot was the name in the PDA category and hadn't yet been shot down by Pilot Pen Corporation.

David wanted his new company name to unequivocally suggest "portable". I came up with Aportis. Probably not my best work.

Aportis' flagship app would be a hierarchical to-do manager and idea organizer. It, too, needed a name.

I remember the moment I came up with Brainforest: I was riffing on the word "brain". I liked its sound, brevity, and evocativeness. "Brain" was relevant and productive -- a good working part. I thought of compound words that included the word (like Brainstem), but also compounds that included a rhyme of "brain".

My thought stream in schematic:

Brainforest would serve as more than a name. It became the organizing principle -- the frame -- for the product. Brainforest stores users' content in hierarchical trees composed of branches and leaves. Neat.

David eventually got out of the software biz and sold Brainforest to Ultrasoft. Lo these years later -- at least a decade -- Brainforest is still available for download.

Our next collaboration would be for something completely different: A Portland walking tour company. After a lifetime of working in the digital realm, David was ready to go analog.

He adopted Portland Walking Tours as the DBA. That name's David's creation and to my surprise it's served him well. Standing out is a tall order for a name so descriptive. But it goes to show that there's more to a company's success than just its name. With an affable, business-savvy founder, even names like Portland Walking Tours -- or Microsoft -- can thrive.

David adopted these names I developed for specific Portland Walking Tours:
  • Epicurean Excursion - An upscale tour for foodies
  • Beyond Bizarre - Explore spooky, dark and paranormal locales (mostly for adults but also for families with kids)
  • Wokabout - A tour of Portland's Chinatown
Walking tours of Portland were just part of David's bigger vision: To create a company where "resident experts" could share their love of a place with travelers and citizens. I was asked to help name that company, too.

The new enterprise would include, but not be limited to, Portland Walking Tours. As a holding company it needed a flexible name. David asked for something business-like, since this would be a business-to-business business.

David liked Hometown Advantage when I presented it. Then, upon hearing that I registered, he positively loved it. As names go, it's a straight shooter. No one's getting fired for hiring a company with that name.

A year later, David approached me with a new challenge: Name an urban "game" company that would be hired for team-building "or just plain fun".

Several name objectives emerged from our early discussions:
  • It should support the key brand idea of "fun with a purpose"
  • It should not include words like "go", "adventure" or "scavenger"
  • It should appeal to corporate team leaders
  • It should appeal to residents
  • It shouldn't sound too athletic
  • It should accommodate many different types of team games and hunts in many different places
I had a blast brainstorming. These themes surfaced organically during the creative process:
  • Hunt/search
  • Games/puzzles/clues
  • Mind/brain/head
  • Groups/teams
  • Out and about
  • Race/quick
When I create names, I go deep then move laterally. Each direction is individually explored as a foundational list of relevant words, word parts and phrases accumulate. After reaching a critical mass of ideas for each theme, I cross-pollinate by combining words from the different categories.

Overlaid on that creative technique, I'll visualize myself using -- and loving -- my client's product. I put myself in an imagined moment where I'm totally absorbed and excited by the sheer awesomeness of what I'm naming. During that time, I believe the make-believe. The feelings, images, and words inspired by my fleeting zeal are fuel for names.

As I thought about David's new game company, I pictured myself in a team on a hunt. We're huddled around a notepad and puzzling through a clue. People are shouting out ideas. I feel the pressure to solve the problem before our opponents. The urgency is palpable, even though it's imagined: "Hurry! Hurry!" "Think faster!"

"Run, brain, run!"


I knew Run Brain Run was a keeper. Just three words capture the quintessential customer scenario, a snapshot of reality. Run Brain Run gives people the feeling they are listening in to a heated contest that's always in progress. A moment of visceral excitement is frozen in time, like a blink that never ends.

Run Brain Run has a distinctive yet natural structure. Very few names repeat its beginning at its end, a rhetorical device called epanalepsis. The only two examples I've found are a boy's sportswear label called No Billy No and the 1960's BBC satire, That Was the Week That Was. If you know of other epanaleptic brands, please do share.

David shared my enthusiasm for Run Brain Run. I'm so glad he ran with it.

Hat tip to Jon Supnick who designed the logo with a wit befitting the name:

Two of the games offered by Run Brain Run I also named:

David, congratulations on your new company.

Thank you for being such a great client.

Long may you run.

- Anth

An equal and opposite reaction: How to wrangle emotions and subjectivity in a naming program

Mel Brooks was asked, "What's the hardest part of making a film?"
He answered, "Cutting all those little holes in the sides."
Naming's like film. The hardest part of making a brand name is the cutting of little holes in the names. In other words, idiosyncratic and subjective reactions — poking holes — are what really make the naming process difficult.

Because emotions and subjectivity are an inevitable part of the process, it's helpful to know how to work well with them.

In the second half of my interview with Irene Gil of Grasp, I discuss key principles and practices for naming practitioners. Her verbatim Spanish translation can be found here.  

Q: It is incredible the quantity of emotions that are managed during the process and how political the decision can be. How can be anxiety managed? How to avoid that names with a good brand potential are rejected at a first sight?
Anthony Shore:
No matter how hard one tries to make it an objective exercise, naming is subjective and emotional. Each client in a meeting has their own associations with a word; it is often assumed — incorrectly — that others will have the same idiosyncratic associations.

Here's how I wrangle the emotions and subjectivity that attend brand naming programs:

Each client needs to feel that their opinions and ideas have been heard throughout a naming program. Active listening, that is re-stating what the client said, shows you've listened. So does writing it down. It's vital that your naming creative brief reflects everything important you've heard; a name presentation should repeat the most important points of your creative brief, and name rationale should feature those same points.

If a client asks you to explore a word or an idea or a name style in your creative work, do it, even if you disagree. You are obliged to advise the client of your concerns, but it's really in your best interest as a naming practitioner to fulfill the client's request. Failure to do so might make the client much less receptive to your names. That same client could "poison the well," and make offhand, pejorative comments that derail other names.

It's often true that good candidate names — especially highly differentiated ones — may be rejected by clients, leading to the brander's paradox: Differentiated ideas are essential to effective branding, yet differentiated ideas are initially rejected simply because they are unfamiliar.
I delve into this topic in Instinct as Enemy where I recommend these techniques to rally support for new and unfamiliar names:

Each candidate name should be said several times so it begins to feel familiar.

When a presenting a differentiated name, give your client examples of other successful product or company names that are comparable in style, metaphor or construction. When a client sees that someone else has tried the same naming approach and succeeded, they'll warm up.  

Presenting candidate names in a real-world context, like a business card, web page or building sign, helps make the candidate name seem less speculative and more like a real, de facto brand.
Q: What do you think should be the role of research in a naming process? Do you recommend the naming test?
Name research must be done mindfully and for the right reasons. In Decisions, Decisions: How to Research Brand Names, I write that research should not be used to "pick a winner." Instead, research should illuminate the names' relative ability to support the brand positioning and attributes. Research can reveal "red-flag" associations and provide creative ideas for messaging and launch of a name. Research can neutralize some of the subjective associations and political dynamics around names.

Name research should not ask customers what names they "like," whether the names "fit with the category" or if they are "memorable." I advise against using focus groups for name evaluation and instead suggest one-on-ones. Focus groups can be useful before naming begins to learn what features or benefits are important to them and what their "pain points" are. This understanding can guide the brand positioning and inform the naming strategy.
Q: Having conducted the Accenture huge naming process, what do you think of employee's competition?
As I mentioned, I believe that great names can come from anywhere. Naivete can inspire wonderful names or terrible ones. Accenture notswithstanding, whose name was developed by an Accenture employee, an employee competition will not very likely bring forth a good, trademarkable name. In my experience, employee contests tend to garner names that are descriptive or obvious. 
Perhaps most problematic, an employee naming contest signals that it's not a difficult, strategic or terribly important matter. Companies do not throw contests asking which competitor should be acquired, whether a line of business should be divested, or how their flagship product should be positioned.

Q: When you work in global names, how do you assure there are no negative connotations in other languages?
You need to ask the right people the right questions and evaluate their answers critically. When people are exposed to candidate brand names in a linguistic check, there are personal associations that would not arise after the name is adopted and launched. The challenge is to determine the nature of foreign speakers' associations. You have to make a judgment: Is a negative response to a name just one person's idiosyncratic reaction or will it be widespread? And if a negative reaction is likely to be widespread, does that really matter?

For example, if Nintendo tested the name Wii for negative connotations in the U.S., it would have bombed mightily: It's homonymous with a childish word for penis and peeing. Yet, the name and product have succeeded because (1) the product's appeal eclipsed its giggle-inducing name and (2) the name was brought to life with animation (the two "i"s bow) and nomenclature (Wiimote). Today, you can ask someone to come over and play with your Wii without getting slapped.

As the success of names like Wii, Virgin, Motley Fool and Banana Republic demonstrate, negative connotations aren't necessarily bad.

These are some of the questions I ask when conducting native speaker checks: 
How will this word be pronounced by a native speaker of your language? 
Is the word similar in sound or appearance to other words in your language? If so, what are those words, how are they pronounced, and what do they mean? 
Are there any inappropriate associations that a native speaker of your language might have with this word? If so, what exactly are those associations and why would they be associated?
Q: Do you think brand names have to be liked by the majority of the target audience or is it good to provoke a certain controversy at least in its launching?
With time and exposure, people will grow to like a name, no matter how they felt about it at launch. The day Accenture launched, a few people quipped the name sounded like "dentures." On day 2, nobody did because the name took on an identity all its own. That happens with all names.

A name is liked as much as the product or company it refers to.  If the product is great, people will think better of its name than if it's lousy. The name Andersen Consulting was revered when a judge compelled the company to rename. Months later, when Accenture's former parent company, Andersen Worldwide, melted down because of Enron, the Andersen name was rendered toxic. Accenture, even though it was a new name, became even stronger and more favorable in the aftermath.

Controversial names have the benefit of being different and memorable; they trigger strong emotions that forge a bond. These are desirable traits in a name. But a controversial name should be borne from the brand positioning. Irrelevant controversy can undermine or overshadow brand messaging. For example, the name FCUK is controversial but well-suited for rebellious teens. But the recently launched Kraft iSnack 2.0 didn't work, even as a "next generation Vegemite." The name was retired after just a few weeks of public ridicule. Cheesybite, a suitable, not-stupid name, took its place.
Q: In my experience, to find a good name is just 50% of the task. The other 50% (or even more) is to convince the company that it is the adequate decision. Do you agree?
For most projects, generating a list of strategic and fresh names is not that hard, especially when you've been doing it for 30 years. Convincing a roomful of clients to adopt the best one is another matter. It's when the rubber hits the road, when clients balk at or mock your names, where experience in naming makes a huge difference. An experienced namer will be able to persuade a client to adopt a powerful, meaning-laden, real-word name or a controversial one. An inexperienced namer might be able to sell-in a name, but it will probably be an "empty vessel" coined name that doesn't arrive with much meaning. Names that don't say anything also don't have much to criticize...or to love.    

Thank you, Irene, for translating and sharing my thoughts with your Spanish readers.

What's in a namer?

It's ironic. I spend my days helping clients exercise discipline and economy in their brand expressions, but can't do that myself once I get talking about naming. Really, it's hard to shut me up. 

Case in point: What should have been a quick little interview for Grasp, a Spanish naming blog, I turned into diatribe so long that it couldn't fit into a single post.

Iberian blogger and namer Irene Gil faithfully translated my responses in their entirety. She must know what it feels like when fingers beg for mercy.  

My English answers to Irene's first two questions are below. Her painstaking Spanish translation can be read here

Q: Anthony, from your long experience, what is the best profile for a good namer? It's an MBA specialised in brand strategy? It's a linguistic with a sound knowledge of different languages? It's a very cultivated person with a broad vocabulary?...
Eleven years ago, a veteran namer told me the best namers are linguists with an MBA. That captures 2 dimensions of a good namer, but I believe that characterization is incomplete.   

Good namers are specialists who, paradoxically, are often the best generalists.

A namer must be a good:

Account manager
Listening to clients, building their trust, reading non-verbal cues from a room of executives, responding positively and not defensively to client concerns and building consensus are all vital naming skills, just as they are good skills in account managers.

Strategist/Account planner
A namer must think strategically to ensure their names support client's business objectives. Strategic thinking and rationale build the namer's credibility and make them more persuasive. Good namers, like good planners, always consider the customer perspective.

Creating good names requires looking at a client's business from many perspectives. Namers must be creatively prolific and fearless. And as fellow "grizzled veteran" namer Mark Gunnion said in this interview,
"You have to be thick-skinned -- 99.9% of what you create is rejected, usually without a second glance or explanation."
Engendering client trust and helping a client see how a word could become their brand requires great storytelling. Your name story and rationale must be persuasive and pass the "sniff test". An effective name presentation brings together the right blend of emotion and logic.

It's a German word that means "a feeling for speech". Good namers understand the nuances of words and meanings. Good namers are articulate. And only a person madly in love with words could become a namer. But love and knowledge of words is not enough. As I wrote in Knowledge vs. Naivete, linguistic expertise is helpful for naming but so is the ability to "turn off" that knowledge and imagine how names would be perceived by a typical customer.

Marketing communicator
Good namers must consider how their names might come to life across all communications: Visual identity, advertising, messaging, PR, merchandising, etc. Although namers typically don't design logos or advertising campaigns, their ability to communicate their names' potential helps identify and persuade the client of the best ones.
Q: If everybody is able to create a brand, why subcontract this task to a namer? What is the added value?
I honestly believe that great names can come from anyone; founder-created names like Apple, Virgin, Amazon and Google prove this. But involving an expert namer can help in ways tangible and intangible:

Make clients money
A great name has the right sound and meaning, making it more likely to be shared by others through word-of-mouth. A great name inspires merchandising that becomes a new revenue source. Great names that can accomplish these bottom-line benefits (and clear trademark hurdles) are more likely to be created by an expert namer than a client who is not an experienced namer.        

Save clients money
A great name is intrinsically memorable so it needs less marketing to be remembered. By giving good advice, an expert namer can help clients' avoid trademark infringement and other costly problems. For example, in 1997 Reebok launched -- and then recalled -- a women's running shoe called Incubus. A good namer with a good liberal arts background would have advised Reebok against this name: an Incubus is a demon who attacks women in their sleep.

Build consensus
A namer is a neutral, disinterested party who can build client consensus and trust because they are insulated from their client's internal politics.      

Accelerate timing
A good namer helps clients avoid problems that can delay naming programs. Pro namers maintain forward momentum by managing expectations, building client consensus, developing a breadth and depth of unique names, and weeding out obviously problematic names in trademark and international linguistic assessment.

Build confidence
A good range of naming creative, logical rationale, name launch strategies and marketing approaches builds client confidence in their name choice. 

Ease client workloads
Clients already have a job to do, and it's probably not naming. An outside namer removes this burden from their client and shields them from the emotional perils of moderating a naming discussion. It's better if an outside expert rejects a [terrible] client-created name than a colleague.
After Irene's fingers recover, she'll translate and post more of my interview.

Creative names the easy way

What does a stylish mobile phone have in common with a nightclub?

When it comes to naming, everything.

Nightclubs and phones can share the same abstract characteristics, so they can share the same name. A nightclub can be stylish, as can a phone. They can both be friendly or alluring or opulent or minimalistic. A trademarked name that suggests any of these qualities in a nightclub will do the same for a phone.

This works because trademarks act like adjectives (e.g. Bounty®) that modify nouns (e.g. paper towels). An adjective retains its essential meaning even when modifying different nouns: A clear window, a clear path, a clear thought. (Technically speaking, trademarks are really not adjectives but "attributive modifiers" as Geoff Pullum of Language Log pointed out.)

Homonymous brands put into practice this principle of persistent meaning. The names Microsoft Excel and Hyundai Excel imply performance. Edge tennis rackets and Edge shaving gel are both edgy. Anything called Venus is for women: razors, phones, emollient, etc.

This phenomenon forms the basis for my favorite creative naming technique:

The cloaked brief

A cloaked brief is ostensibly for a product different than the real one, but shares the same desired brand attributes. The idea is to name something else.

Instead of briefing my creative team on our client's hot, new phone, I'll brief them on a hot, new nightclub.

There are, in fact, cell phones and nightclubs named the same. Geeksugar noticed and made a quiz of it; many quizzes, actually, each based on the similarity between cell phone names and the names of energy drinks, 80's TV shows, ladies' razors, Hitchcock films, Britney songs, perfumes and chewing gum.

I've found cloaked briefings effective for naming both companies and products. Done well, they can inspire and energize "creatives" more than straightforward approaches. A detailed and colorful cloaked briefing enables a namer to suspend disbelief. It immerses them in the lie.

Cloaked briefings will:
  • Inspire strategically-targeted creativity in you and your team
  • Accelerate generation of differentiated and relevant names en masse
  • Increase the likelihood of securing trademark registration because the names are borne of divergent, out-of-category thinking
How to create a cloaked brief:
  1. Establish the key strategic, distinguishing attributes of the thing you are naming (e.g. a mobile phone that's stylish and friendly)
  2. Brainstorm categories of other things that embody those attributes (e.g. nightclubs, spas, concierge services)
  3. Pick a category that's unexpected and interesting (e.g. nightclubs)
  4. Outline a naming brief based on an imaginary yet credible product from that category. The more attributes the imaginary product has in common with the real one, the better. (e.g. name a nightclub in LA that lavishes its guests with attentive service)
The desired attributes should be intrinsic to the cloaked category. Nightclubs are invariably stylish (or strive to be), so that's a good cloaked category for naming a stylish phone. If the phone is rugged rather than stylish, SUVs would be a fruitful creative (mis)direction.

Here's an example from my own experience: On an embedded-technology project, the client said their product will make computers so much more powerful, vibrant and useful that people would be wowed by the experience. Therefore, the new technology name should be as remarkable as the devices that would be powered by it.

How do you inspire remarkable names? Name something remarkable.

A member of my team came up with the brilliant cloaked creative direction to name a remarkable new circus. It would have exactly six of the "World's Greatest" people in it: The world's greatest acrobat, world's greatest magician, world's greatest contortionist, etc. (the number six referred to the six capabilities of our client's product). Every performance would leave spectators agog. Cirque du Soleil would seem lifeless in comparison.

Naming a circus troupe instead of technology? That's like comparing apples and orangutans.

But it worked.

The creative results of the exercise were astonishing; dozens and dozens of names I had never seen on any list made their debut. Having worked on over a thousand naming assignments, that's remarkable indeed.

The names were not just creative, they were also relevant and strategic because they elicited the visceral awe and wonder that defined the brand.

The circus direction was effective because circuses are intrinsically spectacular.

Cloaking is helpful for naming research, too. Asking respondents to rank candidate names against attributes in a cloaked category (instead of the actual product category) can eliminate category bias and increase participants' comfort with differentiated creative. So if you're testing names for a fast microprocessor, tell respondents they are names for race cars or jet engines.

I discuss this and other name research techniques in Decisions, decisions: How to research brand names.

For your next creative naming project, I encourage you to give cloaked briefings and cloaked research a shot.

I'd love to hear back if you've tried this approach and what kind of results you've seen.