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.


  1. A fun and insightfull article.

  2. a light bulb just went off in my head! brilliant!

  3. Thanks for the inspiration Anthony. Great takeaways here.

  4. love it!

    Works best for more abstract products/company names (as opposed to, say, a book title)

  5. Excellent! It reminded me of an article from Dan Herman about the secrets of lasting differentiation: off-core attributes (brandchannel). Maybe looking for names that explore relevant peripherial attributes (like a massage in a flight) is another way of finding unusual proposals. What do you think?

    By the way, your post (1st part) is already on my renewed grasp!

  6. Thank God! A brand strategist and namer who can show us a different way. Your competitors who read this will say, "Damn. 'Wish I thought of that?" Thanks, Anthony.

  7. This is just what I need to "trick" myself into naming my own company. I know the competitive landscape and see I'm "just another copywriter." But naming a circus or nightclub sounds exciting!

  8. Hi, Anth.

    The foundation of this idea is the fact that creativity comes from making unexpected leaps of the imagination rather than describing something. Creativity engages the mind where descriptions do not.

  9. Brilliant Post Anth (as usual). I participated in a project with a cloaked briefing a few years ago. Some members of the team were lost, some were making jokes about how dumb the exercise was, but most of us were energized by the task! When you challenge your brain to work in a different direction, you usually get a different result!

  10. Dear Anthony, this is an interesting post and an interesting idea; thanks. I'm sure some will do some different brainstorming as a result. My own pet peeve about naming, which I've done a lot of particularly in technology, is exiting a "code name" for a product during its development and launching a proper name. It's quite understandable that people developing a product get used to some kind of secret name in their zeal to bring it to market. But it's really hard sometimes to prize a codename from their grip.

  11. Michael, glad you found the post interesting. Code names are compelling for the same reason evocative and arbitrary are compelling. They urge the brain to find a connection between seemingly unrelated ideas. A corollary of Steve's comment above is that creative names make the imagination leap.

    I wrote about the dynamics of code names in this post:

  12. Scott, Tevi, Irene, Marc and Max: Thank you for the kind words.

    Steve, thanks for your great observation.

    Tevi and Irene: Cloaking is really a metaphor exercise. As such, it has broad application beyond brand naming.

    In your example, Irene, an airline that wants to offer extraordinary passenger service should find inspiration from industries that are built to pamper, such as spas or resorts. The metaphor leads directly to the innovation of massages for passengers. It also inspires an in-flight feature I've never seen: A sound-proofed daycare zone so parents and other passengers can enjoy a more quiet trip.

    Tevi, in the case of book titles, metaphor could establish a "frame" for the author's hypothesis (like Black Swan) or point to an idiom that, with a twist, becomes a memorable title (like Chicken Soup for the Soul).