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.