What’s in a name?
You are flush with ideas, ready to turn your passion into a storm of momentum. With a logo and website, you will be ready to change history. First, however, you need a name.
As a designer and brand strategist, many people have come to me with sophisticated plans for great organizations and campaigns. Unfortunately, they arrive with lackluster names already stamped on business cards and stained into web browser address bars. It’s hard to design a successful logo when working with a boring or dysfunctional name.
Below are a few ideas and exercises to guide you from the realm of possibilities toward a smart and true solution.
Name your organization, not the idea that started it. Start your work or campaign and gain some experience. Your original idea will evolve. Give your campaign or organization a working title. Don’t let naming it hold you back, or worse, rush to a name because you think you can’t move forward without it. It’s easier to survive with a working title for 6 months than it is to endure a terrible name for decades. Your name is everything. You deserve the best.
Unfortunately, a few days of gathering ideas from friends is not likely to lead you toward an ideal solution. If you want a memorable, meaningful name that will give you a unique place among the world’s kabillion other organizations, then pause, and let’s do this right.
The rest of this article is divided into 2 parts:
- Do it wrong – Nonprofits and acronyms
- Do it right – Six steps toward a creative solution
Do it wrong.
Nonprofits and Acronyms
Acronyms often replace names that are too long for common use. Why spell out Center for Urban Collaboration and Services, when you could just write CUCS? Why pronounce the whole name when you could say kooks?
When acronyms appear, they dilute an organization’s identity. The public hears two names used inconsistently to describe one thing. They hear each name half as often as they would otherwise. This weakens the public’s ability to recognize an organization and remember its work. It burdens an organization’s staff with the constant need to explain.
For curious reasons, nonprofits not only accept acronyms, they strive for them. Campaign organizers will often wrestle with words and prepositional phrases, trying to find something that works. They struggle, and then often settle for a name that barely retains meaning despite its double form.
Why not just choose an apt name that means what it says? Does the name your parents gave you also stand for something else? If it did, would people more easily understand who you are or what you do? Hi, I’m M.a.t.t.h.e.w. That stands for Man And Teacher That Has Extensive Wit. Yes, it’s true, acronyms always make terrible first impressions.
Organizations need a strong name, not a gimmick or puzzle. They need a memorable name free of footnotes.
Businesses have Learned
Businesses stopped using acronyms decades ago. Look around, and you’ll find antiquated technology companies or investment firms that have probably spent millions in the last few decades trying get away from their acronym. Who would you rather emulate? Apple or International Business Machines?
Two things will help you fight the urge to form an acronym:
- keep your name short, and…
- lean on a tagline.
Taglines: the antidote to dysfunctional names
Acronyms try to do what taglines are better equipped to accomplish. They can clarify and extend your name. They can celebrate your work. Unlike your name, you will never find yourself stuck with a tagline. You are free to change your tagline every few years as you grow and change.
Remember that your name will never be experienced out of context. People will see it on a website or hear it in a conversation. It should provide an anchor for their knew knowledge, not try to explain it. It should represent, not describe. The name should be memorable and expressive, helping people notice, recognize, and remember.
Do it right.
Six steps toward a creative solution
Build a name, don’t guess it. Be creative, but devise a process that will navigate you from the realm of possibilities toward a smart and true solution.
Below are six steps, a recipe for constructive brainstorming.
Step one – gather all the names of national groups that do what you do, and of more loosely related organizations in your location. Review the list well, but not obsessively, or you’ll cloud your creativity. Set this list aside for now.
Step two – Make 3 lists of every noun, verb, and adjective related to your work. Consider your activities and goals, location and landscape, values and (of course) audience. The lists should be exhaustive. You can get your friends to help with this stage, but you should also draw from stakeholders. Use pen, paper, and an old fashioned thesaurus. For this, they’re more helpful than a computer.
Step three – Group the words by meaning, and choose one that best identifies each bunch. Innovative, new, first, adventurous, pioneering. Pioneering. Pioneers. The chosen word can be colorful, but not at the expense of clarity. This is a good point to start erasing ing’s.
Step four – make a list of metaphoric words that connect with one of the word groups. Strong, dependable, experienced – Redwood. Try to stick with one word metaphors. Draw on your location, audience, and the spirit of your work.
Step five – pair one of the more evocative words in your lists with another that’s concrete and descriptive. Pair one of the metaphors with something that’s more literal. Repeat and remix. Be like a robot and try to make as many pairings as possible. Don’t evaluate at this stage, create. Combine and recombine. Remember not to bore. Cut long words in half. Be bold. Be unlikely. Act out to the utmost.
Remember that less is more: avoid names with 4 or 5 words. Your name shouldn’t be a mini-sentence. You’ll find avoiding that much easier if you stop being so literal, and trust your tagline. Your name should reflect your essence, not describe your service. People will not see your name out of context or in a bubble. It will be on brochures, in conversation, in an email newsletter.
Step six – You’ll know your name when you find it. Compare your top three favorites against your list of national groups and related organizations.
Test these favorites on a focus group (of stakeholders, not friends). Ask your group how they feel about the names, not how they imagine someone else will feel about it. A room full of theories will always be less accurate than honest and direct feedback.
Test the names, but trust your gut. Get the group’s feedback, but remember that it’s your name, not theirs. Unless your organization is timid, safe, or long-winded, your final choice should be short, memorable, and bold. You final choice should feel like your name.
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