Five minutes with Maria Cypher
Maria Cypher, co-founder and creative lead with U.S. naming agency Catchword Branding, speaks to Transform magazine about the ins and outs of naming, including unique challenges of company naming, the difference between company and product naming and why this is such an important part of a brand identity.
What is the difference between company and product naming?
Although there are many process similarities, company naming is usually more logistically challenging, with more stakeholders and greater legal and domain-name requirements. With company naming, it’s essential that the name not limit expansion into adjacent or entirely new business areas. This means that names tend to be less functional and more aspirational and metaphoric in nature.
Another difference is that product names can be localized to different markets and cultures, but company names usually need to travel well and resonate across borders.
What are the unique challenges of company naming?
Simply put, the stakes are higher in creating company names, and more people, including the CEO, are typically involved. Choosing a company name feels personal and consequential. It needs to resonate deeply and last far into the future. That’s a lot of pressure! As a result, it can be harder to pull the trigger.
The reason for the new company name is also a factor in how the project will unfold. There’s a huge difference in naming a VC-backed startup, versus a $3 billion corporate spin-off or a merger of two titans. And then there are companies that need a new name because they’ve changed business models or because they’re infringing someone else’s mark.
A good company name should also be a springboard for storytelling and even for corporate culture—so there’s a lot of responsibility to deeply understand who the client is and what they’re trying to accomplish.
How can a global brand/company adopt a name that would resonate well with all its different audiences?
For names that need to convey meaning globally, we would typically explore English, Romance languages, and Latin/Greek roots, as these are familiar to global consumers. We would also avoid consonant clusters while prioritizing the universally easy consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel structure.
Linguistic and cultural checks help to ensure that names are appropriate and appealing across markets, revealing whether a name delivers on desired messaging, has pronunciation issues or undesirable associations, or recalls other brand names. It’s important to work with people living in the countries in question, so they are up-to-date on slang and local brands.
And it’s of course crucial to avoid cultural appropriation. As an example, a word that has recently entered common parlance for English speakers is the Finnish word Sisu, which refers to an almost mythic level of resilience and grit. While it’d be easy to consider this short and interesting word as a brand name, you’d have to think carefully before blithely adopting a word that Finns use to express their hard-earned national character.
Why is naming important to create a solid brand identity?
I’m surely biased, but a name is arguably the most important part of brand identity, influencing and interacting with every concentric branding circle around it. It has to manifest brand positioning, express brand personality, and accord with the brand’s look and feel. It’s the ultimate mental shorthand for the audience’s experiences; it is the brand. And the type of name—abstract, fanciful, suggestive, descriptive—also establishes how hard other marketing levers need to work to communicate what the company or product does.
How has naming changed over the last quarter of a century?
I feel well-qualified to respond to this question as I started my career in naming in 1995! Industry-wise, naming has gone from being the little-known, neglected stepsibling to advertising and branding to an all-grown-up, respected discipline offered by almost 5000 firms (listed on Clutch alone). This growth has been largely driven by the difficulty of finding appealing names that are available.
Domain and trademark considerations have also affected the styles of names over the past quarter century. The search for available dot-coms arguably drove the dropped-vowel trend of the oughts, evidenced in names like Flickr, Razr, Tumblr (but extending even into the recent launch of Abrdn). That yielded to the -ly trend, seen in Boxly, Grammarly, Ideeli, Urgent.ly, Avidly, and countless others. More recently, there’s been a large number of single-syllable, real-word names like Nest and Slack. Our philosophy has always been to not name to trends, to ensure that names endure even as language and culture change.