Interview with Maria Cypher from Catchword, the creator behind names like Asana, Vudu and Upwork
As Catchword’s co-founder and creative lead, Maria Cypher oversees creative strategy for one of the world’s leading naming firms. She has created names for Starbucks, PwC, McDonald’s, Fitbit, Intel, Unilever, and hundreds of others over the course of over two decades. In this interview with us, Maria shares current trends in brand naming, the secrets to a successful name, and absolute No’s in naming a business.
Why is picking the right brand name so critically important for a business?
A good name is the foundation for a great brand. It’s the first thing people see (or hear!) — and often leaves the very first taste or impression of an offering for consumers. In the case of a company name, it can also do double the work, setting the tone for the culture (think: Microsoft vs. Google) or even establishing an overarching philosophy or premise (a good example being The Honest Company). Finally, a brand name has to be able to flex with changing times and business strategies. Companies are a bit like people, constantly growing, pivoting, and evolving.
What are some of the trends in naming? Is there a naming trend that you have very strong feelings about?
Today, real-word names, and especially straightforward nouns, are highly desirable. Think of Nest, an iconic name quickly signaling home; Flow, a task-management tool; or Line, a messaging app allowing for direct “lines” of communication. These names remind us of older names like Word (Microsoft’s word processor) in their honesty and clarity and can do a lot of heavy lifting to communicate the brand’s value proposition to key audiences.
A second trend we are seeing, particularly in the retail and restaurant landscapes, is names constructed of two words that utilize the ampersand (for instance, Boll & Branch, a luxury bedding company, or Market & Spruce, a proprietary StitchFix brand). These names are popular because they allow for infinite combinations, and in increasingly crowded markets, they make it easier to register the mark. (In fact, this trend is so very hot right now, Catchword deconstructed its many parts in a recent blog post.)
As for our own team, we generally avoid naming to trends. But what’s most important is that we build a brand that is aligned with our clients’ P.O.V. and that we have a deep understanding of the marketspace and the target audience, ultimately driving toward the best name given these factors.
We have seen Dunkin’ Donuts drop the donuts from its name, Domino’s Pizza dropped the pizza, and Weight Watchers are now known as WW. What is that about?
Health, health, health! In terms of Dunkin’ Donuts and Domino’s Pizza, I think we are seeing strategic moves made by two large companies to distance themselves from their original staple foods, which may be seen as less healthy. We’re also seeing them expand their menus and repertoires (from donuts to breakfast wraps, and pizza to salads and sides), and so dropping Donuts and Pizza helps widen each brand’s potential offering.
WW, too, is changing with the times. With people moving away from calorie counting and traditional weight-loss programs — toward nutrient-dense eating and holistic approaches to wellness — WW is reimagining its own narrative to resonate with these societal trends.
What’s the biggest mistake you see companies making regarding naming? Are there common pitfalls you see repeatedly?
Probably the biggest mistake we see at Catchword is companies selecting names that are too limiting or narrow, or that fail to account for growth. Two well-known examples are RadioShack and Dressbarn, both of which have been hampered by semantics and tonality.
We also see a number of other mistakes during the naming process itself. These include:
● Not creating enough name candidates to successfully navigate the many filters the process requires: trademark clearance, linguistic checks, domain availability, human subjectivity, etc. (At Catchword, we typically create well upwards of 1000 names.)
● Creating and selecting the kinds of names that won’t clear trademark.
● Asking people who haven’t been involved in the naming process to evaluate name candidates (oftentimes, these folks don’t “get” the strategic objectives and come to the table with idiosyncratic thoughts that aren’t productive: “That name reminds me of my Aunt Lucy’s dog, who bit me when I was in the 7th grade…”)
Do names or branding ever become dated? If so, then what?
Brands become dated for a variety of reasons, including societal trends (e.g. Weight Watchers), the evolution of a product line or a shift in language usage (e.g. Dressbarn), or the death of a naming trend. With regard to the latter, there are some trends that really do date a company or product — think Flickr or Grindr, or the -ly names that were popular just a few years ago.
Still, not all names need to “fade” over time; with proper branding, including logo and identity refreshes, a name can endure. Consider Microsoft, Intel, and IBM (which was originally International Business Machines, of course). And some names allow for flexing. About 15 years ago, we renamed California College of Arts & Crafts (CCAC) to California College of the Arts (CCA), as the term “Arts & Crafts” had lost meaning and relevance for younger generations. We needed to balance existing equity with the need for an update, and, in this case, it was very possible.
From generation to selection, how long does it normally take you to choose a final name? How do you know you’ve landed the right choice??
The ideal naming process is 6–8 weeks, but this is dependent on many, many factors: countries the offering will live in, number of decision-makers involved, the sheer scope of the business, etc. You can imagine how different the process would be naming a niche food product for the U.S. market, versus naming a $3 billion tech spinoff with global operations.
Regardless of company or project size, choosing a name is guaranteed to be both thrilling and terrifying. Creativity is inherently subjective, and it’s not like math, where there is a right answer to the “problem.” So while clients move forward with confidence when they know a name meets all the strategic and creative objectives, they may not feel it in their bones till they receive customer feedback for the first time, or they see their name on a product or website — in other words when the name becomes concrete. After 25 years in the business, I try to stress that affinity takes time. There is rarely that “Aha!” moment or warm, fuzzy familiarity you get with a brand like Apple or Google that has millions of dollars of marketing support behind it.
What’s a name that you’re really proud of coming up with?
Asana is a name I’m really proud of; coming from the Sanskrit word for “yoga pose,” it was the embodiment of the business we were naming, speaking readily to a platform that promoted the smooth management of projects and ceaseless “workflow.” I also really like Vudu for its tie to magic and its structure and simplicity; and Upwork as a more straightforward name that squarely positions the freelance marketplace. But, honestly, my favorite is usually the last name we came up with!
What would you say is a total “No” in naming?
There are many ways to falter in naming, but two big ones are:
1. Avoiding taking creative risks so that you end up sounding like everyone else (where would Amazon be if they’d launched as BookMarket?).
2. Not doing legal or linguistic checks before building out your brand. Cease-and-desist letters are no fun.
How do you cater for international audiences when coming up with a name? Should entrepreneurs think global from the outset?
We always think globally at Catchword. We work to develop names with global pronunciation in mind — which means, for example, avoiding consonant clusters and favoring CVCV (consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel) constructions. We also consider English or Latinate terms that tend to be more understandable to a wide global audience, and we frequently do legal and linguistic checks outside the U.S.
Entrepreneurs should also be thinking globally from the get-go. It’s so important that they don’t limit themselves with a name with a negative meaning or connotation in another country, or vie for a name which is unavailable in a key — or future key — market. And, honestly, companies that have an online presence are, whether they know it or not, already global; the web is omnipresent and accessible anywhere
We hope this will be of use to you in the process of getting your perfect domain name. If you have any questions, need any help or just want to chat to someone about the process, book a free consultation using the form below. We are always happy to hear from you.