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Thursday, March 5, 2009

When Choosing A Name, Think About The Story Behind It | Small Business Marketing Guide - Brought to you by HP

We humans are all wired for a great story. We love narrative, it’s how we relate to each other and the world. Over the course of the past 20 years I’ve been involved in naming a lot of new things - from the early days at Wired (more on that in a minute) to Web 2.0, to my current work at Federated Media. And as I review all the  names and brands I’ve been involved in starting or advising, one thing becomes crystal clear to me: the best names are ones that have a great story buried inside.

It’s often said that a brand is a “vessel waiting to be filled.” In other words, you can call a new product or service anything, and after a while, if your product is successful, that brand will come to mean whatever experience it ends up delivering. While I generally agree with the thesis, I’ve found that having a great story is a very good way to jumpstart a new brand, and a great way to help sell it and keep defining it in the long term.

A few examples. Let’s start with the first great name I had the pleasure of being involved with: Wired. I had nothing to do with naming Wired, that came from Louis Rosetto and his partner Jane Metcalfe. When Louis called me before launch, “Wired” was associated - to my mind anyway - with a book chronicling the life and rather sordid death of John Belushi. Being “wired” meant you had done a lot of drugs, and I wasn’t sure it was a great idea to associate anything with that concept.

But Louis and Jane were certain the brand would take off, mainly because they were plugged into a small but growing culture of digital counterculturalists who had appropriated the word to mean “connected to the digital revolution.” Sure, the druggy references were negative, but the idea was to turn the connotation on its ear - “Getting Wired” could mean a very good thing. And it fit what the brand delivered, a psychedelic melange of new ideas in design, technology, and culture. Every time Louis and Jane explained the story that Wired was going to cover, it became more and more evident that “Wired” was absolutely the right name for the magazine.

I learned from that experience that when it comes to naming, stick with what resonates with your core customer. That proved out in spades when it came time to name The Industry Standard. We were starting a new kind of magazine and website, one that was attempting to provide strong, hard hitting journalism to an industry flooded with hype and unchecked facts. It was also an industry without standards - from how advertising models might emerge to which technologies and policies would eventually win out. Over and over, as I told the story of what I wanted to start, the phrase “industry standards” became part of my pitch.

But I still didn’t have a name. I started a working group in email with a small number of close industry advisors, bouncing names off of them as I came up with them. We had some real dogs in there - “Internet Weekly News,” for example. I wanted the name to reflect both our journalistic ambitions as well as the challenges ahead for a new industry. I also didn’t want the name to limit the publication’s potential - I was adamant we not call it the “Internet” this or that, because who knew if that word would end up, eventually, being as ubiquitous (and meaningless) as, say, “electricity”?

Then one night while having dinner with two close industry pals, the name hit me as I was explaining my dilemma. “I want a name that has the credibility of great newspapers - words like Times, Herald, Standard - but also had the nuance and entendre of our industry…” The colleague I was speaking with looked at me with a huge grin on her face and uttered exactly what I was thinking: “The Industry Standard!”

I was instantly in love, but the initial response - from partners, investors, and even staff - was anything but supportive. But I stuck to my guns because I loved the story behind the name, and because the folks for whom I was creating the product - my core customers - really got it.  Over time, the name stuck, and I grew to love telling the story of its birth - it became part of our sales materials and our investment pitches.

Web 2 and Federated Media are also names that tell a story. With each, you can start with the name and work backwards to the core “argument” of what the business is all about. And this experience is not limited to companies I’ve been involved in - look at nearly every successful Internet company, and the name tells a story. Google, of course, is derived from “googol”, a number so large as to be unimaginable, and was chosen to reflect the vastness and potential of the search engine Larry Page and Sergey Brin were attempting to create. Yahoo, many might not know, is actually an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” a name Jerry Yang and David Filo liked both because it reflected the fun and energy of trying to organize the entire web, and because as an acronym, well, it was just a lot of fun.

I could go on and on, but the main point is this: Great names turn into great stories, and vice versa. When you think about naming a new product or service of your own (or renaming one that perhaps needs a fresh take), start with the story you want that product to tell. Tell that story to yourself, your colleagues, anyone, over and over. Trust me, the name will come.

When Choosing A Name, Think About The Story Behind It | Small Business Marketing Guide - Brought to you by HP

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