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Meredith Muncy, Vibrato Naming

What I do, Why it's Important, and How it Makes a Difference


What do I do? I remember being asked that question by a pair of bubbly newly weds on a Mexican island at a raucous eatery 13 years ago. As a Greenwich Village resident, I answered plainly that I was a playwright. The blissed-out pair froze, having NO idea what to say next -- should they be happy for me or issue condolences?

What do I do? I still stop party conversations when I answer that question. That's because I name things - products, services, companies, programs, films, and philanthropic initiatives ... I've worked on naming everything from a wireless communications service in the UK to an under-wire feature on a bra.

I also stop the conversation when I'm asked, "So what've you named?" I'm forever tongue-tied, because when I'm on an assignment, I can't remember the last one I've just finished. Obsessed, I hole up in my office for 10-16 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week, poring over volumes and volumes of books and magazines for 3 weeks … ransacking my imagination for all of the creative synapse I can muster.

Another hazard of my occupation: I often take on the character of the brand while I'm working on it. Years ago when naming a new MicroBeer, working day and night at Landor Associates NY, I was perpetually thirsty for … lager or ale. Before the assignment, I could take it or leave it. I named a number of ice cream flavors for a New England company. You can imagine. On a healthier note, when I worked to name a family health center, I got back into jogging. Another positive: I worked to name a new Italian liqueur and was so ensconced in my Italian references that 3 weeks later, when the brand managers arrived from Milan, I understood when they whispered among themselves (and actually interrupted them in Italian) - which I had never studied previously.

People ask, "So, you just think up a name?" Well, actually I think of hundreds of names. Sometimes over a thousand naming candidates on a single project. I wed knowledge (from books, films, my experience …) with my imagination. I use poetic alchemy to coin new names. I leverage a library with over 180 references. I score every name according to the client's strategic objectives and my creative standards - a lot of mission-critical criteria. Then there are the preliminary trademark searches, URL issues, foreign translation concerns, and my humble but powerful phonology test. So do I just think up a name? I answer, "Yes, but not really." You can see the disadvantages of small-talking with me at parties.

Well, I confess, I did "just think up" names myself until about a year ago, when I crystallized, codified and solidified my process and hired 12 naming creatives whom I'd "auditioned" over the years unofficially. Once I found them, I hosted "Naming University," in January of 2001, lecturing the 12 for about 5 hours, handing out a Naming Creatives' Operations Manual (which was as much work as my masters thesis), dividing up a vast library of references, distributing Mozart c.d.s, and other tools I won't share, because they are the secret ingredients to my Colonel's recipe … I gave them NomenCulture, the methodology behind my creative process, which has a kind of Idiot-Savant rhythm to it. The idiot phase is like playing in a sandbox of endless ideas, metaphors, syllables, memes. The savant phase is like poetic alchemy, combining the most exciting and unexpected elements.

For an example of this cross-pollination idea, when naming an award-winning documentary about a road trip for an Asian-American woman searching for her Asian culture across America, I harvested a lexicon from the American automotive industry and highways, and then I harvested a lexicon against all things familiarly Asian … That's how I coined Honk if You Love Buddha.

Why is Naming Important?

The name of a product, service, or company serves as both an impact symbol and suitable vessel of relevant meaning for an offering's audience. The name, both in terms of form and content, is the pithiest expression of your brand; therefore, its message must not only resound like a clarion bell above the uproar in an increasingly congested marketplace, but also ring true, resonating with the target market, past and future employees, potential affiliates and partners, and Wall Street. If your brand can inspire, motivate and persuade these people, you can compete.

Carrying your brand message, your name should really work hard for a company. Your name should:

- Persuasively speak to all the constituencies among your audience;

- Assert your differential advantage in a sustainable, credible, and relevant manner;

- Rankle your competition;

- Shoulder as much of your marketing burden as possible;

- Capture attention, set expectations, and build recognition;

- Reflect the voice, spirit, and values of your offering;

- Allow for the evolution of your offering, technology, and social mores;

- "Dance" when viewed in print;

- Strike the proper balance between being timeless and timely;

- Result from an extensive exploration of naming solutions.

Brands have long-since migrated beyond features-and-benefits identifiers. Brands have recently moved beyond serving solely as marketing assets that build equity. Today, brands actually interact with audiences, delivering meaning into our lives on a host of personal and cultural levels. As Harvard professor Susan Fournier contends, "today a brand is a relationship."

A name should powerfully and memorably initiate that relationship.

How Naming Makes a Difference

A strong brand name will contribute to the vitality of a business. A wrong brand name may rob a business of that value. In terms of Wall Street: A Senior Vice President at a major brokerage firm contacts current and potential investors over the phone and without any visual aids, wielding only her voice and knowledge, makes deals - often big ones. She currently controls $160 million for her clients. But when a company name sounds dowdy or dated, investors balk no matter how compellingly she sells it.

"Companies with great value, promise and management often labor under the wrong name." She lamented over a valuable company whose name sounds like "Cow Pie" over the phone - although written out on a page, Calpine, you'd never guess it. "It's a tough sell."

A naming candidate may have passed with flying colors through myriad hoops (the strategic objectives, creative standards as well as the often heartbreaking and humbling trademark search), but when spoken over the phone, the name may sound like "cow pie," and then it's all over. But our Senior VP assures us, "In contrast, I've seen company stock values increase based on nothing but a great name."

What else makes for a wrong name and how does it hinder a company? The name may carry the wrong associations, wield no relevance to the people who matter to the success of the business, or be too generic.

Conceptus is another strong company that initially created fertility solutions, but eventually discovered an amazing fertility prevention procedure and marketed it. "Conceptus became a perfect misnomer. I had to explain to potential investors that Conceptus' off-strategy name did not mean their management was poorly directed. To be sure their wrong name hindered their value in the market." They have since changed their name.

The name Live Entertainment was tainted by tragedy when the Menendez brothers murdered their father, the CEO. The name Live Entertainment was tarnished for other reasons. Mark Curcio of Bain spearheaded the re-branding initiative as Live's new CEO. He explains, "The company had filed chapter 11; never produced a theatrical film of any quality; and had a reputation for straight-to-video schlock. It was imperative to restructure the company and re-brand it." Thus Live became Artisan. As Bill Block, Artisan's president, said, "It was only after our new brand was in place that the company could attract the talents of sophisticated directors like Polansky and Soderbergh."

Take They no longer created homepages. They had innovated far beyond their flagship offering. They became Frontera. Potential partners, investors, and customers took note.

Internet Billing Service was not only untrademark-able, it was unremarkable, lacking character, voice, resonance, and appeal. It was not memorable, enduring, or distinctive. For good reasons, IBS became Jettis.

Certainly the new name isn't the magic pill, but the entire re-branding effort likely is!


The Author

Meredith Muncy is the Chief Executive Officer of Vibrato Naming. After studying creative writing at Brown University's graduate school and earning an MFA from Columbia University, Meredith worked in Manhattan as a creative consultant for some of the top identity agencies in the world. Since creating her own firm, she has developed an extensive client base in entertainment and e-commerce and has named companies, products, services and even an Academy-Award winning film. Over the years she has crystallized her naming methodology, auditioned and trained 12 talented wordsmiths, and formed alliances with some of the best creative minds in the industry. She pools these valuable resources in Vibrato Naming, Incorporated.

Contact Meredith Muncy by e-mail: and visit .

Many more articles in Branding in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2001 by Meredith Muncy. All rights reserved.

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