Struggling to create the perfect name for your brand or product? Brand-naming expert Margaret Wolfson shares her top advice for capturing a brand's essence.
What’s in a name? Just ask brand-naming expert Margaret Wolfson, the founder and chief creative director of the successful naming agency, River + Wolf. Based in New York, River + Wolf creates unique, ear-catching product and company names for their clients, and delivers branding strategy, visual assets, and messaging.
As a professional ‘namer’, Margaret, who has an M.A. in Literature and Communications from New York University, has a way with words. Before launching River + Wolf in 2014, she worked as a verbal identity consultant, developing names, stories, and marketing communications for companies around the globe. She’s developed product names for world-renowned brands such as Yum China, Coca Cola, Bangkok Bank, Calvin Klein, Target, Unilever, and Sephora, to name a few.
Margaret combined her skills as a wordsmith with entrepreneurial know-how to make a name for herself across the globe, lecturing on brand naming everywhere from Harvard Club, New York University, and Columbia University, to the Institut Francaise de la Mode and Cinquieme Sens in Paris. She’s also an award-winning author!
We talked to Margaret about how she got into the brand-naming industry and asked her to share her expert advice for creating the perfect brand name.
I first became aware of brand names when I was around eight, visiting an auto showroom with my father. He was an English Professor and took great pleasure in unpacking the metaphorical meaning of various car names. He brought a poetic sensibility to the table, delighting in the sonority of Frosted Flakes, the wholesome promise of Pepperidge Farms, and the Nordic exoticism of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I found the connection between a brand name and a tangible object a source of intrigue even then.
Despite this early fascination, my naming career came later in life. My initial career was as a performing storyteller. When you’re on the road, as I often was, there’s significant downtime, which prompted me to think of ways to productively fill these pockets. Naming fit the bill, and I soon had a steady flow of freelance consulting contracts. After more than a decade of working in performing arts and naming, I chose to focus exclusively on naming. In 2014, I launched River + Wolf.
I think three things account for the success of River + Wolf: passion, persistence, and grace. Without passion, you cannot summon the energy required to produce outstanding work. Persistence allows you to keep going when the inevitable obstacles appear. Grace is the act of expressing gratitude to everyone involved in your company – whether they are employees, consultants, or clients. I believe the practice of these three things, when joined with our commitment to producing stellar names for our clients, is behind the meteoric success of River + Wolf.
The first thing we do is explore the client’s industry – their competitive set, primary markets, and so on. We also work hard to identify what we call the 4 Cs of naming – communication, construction, continuum, and character. The character is the personality of the name: is the brand quirky? Classical? Edgy? Construction is how the name is built: a single word, merged words, a clipped word, a compound word, etc. Communication focuses on what the name should convey, and continuum is where it will fall on what is known as the Spectrum of Distinction – is it descriptive? Suggestive? Allusive? Abstract?
Once we’re clear on the client’s orientation, the naming begins. To keep a project on track, we follow a well-defined naming process, but the act of name development itself is less structured; the mind needs permission to freely roam.
As a namer, you’re always on the lookout for interesting words and expressions – you eavesdrop on nearby conversations, skim magazines, scan newspapers, and take in words whizzing by on a passing truck. You explore multiple languages, the etymology of words, and other linguistic areas, and you spend vast amounts of time studying the actual names of products and companies. Analyzing what makes a name tick is a crucial part of naming. We share some of these findings on our online naming gallery, N.O.D. (Names of Distinction), which highlights 12 striking names in various industries per month.
Naming also requires an appetite for deep research. For example, to name an intelligent platform designed to enhance marine safety, we took a deep dive into oceanography, sea lore, and sailing terms. But it is typical to go further afield when seeking inspiration. For example, we mined unrelated disciplines like neuroscience and computer science to name a new fragrance whose brand story was all about “memory”. Our research led us to the potential moniker Floating Code, a strange but intriguing name as a floating code is a computer term for codes for multi-level flash memories. The best namers are enthusiastic researchers, acute listeners, and experts at lateral thinking.
In general, it’s best to avoid trends when naming. Names need to have a very long shelf-life, and what is trendy today can look dated tomorrow. Recently there was a trend towards tacking a “fy” or “ly” to random words—think Spotify and Grammarly. While fresh at the time, this naming style is now tired. That said, some trends can be timeless. Of late, there has been a trend toward concise, single-word names like Base, Stripe, and Chime. I doubt this trend will become passé.
All brands or industries can be interesting, from finance to fashion and everything in-between. But whatever the industry, our favorite type of project allows room for exploration. Overly restricting a naming project, especially in the first round, generally doesn’t lead to the most interesting names. But even more challenging than this is helping clients understand the severe constraints trademark imposes on naming. Trademark clearance is a very important – and complex – part of naming. The best names in the world are meaningless if they can’t eventually clear in a client’s relevant registers and/or trademark classes.
The reality of today’s highly congested trademark databases has made naming infinitely more challenging than it was even five years ago. But what contributes to an elevated risk level isn’t an easy thing for clients to grasp, even with multiple explanations.
As mentioned earlier, my first professional goal was to become a theatrical storyteller working with musicians. I wanted these performances to take place in all kinds of spaces, and I reached this goal – we performed in conventional theaters like the Sydney Opera House and Kennedy Center and less traditional settings like a tiny village in the Philippines and a moonlit courtyard in Abu Dhabi. I also wanted to write books, because until I write about something I never really understand it.
After a long hiatus, I have returned to book writing, and I’m also interested in investigating how professional namers might better employ Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to support the creative process.
One of the most significant challenges I have faced in my professional journey – and perhaps personal one as well – is learning to embrace the pervasive feeling that we never arrive at our desired destination. We can accomplish goals, but the “destination” itself remains elusive, and the closer you get, the further away it seems. Setting and achieving goals is crucial – they provide the structure needed for a successful personal and professional life. But viewing goals as stepping-stones to a defined destination ultimately leads to disappointment. I think this is because the destination itself shifts every time we accomplish a goal.
I’ve found that the best way to address this is to redefine what one thinks of as a destination. To quote the French writer Marcel Proust, “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.” This mentality is extremely important for those in all walks of life, but especially for creative professionals. You always want to find new ways of seeing, doing and being. Don’t get stuck into grooves or do the same thing repeatedly, even when it’s comfortable. And don’t worry about arriving because you never will. Thinking of a destination as a “new way of seeing” rather than a defined endpoint will keep your professional and personal life fresh, as it forces you to focus on the present. In truth, that may be the best destination of all.
We hope you enjoyed this interview with the brand-naming expert, Margaret Wolfson! While you’re here, check out our Q&As with Branding Agency Pink Pony Creative, Collage Queen Labyrinth of Collages, Apple Emoji Designer Angela Guzman, or read up on these 8 Expert Tips to Boost Your Career as a Freelance Graphic Designer – including expert advice from world-renowned designer Jessica Walsh.