What’s in a name?

Naming products is hard. But by staying (more or less) true to a process, we avoided any major mishaps and arrived at a name the whole team could get behind. Here’s how we did it.

This piece is written by Beagle’s creative lead, Aaron Bateman, and originally appeared on the Podio blog.

My favourite naming catastrophe story is that of the Ford Edsel — almost certainly the biggest flop in the annals of the automotive industry. Its 1957 launch was the most expensive of any consumer product in history. But despite all the resources thrown at it, the car might as well have been designed by Nikita Kruschev — the American public just didn’t buy it.

The debacle was chronicled by John Brooks in this 1960 piece for the New Yorker. Here is the key paragraph:

“…although the Edsel was supposed to be advertised, and otherwise promoted, strictly on the basis of preferences expressed in polls, some old-fashioned snake-oil selling methods, intuitive rather than scientific, crept in. Although it was supposed to have been named in much the same way, science was curtly discarded at the last minute and the Edsel was named after the father of the company’s president, like a 19th century brand of cough drops or saddle soap.”

The details behind the naming of the car are instructive. A multitude of executives worked diligently to ensure a name that communicated the right mix of aspiration and individuality. They employed an expensive advertising agency which, after exhaustive testing and polling, eventually arrived at a compelling shortlist: Corsair, Citation, Pacer and Ranger. When he heard the list, Ford’s chairman, Ernest Breech, declared bluntly that he ‘didn’t like any of them’. He later decided on Edsel, and the car’s fate was sealed. It was withdrawn from the market after less than three years with Ford having lost hundreds of millions of dollars along the way.

While it would be unfair to pin the car’s failure solely on its name, it must carry some of the blame. In free association tests, Corsair evoked images of swashbuckling adventure and freedom. We’re not told people’s reactions to Edsel but I expect they were far from favourable.

The obvious point here is that names matter. A bad name might not kill your product, but a good one can help in many ways. It’s an opportunity to anchor the brand you’re looking to craft, to create the right connotations in the minds of your customers, to stand out, to be findable, to be different, to be resonant without being overly hip, and to be enduring.

The example of the Edsel would seem to point to the importance of staying true to a process. I agree with this — to an extent. While you can never really mitigate for the last-minute intervention of a high-flying executive ruining months of hard work, a process can give you solid argumentation that prevents undue interference. But slavish adherence to process for the sake of process can lead you down blind alleys. We gave ourselves the option of the executive decision, but on the proviso that any such decision be data-informed (a subtle but important difference to data-driven).

Anyway, here are some of the key steps we took to arrive at the name Beagle.

Step 1: Forensically examine what your product is addressing

In our case, the product is a way for agencies to create better proposals, faster. We did a deep dive into the proposal process, breaking it down into four core stages:

Exploration — the agency is looking for new-biz opportunities, sales guys are making calls, ‘chemistry meetings’ are taking place. The first interactions between potential client and agency are explorative as both sides assess the pros and cons of working together.

Exchange — the first steps towards a formal agreement. Documents are exchanged, edited and refined as client and agency attempt to ensure a deal and scope that works for both parties.

Woo — throughout the exchange process, the agency’s main goal is to convince the client to do things their way. They’re essentially hoping to seduce them.

Agreement — the ultimate aim of both parties is to find agreement and move forward with a deal that means a good margin for the agency and great work for the client.

We held quick brainstorming sessions for each of the stages listed above. These comprised spending several minutes simply writing what came into our heads when thinking about the key words. For instance, when thinking about ‘agreement’, somebody came up with the synonym ‘Pact’.

Every time somebody came up with a name, they read it out. This ensured fewer duplicates and also served the purpose of sparking inspiration in the others. After a few minutes, we created a long-list and held a rapid pros-and-cons discussion in order to get a basic ranking.

Step 2: Come at it from a tangent

Once we’d exhausted the proposal process from a functional perspective, we spent some time coming at it from more oblique angles. Here are some of the exercises we tried:

The Conversation — Split into pairs and one person explain how the product works to the other. The other person notes down key words. Switch. Report back combined list of key words.

The Child — Split into pairs and explain the product to the other person as if they were a kid. Switch. Note down key words.

The Bird — A free association exercise focusing less on functionality and more on other product attributes you want to convey — elegance for instance. Start with a bird and see where that takes you (eagles denote primacy, vultures are cunning, doves are beautiful etc).

Step 3: Be organised when evaluating

Evaluating potential names is tricky but there are some good tools out there to help you make informed decisions, a lot of them free. We had a long list so our first step was to create an actionable short-list. We removed some that were already product names and then we put the remainder in a Google Doc and had a comment-fest. Members of the team argued for and against certain names and we kept whittling away until we had a shortlist of ten.

Then we put those in a Typeform and asked people to vote for their favourite, and to rank each one. We then submitted the four highest-scoring names to the Igor test. This is a great tool that the naming agency Igor have made available for free on their website. Names are evaluated according to nine criteria including distinctiveness, positioning and sound.

The scores came in and we had a winner. Or so we thought. The name with the highest aggregate score was Hone. It had outscored Beagle, but only just, and when we went back to the Typeform we could see that nobody had selected it as their favourite. It was the equivalent of a journeyman boxer who wins enough bouts to keep getting shots at the title but is consistently knocked out by the champ.

Hone scored particularly well for positioning — it speaks to the need expressed by all agencies to create well-crafted proposals. Our tool is designed specifically to let you continually refine your proposal until you’re confident it’s as good as it can be. But nobody on the team loved the name. Obviously this is less quantifiable but if you’re creating something, you develop an emotional connection to it. If a name doesn’t encapsulate that to some extent, you run the risk of team members subconsciously decoupling from the project. What’s more, the word was not widely understood by the non-native English speakers in the office. So in the end we did make an executive decision and opted for Beagle instead.

As for the name itself, it emerged while we were digging into the exploration phase of the proposals process. My colleague Isis Hassan instinctively thought of Charles Darwin, and the voyage of 1831 that led to him first conceiving of the theory of natural selection. Beagle, of course, was the name of his ship. Here’s hoping it takes us interesting places, too.

Find out more about Beagle, and sign up for the beta here.