JAC& CHATS — Brand naming with Eli Altman
It takes a village to create and grow great brands. In this series of interviews, we’re talking to the people who help do just that. These are people that we admire for the work they put out into the world, and their approach and ethos too. Without further ado, meet our first JAC& CHAT participant, Eli Altman!
Eli grew up drawing and writing in Northern California. He led his first naming project at 16 years old and has been naming ever since. Eli is the author of Don’t Call It That, a naming workbook, Run Studio Run, a guide to managing and growing a small creative studio, and is the co-creator of Go Name Yourself. He has talked naming and branding with The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the Guardian. Before joining A Hundred Monkeys, Eli was a brand strategist leading the naming practice at MetaDesign, San Francisco.
Tell us a bit about how you work with brands at A Hundred Monkeys?
All good relationships are two way streets. We want to work with people who are excited to work with us and vice versa. We like to work with brands doing work that benefits plants and animals, including humans. At the very least we want to make sure they aren’t hurting anyone. We look to avoid relationships where we would be classified as a “vendor.”
Our client relationships tend to start with naming. Many of them expand into brand messaging and other forms of writing that hopefully are never called “content.” We’re not big believers in brand archetypes or personas or anything like that. The most important thing to us is doing work that’s useful for our clients.
How does a positive naming experience add value to a brand? Alternatively, if someone doesn’t take it seriously, what evils await them?
Brands only exist in context. A name is never just a name and a logo is never just a logo. The context, environment, and experience always work together to shape perception of a brand. Naming, considering it usually happens so early in the creative process is often hard for people to see in context because the context hasn’t been created yet. For many companies and products the name is the first real concrete statement the brand is making. Your name also happens to be the only element of your brand that can go absolutely everywhere, including conversations. Good names get reactions—smiles, questions, inquisitive glances. Bad names go in one ear and out the other.
Considering a name is such a small element (often a word or two), it can never communicate everything you’re looking to say with your brand. Understanding this, a name is about getting people to come closer and engage with you. It’s an attractor—and if it works, you’re putting people in a position to learn more about you and see if they want to keep you around. The number one misconception people have about brands is that people are going to be as interested in what you’re doing as you are. There’s far too much noise out there for that. You need to give them a reason to stick around. And while you’re at it, try to get them to say something back before you bombard them with newsletters and shit they don’t need. Remember, relationships are two way streets.
Finding the right fit can be hard for clients. Any advice on what they should be looking for when it comes to partnering up with a naming agency?
A lot of our clients are design firms and other creative agencies. In these situations you should just be looking for work you like from people you enjoy talking to. From there you can start to build some trust and an understanding of the best way to work together. For non-creative industry clients it’s really important to have an understanding of, and belief in, the creative process. Yes, you should like the creative output, but every name selected by a client is about their specific needs and situation. Believing in the process gives you the confidence to believe you’ll end up with a great name. Almost forgot to mention budget—probably a good idea to get on the same page about that.
Without divulging your deepest secrets, what % of someone’s budget should be dedicated to naming?
Ah, you read my mind. As far as percentage of your budget it really depends on how big the project is. We typically price based on a few factors like timing, trademark clearance, and number of stakeholders. In my experience naming fees are about on par with logo fees. The most important thing for us is working on interesting projects that make a difference. If that’s what you’re working on, we’ll bend over backwards to make the budget work if that’s what it takes.
Any advice or tips for someone starting a new brand, or growing an existing one?
Trying to appeal to everyone is the fastest way to appeal to no one. Being clear on what your brand isn’t is often as useful as understanding what it is.
Be different in a meaningful way. No tricks or buzzwords—make it very easy for your audience to understand what sets you apart.
Don’t pay too much attention to what your competition is doing brand-wise unless you’re using it to go in the opposite direction. If you pay too much attention you’ll end up looking just like them whether you’re trying to or not.