The Name Game

The practice of naming is riddled with paradoxes and challenges, but punctuated by moments of real fun for those of us who enjoy the craft of language and the art of wordplay. Because your name is the most identifiable signifier of your brand, landing on one demands a high degree of objectivity on the part of “namers” and decision-makers. Ideally, a name should apply to a large cross-section of people—even if it’s intended to resonate with specific audiences—leaving room for future growth and the addition of new audiences. At the same time, reactions to names are highly subjective, colored by personal memories and associations. A name with positive associations for one person may be repellant to another based on negative associations. This is natural. Words define our understanding and experience of the world, and we all see the world with different eyes and experiences. 

Having named dozens of brands, organizations, and publications over the past sixteen years, Athletics has presented thousands of options to countless clients. In the process, we’ve developed a methodology for naming (and renaming) designed to navigate between the Scylla of bland objectivity and the Charybdis of selfish subjectivity. We recently applied this methodology to a rich challenge: renaming The New Food Economy, an award-winning investigative newsroom focusing on American food through the lens of policy, business, culture, technology, and the environment. Below, we share a few of the principles that underpin our naming methodology, and examine how we applied them during the renaming of The New Food Economy.

1. Set ground rules before throwing the first pitch

What is our audience? What territories, subjects, or types of names do we want to explore? What ideas can we riff on? What is our purpose? What existing names do we love? It’s critical to work through these questions with stakeholders on the client side before naming gets underway. Based on the answers to these (and other) questions, we develop an agreed-upon “Naming Brief” that will serve as the criteria against which names can be assessed and judged throughout the process. This is a chance to seek consensus before names are generated, providing both a compass and guard-rails for the naming team. However, while a firm foundation is important, it’s equally important to keep things fluid, and allow new ideas, references, and territories to shape ideation.

It’s also helpful to set some expectations up front. First, we like to remind our clients that no one name can communicate everything. A good name communicates something essential about your brand, but doesn’t necessarily answer every question or address every nuance. Second, it’s important to remember that a brand is made of many elements: typography, photography, copy, environments, and so on. That being the case, a name is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit an important one. Third, we encourage our partners to keep an open mind. That’s the hardest part. Names considered great today—Nike, Google, Virgin—would probably have raised eyebrows when first presented. Names grow and take on new meaning based on the actions and behaviors of a company.

“The Athletics team helped us identify core qualities we wanted the new brand to evoke, a framework that took much of the ambiguity and guesswork out of the process.”
Joe Fassler, Deputy Editor, The Counter

Here are a few core elements of the Naming Brief we developed for The New Food Economy: 

Overarching goals

  • Maintain a sense of gravitas and editorial objectivity
  • Consider evolutions of “New Food Economy” to maintain equity in existing name
  • Keep in mind that the publication is primarily for an American readership, with US-focused content
  • Make the name magnetic, so it makes people curious and inspires them to participate
  • Avoid anything too cute or eccentric (think Lucky Peach)

Audiences to consider

  • “Industry Insiders,” or readers who have a stake in the industry (farmers, distributors, chefs, and so on)
  • “Armchair Ethicists,” or readers with a sense of consumer responsibility who also appreciate a good narrative
  • “Conscious Foodies,” or food lovers with a budding sense of consumer responsibility

Categories (or “buckets”) for naming ideation

  • Immediacy / Dynamism (names that evoke speed)
  • “-vore” (names that end in “vore,” as in “omnivore”)
  • Appetite / Eating (names that play with the act of consumption)
  • Cooking / Media (names that play with the act of preparing food)
  • The World of Food (names that riff on other aspects of food)

2. The more the merrier, the earlier the better

Would you let a panel of experts decide the name of your baby? Sounds like something out of 1984, right? Outsourcing the naming of your brand isn’t entirely different. A brand is the child of hard work and determination, involving herculean investments of time and money, blood, sweat, and tears. Recognizing this, it’s important to invite all voices, on both teams, to submit naming ideas, particularly early in the process. That can include friends and family members of the client team members. This stands in stark relief to other aspects of the creative process. While we’re all about collaboration, we don’t, for example, invite clients to design logo options or type pairings to present alongside our own. Recognizing this understandable sense of ownership, and in response welcoming input from all angles, creates humility within the agency naming team, and breeds trust and engagement on the part of client stakeholders.

One good thing about the name The New Food Economy is that it sounds expansive — it refers to shifts within American food writ large, without singling out any one aspect of food production. In other words, it suggests a totality, a whole. As soon as we started exploring potential alternative names, we realized how much we'd taken that quality for granted. Most food-oriented words have highly specific connotations.
Joe Fassler, Deputy Editor, The Counter

Names submitted by The New Food Economy team included:

3. Kill your darlings

It’s the harsh reality of the commercial design industry: you often have to condemn your favorite directions, designs, or concepts to the waste bin of creative history. Naming is no different. There’s an incredible buzz to coming up with what you think is a perfect name. But, as the second of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism reminds us: the origin of all suffering is attachment. It’s best not to get attached to any one name, or even any list of names. Nonetheless, we always present our team’s five to ten recommendations, along with descriptions and etymology, a list of opportunities and challenges associated with each name, and “usages,” or sample sentences using each name to get a sense of what they feel and sound like in context. It’s great to fight for options you believe are winners, but the nature of naming invariably requires you to renounce your ego, and trust the client team. If it makes you feel better, keep the name in a list somewhere. Who knows, it might come in handy for a future assignment.

Among the names we enthusiastically presented and begrudgingly abandoned for The New Food Economy:

4. Learn to love curveballs

It doesn’t matter how many hours you spent combing through niche dictionaries online (we’d give the Oxford Dictionary of Food and Nutrition 5-stars). Or that for weeks you found yourself thinking about names on your subway ride home. Or the many hours you spent brainstorming as a team. Or all those moments of mild self-loathing reviewing terrible puns that felt clever at the time, but seemed ridiculous with fresh eyes in the light of morning.

Sometimes, a great name comes out of the ether from the client team. Maybe it was a friend or family member. Maybe it was their doctor or dog-walker. Sure, there’s the inevitable moment when you wonder “why didn’t I think of that?” But as we said above, great names can come from anywhere. And it’s true. Nothing goes to waste in the naming process, because every set of names builds upon the previous. New insights and ideas emerge even as you write, review, and discard countless options not fit for presentation. This iteration builds, branch by branch, the nest in which the perfect name will hopefully hatch. 

As we reached the final round of naming, The New Food Economy team presented a name they were all instantly smitten with: The Counter. In this case, it was an idea from a friend of one of the editors. The team gravitated toward this name for a few reasons: it evoked at once a sense of healthy adversarial journalism (think “counterculture” or “counter-argument”) as well as a physical space where Americans meet, prepare food, eat, and chat (think lunch counter or kitchen counter). While we would’ve loved to see one of the names that originated from our team on the masthead of this venerable publication, a good name is a good name.

5. Context is king

We often hear from clients that they’re looking for the “magic words” that “leap off the page.” While we’re firm believers in the power of the well-chosen word, it can be difficult to realize the full potential of a name until you see it in context. There are two ways of working around this: design and additional language.

Even if we haven’t started the brand identity (which is often the case, because we believe the identity should be inspired by the name), we like to design and present sample wordmarks using potential names. We pursue this strategy when we’re down to the wire and looking for final decisions. The feedback we’ve received in response to this tactic indicates it’s a helpful way for teams to assess the true potential of a name. And more often than not, it’s what pushes a given name over the finish line.

The other strategy is to come up with a series of potential one-liners or taglines that pair well with the proposed name. This can create additional texture for assessment, and can also help communicate any important information, stories, or nuances absent in the name itself.

“From the beginning, the possibility of a name change was extremely anxiety-producing — even among those of us who suspected that a new name would ultimately serve us better. As we worked to articulate the arguments for and against, Athletics balanced a fresh, outside perspective with a true appreciation for the emotional difficulty of making such a pivot.”
Joe Fassler, Deputy Editor, The Counter

Our team jumped in to help The New Food Economy stakeholders get comfortable with The Counter, turning to the power of context. Based on our schedule, we were well into the design process by the time The Counter emerged as the frontrunner. That meant we could prepare and present the new name set in a typeface their team had gravitated toward (Whyte), which helped the client team visualize The Counter name in action. Here’s what that looked like in practice:

As a final step to give our partners confidence in the new name, we developed a series of one-liners that added further qualification to the new name for current and prospective readers. This final step, paired with the sample wordmark, and ample discussion around the rare opportunity at hand, helped tip the scales toward The Counter. Here’s the range of one-liners we presented alongside The Counter — and the winner, “Fact and friction in American food,” which today can be found in the footer and elsewhere throughout the publication:

Naming is a riddle, and therein lies its fun. There may not be such things as “magic words,” but there is a certain magic to landing on a perfect name. Even if that name isn’t selected—and chances are it won’t be—perhaps it’s worth that moment of magic in itself. As Joe Fassler of The Counter writes, “The fact that we were able to settle on a new name that just seemed right to all the key decision-makers on our side still feels quasi-miraculous.” When, on those special occasions, one of your names does in fact make it through the gauntlet of deliberation and trademarking, well, few parts of our job are more satisfying.

We’re so proud of our partners for gracefully making the pivot from The New Food Economy to The Counter. We hope the new name, strategy, brand identity, and website welcomes an entire new readership to the newsroom’s outstanding journalism.

We’ve spent years listening to news anchors on radio and TV butcher our old name, which admittedly was a bit of a mouthful. And no one’s going to mistake us for a think tank or advocacy group anymore. We all feel the new name captures the essence of the work we do, and is evocative enough to remain striking as our audience and ambitions grow.
Joe Fassler, Editor, The Counter

Visit the new website for The Counter here

Read The Counter editor’s letter introducing the new name here

Read our full case study for The Counter here