Meet the Woman Who Gives Products Their Names

A new toy is only as marketable as its name. That’s where Ellen Lutwak comes in

Mattel naming barbie
While working for Mattel for over 15 years, Ellen Lutwak had a hand in naming products as recognizable as Barbie. © Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/Corbis

When I tell people at cocktail parties what I do, they’re always curious. "You're a namer-of-things? That sounds like fun. Tell me more," they say, seemingly surprised that it's an actual job.

In fact, the profession has grown in the last 15 years or so with the explosion of entrepreneurs and startups that need to name everything from products and services to websites and apps. "Verbal identity" is at the core of every product launch, and it includes not just names but slogans and taglines.

I've written for a variety of industries: entertainment, aerospace, architecture, hospitality and real estate. I once wrote titillating titles and captivating catalog copy for lingerie retailer Frederick's of Hollywood. For more than 15 years, I worked for toy manufacturer Mattel.

These days, I'm a naming consultant hired by branding agencies to tackle projects for clients that have included a faith-based financial institution, an online investment service, wine marketed to women, and a new blood transfusion technology. I've coined quite a few cute names. For example, City Block™ is a note cube with a city map printed on its side. Then there's HandJive™—fashion gloves designed for cyclists.

When I get hired to name a product, the branding agency provides me with a briefing document that outlines the client’s business strategy, identifies the competition, and suggests preferred directions, themes or language. Then I go to town. I get into a naming zone. I typically start the day with a walk for fresh air and ideas. I window-shop and take note of company names or clever taglines (like Gap's "Fall into our sale.") I stop at the neighborhood newsstand and scan the magazine covers and flip through the pages if I have time. I hang out on Twitter, where I connect with other word nerds and tweet about names. (Seatylock™, a bicycle seat that converts into a heavy-duty bicycle lock, is a recent favorite.)

I'm often one of several namers working on a tight deadline—anywhere from just 24 hours to a few days—to generate as many as 200 names. With luck and persistence, a short list of top contenders is presented to the client.

The work requires staying on task—or going off on tangents. The tools of the trade go beyond Roget's Thesaurus. I peruse foreign-language dictionaries, as well as a rhyming dictionary, Visual Thesaurus, and the Oxford English Dictionary to study a word's historical origins. If I'm looking for a three-letter word, I can search

Successful naming demands focus, linguistic alchemy and midnight oil. The creative process of naming is always tempered by legal scrutiny to ensure that a name doesn't already exist. It can be tricky: A name may be available as a URL or to register as a Limited Liability Company but that doesn't necessarily mean it can be used to market goods or services. My clients—mostly small businesses and startups—hire trademark attorneys to register and protect the names that I've come up with for them.

I worked for Mattel during the period when the Internet took off; Names that included the word "girl" were often already taken by porn websites. The company, of course, had to be very protective of its brand. And because the toys were sold around the world, names that included words that didn't need to be translated were popular: "Le Weekend" or "Chic" were favorites.

Research is easier than when I started thanks to companies that allow you to search and register domain names. But it can be difficult to find a name that hasn’t already been claimed. Domain squatters (individuals or businesses that register a URL to sell it for profit) also tend to snatch up good names. One common solution to this problem is to leave out a letter: See Flickr or Tumblr.

My parents tell me I was born for this occupation. As a little kid, I was verbal, inquisitive, and imaginative, demanding we name the dishes my mom tossed together with leftovers—even if it was as simple as "chicken surprise" or, for variety, "chicken delight."

Even then, I paid attention to the names of beauty products. I blushed when my mom revealed she was wearing Revlon's "Naked Pink" nail polish to a PTA meeting. That naughty nomenclature set the bar in the beauty industry. Today, nail polish manufacturer OPI has hands-down cornered the market with its quirky, clever names. My top pick for a pedicure is their classic "I'm Not Really a Waitress" red.

Rule #1 of my profession: A name should be memorable.

I earned a B.A. in journalism, which groomed me to write compelling news headlines. A good name is just like a good headline. Engaging. Urgent. Telegraphic.

My first job in advertising was in-house copy chief for the L.A. retail institution Aaron Brothers Art and Frames, where my word play worked to sell stuff: "Discover a framed poster of King Tut at a very pharaoh price." When the store introduced a new line of picture frames, I was instructed to "call it something" and the line became "Moderne." My career as a namer was born.

In 1990, I jumped at the chance to tap into my inner-child and took a job as packaging copywriter for Mattel. Over the course of more than 15 years, I produced countless descriptions and taglines, and hundreds of names, for toys. Most were aligned with traditional gender roles: testosterone-tinged for Hot Wheels, cuddly and sweet for baby dolls, and trendy for the 11 ½" fashion diva herself, Barbie.

I worked at Mattel in a team with a graphic designer and a structural engineer. We met with product designers who made preliminary drawings, engineers who created prototypes, and marketing mavens who called the business shots. In our brainstorms—or as we called them "name-storms"—we entertained dozens and dozens of ideas. The work wasn't always fun and games and required many levels of approval. But the rewards were big: A name in print on a package or in a TV commercial. What could be more exciting than to hear a little one ask for Baby Ah-Choo™ at Toys "R" Us?

Rule #2: A name must be easy to pronounce.

Some of my favorites: Stack-tivity™: a set of building blocks, each with a playful activity on it. A child could draw on the blank face of the What’s Her Face™ doll. There were plenty of names that I loved that were nixed by a higher authority. For example, Paw-Pets was the perfect name for a set of animal finger puppets.

Rule #3: Never fall in love with a name—and never take rejection personally.

In so many words, a good name is memorable, meaningful, and distinctive. You know it when you see it. Even more importantly, you know it when you hear it.

I recently bought a pair of men's cashmere socks, despite the hefty price tag, because the name blended playfulness and luxury. I knew that the recipient of my gift would appreciate it, too: Ovadafut. The spelling may look exotic, but say it out loud.

If you say it out loud and you smile: bingo. That’s the game of the name. 

This was written for Zocalo Public Square.

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