By Erica Bray
When people find out what Margaret Wolfson does for a living, many assume that she’s especially good at one game: Scrabble. It's easy to understand why so many make this assumption. After all, Wolfson works in a world of words. As the founder of River + Wolf, a verbal branding agency based in New York City, she consults businesses and brands on names, stories and marketing messages.
“I love language,” she says. “I began my career as a professional storyteller, performing myths, epics and fairytales with world musicians and orchestras throughout the world. It was very interesting preparation for what became my naming business.”
Although Wolfson, ironically, says she isn't into wordplay-centric board games ("I don't even play Scrabble"), her artistry with language would make her a fierce competitor. Over the past 13 years, Wolfson’s ability to weave language to convey the essence of something into a distilled word or phrase made her a hit with marketing agencies that have hired her as a branding consultant. She worked on hundreds of projects for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and startups before launching her own naming agency in 2015.
One of her most notable recent projects was naming the taxi app, Arro, a name that embodies the speed and efficiency its founders wanted to convey in order to compete with popular ride-share apps such as Uber. (“Arro” is “Arrow” without the “w.”) This name is now a fixture on taxis across New York, Chicago and Boston, a feat of which she's understandably proud.
“Naming is both art and science,” Wolfson says. “Your name is the foundation of your brand. Packaging and promotions come and go, but a name is forever.”
To secure a name that will last forever, Wolfson recommends engaging with a naming agency in order to prevent potential trademark and global issues that could cost legal fees down the road -- not to mention the loss of a beloved business name. ("Think of it as an ‘insurance policy,” she says.)
In the meantime, Wolfson offers these eight tips for those in the startup community looking to take a DIY approach:
1. Think laterally. Think about industries distinct from your own, Wolfson advises. For example, if you are naming a perfume -- forget flowers. Pretend you are naming a nightclub. The idea is to avoid the obvious. Not only will names based on more obvious associations be unavailable, Wolfson says, but they will lack originality.
2. Study book, magazine and song titles. Go to the bookstore and browse. Walk around outside. Don’t rely only on the computer or thesaurus.
3. Visit venture capital (VC) websites. Study the names in their portfolios for inspiration. Learn what catches the attention of the people who provide millions of dollars in funding to the most promising and innovative startups. You might find inspiration in those names -- they obviously caught the attention of people who eat/sleep/breathe business.
4. Don’t obsess over short. Yes, strong brand names tend to favor no more than two or three syllables. But there are many that go beyond that number. Make it easy to say and spell, says Wolfson, but your name needn't be super-short.
5. Go beyond your native tongue. Wolfson recently named an interior design platform "Kabuni" -- a Swahili word that means “design." The name is fun, youthful and easy to say -- everything that the client wanted.
6. Conduct a preliminary trademark screening with a professional. Trademark is complicated and is never black and white, Wolfson says. You can search yourself in TESS (trademark and electronic search system), but to really evaluate the risks properly, she strongly advise using the services of an IP lawyer or professional screening agency such as Tessera Trademarks.
7. Avoid obvious trends. Wolfson discourages clients from even considering slapping an “fy” (Latin suffix meaning "to make" or "cause to be") to any word. Names such as Crowdify, Mobify, Nivify, Optify, Shopify, etc., are ubiquitous. She calls them "snowflakes in a blizzard" -- in other words, they all look and sound the same. Similarly, she advises against arbitrarily affixing an “ly” to the end of any word -- e.g. Feedly, Bitly, Contactually, Cloudly. The caveat: if the suffix is natural such as “purify” or “generally." Otherwise, she cautions avoiding this trend.
8. Consider a not-com domain name. Wolfson says it is always a mistake to discard a strong name candidate because the exact match 'dot-com' is either too costly or in use. (In fact, Wolfson says she often turns down clients who mandate securing a 'dot-com' domain.) Rather than sacrificing a strong name in favor of an exact match 'dot-com,' she recommends adding an extra word -- as the founders of Oscar insurance did with HiOscar.com.
Another option is to use one of the new "not-com" extensions, which range from the professional (.agency) to the industry specific (.coffee) to the fun (.guru). Wolfson says this approach can help articulate your brand by attaching meaning to allusive names. For instance, a name such as "Mason Jar" may not immediately be associated with a vegan marketplace -- but Masonjar.cafe clarifies the meaning of the mark. Not-com domains can also be economical to type, she adds. For example, Masonjarfoods.com can simply be Masonjar.cafe.
For more advice on creative application of not-com domain names, check out Margaret Wolfson's blog post on Wolf + River.