So the other day Iris and I felt terribly compelled to ask Jay Jurisich, creative director of Zinzin (a Californian naming and branding agency) and an incredibly inspirational guy, a lot of questions.
He was kind enough to share his wisdom with us. Read it! Devour it! For the love of great names!
When developing an identity and new name one usually takes the strategy of an organization as a starting point. What are your core ideas about this how thorough are you during this process?
We believe that everything begins with the brand positioning. Why does your company or this product exist? How will your company or your product change the world for the better? What is the big picture story you want your brand to tell to the world, and what is the unique tone and personality to tell it with? From this core existential starting point, we develop several brand positioning concepts, and these concepts in turn influence all names we develop.
How do you, at Zinzin, track down or define the ‘soul’ of a brand?
Through the process of developing the brand positioning and then the iterative process of developing, presenting and discussing multiple rounds of names. Since individual names are much more specific and nuanced than any brand positioning, having in-depth discussions about potential names are the best way to discover and ultimately “define” a brand. Just consider the brand definition implications of the name “Apple” as compared to the name “Microsoft,” or the name “Amazon” vs. the name “Walmart.”
Do brands think differently about themselves nowadays, what branding is and what it can do for them, than ten years ago? And has the naming process changed accordingly?
I think over-all more companies today realize how important brand development and naming is than they did ten years ago, but it’s still a wide spectrum and for every company that gets it there are probably 50 others that still don’t understand the importance of naming; that’s why you continue to see so many bad names out there.
Do you see any trends for the future when it comes to name creation?
No. I don’t try to predict trends, because I don’t care much for trends. We focus on creating great names that don’t fit into any trend and are thus timeless.
You have been in the name creation business for sixteen years now. Has the profession grown, did it become more professional or get more acknowledgement somehow? And have certain frustrations stayed the same? Has it gained a lot of momentum? Market share? People understand the asset of a good (great) name better or do you still have to do a lot of education?
The industry has grown a great deal in the last ten years, but it is still relatively small compared to the huge number of general full-service branding firms or advertising/marketing firms that also claim to do naming. I would say that companies probably have a better understanding now about the value of a great name, but it still requires a lot of client education and a thorough, deep process to move them to the point where they actually adopt a powerful name that may have some element of “friction.” There’s often resistance whenever you are trying to get a company to do something they’ve never done before, especially if other companies in their industry haven’t done it before either.
You have studied at the University of California. What drew you to name creation? Do you feel the extent to which crafting names is a high-level strategic and creative endeavor is appreciated (enough)?
I have a background in art and literature, and sort of fell into naming, as many of my peers also did. I think today naming might be more of a real occupation for people in college or early in their careers, but twenty years ago it wasn’t on my radar or, probably, many other people’s. I was just always naming things and I launched a free naming website, then discovered that people actually got paid to do this work. From there it was freelance naming work, then getting hired by a naming company, then launching my own companies.
We believe that the internal story and the external story of an organisation should match up – particularly through the people working for an organisation. Do you look for these stories and actively use the name creation process as a way to craft these stories? Or do you think it’s often a lot of bull fluff?
“Bull fluff” — that’s a fun phrase!
All such stories may be part of the company or product brand positioning, which will influence the name, as I previously described. And yes, a great name will offer the opportunity to tell many interesting stories. But our focus is always on the name, and the stories should always be authentic, not cosmetic bull fluff. Bad names lead to a lot of bull fluff generated in an attempt to overcome the fact that the name — and probably many other aspects of the brand — are terrible.
Who inspires you? Do you have (or did you have) any heroes?
I am inspired by artists and writers and thinkers, not anything or anyone related directly to naming, branding, marketing or advertising. At the top of my list would be the composer, artist and writer John Cage — as much for his process and life as for his art. If I had to choose a religion, it would be Zen Buddhism, and Cage was one of the greatest natural Buddhist artists the West has ever produced. Others on my list of heroes would include, in no particular order: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, John Coltrane, Boris Vian, Federico Fellini, Miles Davis, John Muir, Buckminster Fuller, John Lennon, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vermeer, Richard Feynman, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, Rebecca West, Robert Frank, Dali Lama, Gertrude Stein, Cy Twombly, Stephen Jay Gould, Ingmar Bergman, Daniil Kharms, Haruki Murakami, Stanislaw Lem, Anselm Kiefer, Thelonious Monk, Marcel Broodthaers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Robert Walser, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Cornell, Samuel Beckett, José Saramago, Don DeLillo, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Andrei Tarkovsky, Thomas Pynchon, Flann O’Brien, Diane Arbus, Jack Kerouac, Lucinda Williams, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bruno Schulz, Joseph Beuys, Garry Winogrand, Kurt Schwitters, Amelia Earhart, Gerhard Richter, Henry Miller, Albert Einstein, Czeslaw Milosz, Elliott Smith, Kenneth Patchen, Stan Getz, Ilya Kabakov, Sonny Rollins, my wife and kids inspire me greatly, my brother Jack Rose and his son, my nephew Jon Rose, who do amazing work bringing clean water to those in need all over the world with their relief organization Waves For Water, and many, many others. I find so much inspiration from so many sources, and have so many heroes, that this list could easily be much longer — but it’s a start.
Great start, Jay.
Can you give some examples of names you really like, think are well-crafted or make you cringe with jealousy because you didn’t come up with it?
Amazon, Twitter, Oracle, Virgin, Apple, Warby Parker, General Assembly, and many other names we write about in our Compendium of Amazing Names – and, of course, the names in our own Portfolio.
What are the most difficult elements of a name creation process and how do you solve or handle this?
I generally find naming pretty easy, and usually very enjoyable. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t fun. The hardest part of the process is probably the early stages, when we’re still trying to figure out the brand positioning and the unique hook into the “soul” of the brand, as you put it. What I don’t like is unnecessary paperwork, bureaucracy, tracking invoices, etc.
Is there a name creation case that you are particularly proud of, because the process was special or the outcome?
I’m proud of all our names that get launched, because it’s like having children born into the world. Every one of them is the unique outcome of a unique project where we solved a big problem for a company, and that makes me happy.
Which new fields of expertise do you see emerging in name creation and what are your thoughts on them?
The ancient yet always new “fields” of having an open mind and insatiable curiosity. Being inquisitive is really important, and being willing to question everything, including your own assumptions and methodologies, and go beyond what everyone else is doing and beyond all the many repetitions of the word “no” you are likely to hear in your life.
If a young person today would feel compelled to become a naming strategist and name creator, what would your advice to this person be?
Don’t wait to be invited by anybody — just start doing it. Create names for free for your friends, family and yourself. Offer to create names inexpensively for individuals and small companies — many of which need naming help but can’t afford to hire an agency. In other words, build up a portfolio of interesting names. While you’re at it, live an interesting life, absorb many experiences, plunge into all kinds of art, surround yourself with interesting material to draw from. Being a little older now I might be biased, but naming actually seems like it might be a profession where you get better at it with age, because you build up a greater store of memories, mental associations and source materials.
When (if) you mentor an aspiring name creator, what do you teach this person?
For me naming is so personal that it’s almost impossible for me to “teach.” People tend to either get it or they don’t. I would advise someone to do what I mentioned in the previous answer, and then I might offer to critique their work to help them understand what’s working and what isn’t. And if they disagreed with me, I would expect them to argue and passionately defend their ideas. That’s how we work here at Zinzin.
What are your tools of the trade? Do you create long lists in your notebook, do you go to a cabin in the woods with your team, do you order pizza and draft all night, do you meditate?
All of the above, and much more. People often ask me how we do “brainstorming,” and my answer is, we don’t. Because what others might do during a two-hour brainstorming session, we are doing all day every day. We are always thinking about names, scribbling down potential names, at all hours and in all situations, sometimes related to a current project, but often not even for a specific project. I try to find inspiration in any situation, whether I’m meditating in that peacefully mythical cabin in the woods or while strap-hanging on a crowded subway car. If inspiration were confined to a particular place or situation, I would find that very limiting and depressing.
Do you collaborate with other types of agencies as well?
We sometimes work with advertising or design agencies who have a client that needs a company or product name. Sometimes we get access to their client directly, and other times we only interact with the agency. We are able to customize our process to work well in all types of situations.
What defines Zinzin as an agency and what are your favorite challenges?
I think what differentiates us from many agencies is that we are very open and transparent — we don’t cloak our process in proprietary TM-branded “black box” methodologies. And our process is very interactive, and thrives on a series of deep conversations with our clients at each stage of the process. My favorite “challenges” are really “opportunities” — developing brand names for new companies or products that are revolutionary or have the potential to dominate their industry. Those situations are especially exciting, but we get excited by every naming project. In other words, we try to approach every naming project as if the thing we are naming will change the world. And sometimes it does!
If you haven’t already, check out Zinzin or follow them on Twitter!
If you are an experienced naming professional and would you like to be interviewed by us as well (because we ask such darn good questions and you would love a blogpost on, well, you!), drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org