Don’t Give Business a Bad Name

What’s in a name?  For Alexandra Watkins, it’s creativity, spunk, and a wildly successful business.

“I didn’t set out to grow a big company.  I just wanted to do something I love,” says Watkins, founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Eat My Words, a San Francisco-based boutique naming firm. Watkins started out freelancing her services but after years of creating grand, well-known brand names that she couldn’t take credit for, she decided to strike out on her own.

Fast-forward seven years and Eat My Words has earned a long list of clients both big (like Gap and DelMonte) and small (like Retriever, a pet-locating GPS product, and Spoon Me frozen yogurt shop.)  Every name of every product or business is relevant, catchy, and easy to remember.  The work requires Watkins and her team to constantly be creative because there is no “business as usual” in the high-stakes naming game.

Being creative means knowing where to go for ideas.  “We’ve never had a brainstorming meeting. They are completely ineffective,” Watkins says.  “We go to the computer for inspiration.”  The team turns to on line sources for images and consults thesauruses, glossaries, baby naming lists-anything that can spark creative connections between a product and a name.

So what does make a good name?  “It has to make you smile instead of scratch your head,” Watkins says. The company even has a “Smile & Scratch Test” on its website so you can see if your name passes muster.  “Any time you have to explain the name, you’re apologizing for it,” Watkins says, adding that you’re also wasting time that you could be using to forge a new connection or talk about your product.

The number one mistake people make is that “they name the business after themselves,” Watkins says.  “It’s meaningless to most others and it doesn’t convey anything about what you do,” she adds.

The next biggest blunder is using words that aren’t meaningful to others.  “Sometimes it looks like someone got drunk and played Scrabble,” she says about the conglomerations people dream up.  Just as bad are the word mergers that create a whole worse than its parts-take Femfessionals, for example. Or they bring in a linguist and write up extra rationales about why the name should work.

The best names are the ones that are simple, are meaningful to customers, and conjure up a lot of mental imagery, Watkins explains. Names that lend themselves to word play are easy to remember and “have legs,” meaning they cane be parlayed into peripheral products, extra revenue sources, and extra buzz.

So how does Watkins stay creative? “Having a creative space is really important,” she says.  “It’s like working in a playground. You need to be stimulated creatively and have things that engage your creative side.”  A quick peek at Watkins’s office and you can see her personal mental playground: colorful things and mementos from travels to dozens of countries across the globe.

When spinning out names like Hand Job for a nail spa, The Pot Lady for a container gardening company, or Mixin Vixens for an all-female bartending service, one can image that sometimes a name might be a little too creative for a corporation. “It has happened a few times, but we’re pretty good at selling the good names,” says Watkins, who says that she and her team do many consensus building exercises with the client.  “Usually, we give them a number of good choices and they can’t decide.”

Not sure about your own name? Eat my Words offers free tips on evaluating your company or product name, how to name or rename it, and advice on choosing a naming firm.


About Vera L. Dordick

Vera L. Dordick is principal with Tangible Development LLC, public relations practitioner, and creative provocateur. At Tangible Development, Vera specializes in crisis management and public relations but has a particular interest in creativity training and helping companies foster more creative environments. She also blogs on the Albany Times Union website on marketing and creativity. Vera holds a BA in Journalism and Russian from Indiana University and an Associate degree in Culinary Arts from SCCC.


  1. Working in the ad business, I find this quote particularly relevant: “The number one mistake people make is that “they name the business after themselves,” Watkins says. “It’s meaningless to most others and it doesn’t convey anything about what you do.”” So true!

  2. Take note!!! Eat My Words is Running a naming contest. Enter to win their expert naming services for your business! Deadline is Match 1.

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