Laurel Sutton is a leader and veteran in the worlds of linguistics and branding. She was the first person ever to receive a B.A. in Linguistics from Rutgers University. However, the love of language is not the only thing that drives Laurel. Creating product names and company names satisfies her creative urges, while helping companies organize their names into a naming architecture allows her to put on her analytical thinking cap. She co-founded Catchword in 1998 and has a strong client base with innovative brands like Cisco, Adobe and Roche.
Catchword is a full-service naming firm. They have offices in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York, and an international network of naming partners. Their mission is to help clients connect with their customers through brand names that are memorable, engaging, and rich in meaning. For over ten years, Catchword has been helping companies big and small develop great ideas into names that command attention and engage customers.
MO: How did you initially become interested in linguistics and language? Then how did you later bridge your love of language to co-founding Catchword?
Laurel: I first took linguistics classes while I was earning my BA in English. I loved it so much that I ended up with a double major in English and Linguistics. I was just fascinated to learn how language works – where it comes from, how languages are related, how we produce and perceive speech. After a few years in the working world (managing a record store), I went back to school to get my PhD in Linguistics at UC Berkeley and, like most poor grad students, I had to support myself with a variety of jobs. That’s when I discovered that naming companies existed! I was amazed to find a career in which I could use my degree. My co-workers and I loved naming and decided we wanted to strike out on our own, and so we founded Catchword in 1999.
MO: What’s the process involved in finding the perfect name for a product or brand? Is the process the same each time?
Laurel: Thirty or forty years ago, it might have been possible to come up with appropriate and available names over a few drinks at the bar. But now, the marketplace is so crowded that it’s very difficult to find names unless you throw a lot of creative power at the project. At Catchword we believe that a successful naming project is the result of a structured process: setting objectives, creating a lot of names (sometimes more than 2000!), rigorous screening, and evaluating names based on their fit and potential as a brand – not just “do you like it?” We follow the same process for every project, big or small.
It’s important to understand that the “perfect name” isn’t one that jumps off the page – because if you fall in love with a name, it usually means you’ve seen it before, which then means it won’t be available for you to use. Your name becomes the “perfect name” after you’ve chosen it and start to build a brand around it. Two weeks later you won’t be able to remember the other candidates!
MO: You’ve been in an industry for 13 years where it’s important to remain fresh and relevant. How do you manage the very challenging process to stay engaged with consumers who are constantly evolving and what’s important to them?
Laurel: All of us at Catchword are culture mavens – we’re always reading, watching, and browsing the internet to keep up on what’s happening in the world. We pay close attention to new names and brands in the marketplace. And in our creative work, we’re not tied to any one style or tone – we’ll explore all kinds of words, languages, metaphors, and spellings to find the right name. And of course, we’re consumers, too, and we think it helps us to bring a needed perspective to our clients (who are sometimes too focused on the inner workings of their company, rather than how they appear to the outside world).
MO: What specific trends in the last 5 years have you seen really impact how we connect with companies and their products?
Laurel: Mobile devices and their apps are ubiquitous now – people can interact with companies at any time, anywhere. People are much closer, emotionally, to brands, and are able to evangelize about brands they love in so many ways. Also, the internet really has made the globe a smaller place: now we can find offerings from companies all over the world, for just about anything you could ever want. The amount of choice is tremendous. It allows consumers to be choosier about how they spend their money, and it forces businesses to differentiate from the vast number of competitors out there. Competition is fiercer than ever (and the lousy economy means you have to make your marketing dollars work even harder).
MO: Do you think that Social Media has changed the relationships that people have with corporate entities? If yes, how does that change how you do business?
Laurel: Definitely! Consumers are able to interact with brands in many more ways than they used to – via Facebook, Twitter, mobile devices, etc. It means that companies can really focus on their target audience, and precisely define their space in their competitive set. For Catchword, this means that the name can be very carefully tailored to the audience – relevant vocabulary, tonality, and spelling only have to be appealing to the right demographic. It does make legal clearance more difficult, since all brands are global now, and reach across many different channels (print, internet, TV).
MO: How do you separate yourself from the other naming companies out there?
Laurel: We like to say we bring the joy back to naming – for so many of our clients, finding the right name can be so painful! They’ve tried to do it on their own and struggled to come up with names, only to find that none of them are legally available. When companies work with us, they can relax, enjoy the meetings, and get to choose their name from the many options we present. We take away their pain. And we always bring candy to the meetings.
MO: I see that you’ve just launched popnamer.com. Could you tell me more about the concept behind it?
Laurel: PopNamer is a site where anyone can play at the naming game. Every couple of weeks we post a new game and let the whole world try to come up with the best name for a current event (like the Occupy Wall Street movement), a badly-named product (remember Qwikster?), or other newsworthy item (such as the Google/Motorola deal). You can also vote on other people’s entries. It’s a great way to show your creativity – and who knows, the best names might show up in the news one day!