Scott Milano does sprints in the morning

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Scott Milano is Founder and Managing Director of Tanj, a boutique brand language firm specializing in names, taglines, stories, messaging and voice strategies, and copy. Scott has over 15 years of experience in verbal identity and has worked on names like Scott's worked on some big brand names, like Nintendo Wii, Ally Bank, Sony Bravia, and Film Struck, among many others.

His firm, Tanj, does brand strategy work, messaging and voice, taglines, and copywriting, and, of course, naming. Talking to Scott, I got the impression a hallmark of the Tanj approach to naming is that it's complete—that it leaves no stone unturned. I wanted to get a sense of how he and his team do that—how they go deep on a naming assignment. He shared a few tools and methodologies that I hadn't heard anywhere else.

We kicked off the conversation talking about two naming guides Tanj makes available for free on their website. They have one for company names and one for product names, and I asked Scott why that was the case. He listed a number of reasons, including the internal politics and additional trademark classes that might be important for company naming.

  The  Tanj  company naming guide

The Tanj company naming guide

  The  Tanj  product naming guide

The Tanj product naming guide

We talked about the naming process, and Scott said "the naming portion of it is where the magic happens, but it's not gonna happen if you don't do your homework." For name generation, Scott likes to work in the morning, between 7 and 11 AM, and treats name generation as "a series of sprints." He describes it as, "You get in there, you go hard, and then you move onto something else, and then you come back the next day, and do it all over again."

Scott works almost entirely on computers, listing names in spreadsheets and using online resources* like Sketch Engine, imagery on Google Images or stock photography sites, and the MRC Psycholinguistic Database from University of Western Australia. We ended the conversation talking about what to do when you get stuck, pitfalls for new namers, trends in naming. Lastly, I asked him what he likes most about naming. Scott had trouble choosing just one thing, but concluded, "It's essential for any business to go to market. If you don't have a name, you don't have a business. So we're helping people, and businesses, take flight. And being able to do that, right at their inception, or so early on, and having such a big impact, is cool." 

Below, you'll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.

* To see a complete list of online resources listed by namers in episodes of How Brands Are Built, see our Useful List: Online/software resources used by professional namers.

Rob: Scott, thanks so much for making the time to talk.

Scott: Thanks so much for having me, Rob.

Rob: You have a couple of naming guides on your site, which I'll also post a link to, but you have one for companies, and one for products. Why two separate naming guides?

Scott: Yeah, so I think that's a great question, and it kind of goes to the heart of the difference between naming a product and a company. One, with a product, it's usually a little bit more focused, like products do kind of one thing, or maybe a couple things. Companies often tend to do many things. So you're actually trying to name a much bigger target, and in the context of that, we typically think it's a whole other animal.

The other side of it, too, is just with companies, I think you come across a number of different issues, or they get blown up, and become more important, compared to when you're naming a product. Internally, if you're naming or renaming, it can be a very political issue. A lot of people, especially if it's a high profile naming project, a lot of people are involved, there are a number of different stakeholders, it can get pretty thorny on that side.

Then just thinking about in terms of trademark classes, a product can be pretty focused, and play in one or two trademark classes. A company might play in multiple ones, so you inherently have just a higher hurdle to overcome.

Rob: Leading up to the conversation, I read through the guides, and to be honest, I was shocked at how long and detailed they are. I've seen some naming guides, online, that are ... some are almost like a one-sheet of just kind of the high level how-to-do naming, but you guys really got into a lot of detail. Can you talk a little more about what motivated you to put that much detail into them, and what it was like creating them? How did that go?

Scott: In terms of motivation, to dive into the details, I think it's actually indicative of how we work. We go deep, with our clients, and really try extremely hard to uncover all of the issues that are going to be relevant in the conversation. This is just on the project side, whereas other firms, or other individuals just might not do that, and I think for us to put together these guides, we wanted to come to the table with something substantial that spoke to who we are, and how we think, as a business, at Tanj, how I personally approach naming, and my team approaches it. So we wanted to put some rigor into it, and make sure that we tell a cohesive story that's real, and representative of the challenges our clients are facing.

Rob: Now that the guides are available online, how's the response been? How are your clients and prospects reacting?

Scott: Yeah, the response has been good. So we've had them out there for about two years now. On our site, it's one of the most downloaded pages. Clients regularly reference how informative they are, and we even get these sort of regular random emails from folks who would probably never become clients for us, but they just wanted to say thanks, and they appreciate the time and thought that went into it.

Rob: Your website talks about name generation as where the magic happens. As we all know, it's part magic, but also part science. Is there a process, or specific steps that you follow, consistently, when you're doing naming at Tanj?

Scott: Yeah, of course. I think, certainly, the naming portion of it is where the magic happens, but it's not gonna happen if you don't do your homework, and really lay out some key fundamental aspects of the strategy, just sort of understanding overall landscape, really diving deep into it. So essentially, our process, in a very quick nutshell, is to kick off with a client, and understand the ins and outs of their entire business, whether it's a product, or a business, and all sorts of ... all the ancillary stuff that comes with that. We pull all that information into our world, the world of naming, obviously, of message, and brand at large, and we do a bit of a discovery, distill everything down into a definitive naming strategy, which is a blueprint for where we see the most opportunity for naming the new brand. Then, based on that, even before we create a single name, we do like to do our homework and make sure we've got the right direction teed up, and then from there we start name generation, where we're going into all sorts of angles, and avenues, approaching the strategy from all different sides.

Rob: Can you tell me about when you sit down with the brief, what kind of timing, or pace you use, to make sure that you're really optimizing the name generation phase?

Scott: I'm a morning guy. I wake up quite early, and find I'm most productive, in terms of creative work, early in the morning. So that's anywhere from 7:00 to 11:00, and I usually do, when I really get into it, when we know we're working, and churning on something pretty hard, I'll do kind of one sitting a day, for a project, and might couple multiple projects together, but it's really just making a concerted effort to dive into it, and focus for several hours at a time, and just try to approach the brief, approach the strategy from all sides, and then sides that maybe aren't even contained in the brief, just to see what comes out.

I typically like to treat the name generation portion, in particular, as a series of sprints, like you'd get in there, you go hard, and then you move onto something else, and then you come back the next day, and do it all over again.

Rob: I think you said a sprint is a couple of hours, at least. Do you feel like there's a minimum amount of time that you know you need to set aside, in order to really have that be a useful sprint?

Scott: Great question. Some sprints are faster, and more productive than others, so on the short side, it could be anywhere from an hour to an hour-and-a-half. I find, just personally, things tend to drag, if it goes over three hours, and your time and focus is actually better spent for shifting gears, stepping out of it for a little bit, and then just, again, personally for me, I like to come back in the next morning, and do it all over again.

Rob: So during one of these sprints, generally speaking, are you in front of a computer, and typing thoughts into a document, or are you more of a pen and pad kind of guy?

Scott: 100% computer. If you gave me a pen and paper, and asked me to name, not much would come of it, and the truth is, this is kind of how I learned doing it, and I feel my fingers flow, and I just feel thoughts come to me much faster, when I'm connected to a computer, in particular. We use a lot of spreadsheets, for every project, we house all of our creative, all of our names, all of our screening results, shortlisting, any other data that comes out, throughout the project, in a single spreadsheet, and essentially run the whole project, or run each project off of the spreadsheet. I've worked with, in other agencies, and with other agencies, and I've seen names on paper being floated through, Word docs, PowerPoint decks where the data is useful, but you can't manipulate it, and tag it in the way that it really needs to be kind of organized, and for us, spreadsheets are a great method for that.

If you really think about it, every name that you create ultimately, whether it's a good name or a bad name, comes with some decisions, right? It's like are you gonna move it forward through the process? How are you gonna move it forward through the process? There are so many steps that come after generating a name, that it's important to just keep your information really organized. That way you can filter through it quickly, you can track everything, if there's issues that arise, you can go back, and reference it, so we're 100% sort of spreadsheet and Google Doc driven.

Rob: Got it. That gives a little insight into how you work, as a team, at Tanj. I'm also just wondering, for the name generation, do you generally get together, and brainstorm as a group? Or is it more everybody is an individual contributor, and then you get together to shortlist, or something like that?

Scott: Yeah, that's a great question. So earlier on in the process, when we're sort of brainstorming strategies, approaches, we tend to do that as a team. Somebody will take the lead, and sort of hammer out ideas, after we've talked, collectively, and kind of gotten inspired, and then we'll continue to go back and forth and refine our strategic approach.

When it comes time to name, I think we all tend to work best individually. Everybody kind of likes their own space, and gets into it at different times. Naming, for us, isn't something that ... it's not like you can chain somebody to a desk and say, " Name it." Some firms might work like that, but we just tend to take a slightly more free approach, and I think it just yields different results, and it works with our overall work style.

Rob: Got it.

Scott: When it comes time to shortlist, though, one of the things that we're pretty big on is seeking input from a larger group, so it's not just say, me, the creative director, making some final decisions about which names are gonna get into the presentation, or what are we gonna actually share with the client. I think we all value, and think it's important just to highlight the ones that, individually, we think are cool, and are moving in the right direction. So we use a bit of light testing, within our team itself, sort of like realtime testing, to see which ones are potentially rising to the top, and then from there, begin to cull the list down, and package up options to share with the client.

Rob: So, that's interesting, on the shortlisting, I want to make sure I understood what you just said. Do you purposely bring people into shortlisting that have not been doing name generation?

Scott: Yeah, so in some cases we do, actually. It's not for every project. When we're under a serious time crunch, you just can't. Sometimes you just don't have the time to actually seek a ton of outside input. But when we're working on projects that we know that, say, the target audience has a very different perspective, we'll pull from our network of folks, whether they're pure brand people, or artists, or creatives, or whatever, to provide some input on the names that we're creating.

Rob: Let's talk about tools and resources, a little bit. Are there any that you personally frequent, or like to have handy, while you're doing naming, or anything in the office that everybody has access to?

Scott: Yeah, I think we all have kind of our own different tools and methods of just sort of gaining inspiration, and diving deep into the different rabbit holes of concepts, and language, whatever it may be. Of course, I think I personally, obviously, do work with dictionaries. I have a handful that I regularly use, and then I like to kind of step out of it, and try new things, and the internet is a magical place. There are an infinite number of kind of resources on that front. When it's more topic specific, like if you're working in something very technical, or even lifestyle driven, whatever it may be, it's always good to dive deep into articles, books, all types of content that's out there to kind of get away from the language itself, or words themselves. One thing that I do is I do like to look at imagery that's kind of related to the topic that we're naming to, or the brand that we're naming to, or something that's very far removed, but might provide some inspiration, in terms of metaphors, or moods.

Rob: For imagery, are you just going to Google Images, generally, or is there something else that you do, to get visual inspiration?

Scott: There's a bit of that. Stock photo sites are pretty good. Getty Images is one of them. You just kind of type in, you could start with general key words, and then that might inspire a little bit, and then you kind of make a couple leaps from there, and you usually can end up in a cool place. I like how it just kind of lets me forget the words themselves, and just kind of float, conceptually, and find new territories.

Rob: Great. Are there any other websites that you have bookmarked for naming projects, that you can share?

Scott: One that I have used for a fair amount of time now is Sketch Engine. I don't know if you're familiar with that.

Rob: Mm-hmm. I am.

Scott: That one's kind of interesting. It just, again, opens up all sorts of words, right? All sorts of concepts that are either directly related, ancillary, or even very far removed. There is this cool site, it's pretty old-school looking, it's from ... I think it's from the University of Western Australia, like a psycho-linguistic database, which sounds a little scary, but it just ... you can get in there and kind of search for various but specific parameters around number of letters, syllables, concreteness, imagery, it's not a silver bullet, per se, but it has helped just generate more ideas, and kind of get out of a couple jams, here and there.

Rob: Cool. Speaking of jams, when you do find either personally, or as a team, that you're kind of hitting a brick wall on a project, if that does happen, are there any special tips or tricks that you've used to get past that writer's block?

Scott: Yeah. I think just overall, in terms of writer's block, we're all professionals, right? We're all either professional writers, marketers, and certainly namers. I don't think that's a major issue. I think we all welcome the blank page, and just being able to dive into it. Especially if you're doing your homework right up front, you really know what you're talking about, ideas should flow. Then there's the question of where you really hit a wall after you've developed four thousand names, for whatever project it is, and the client might need to just see a little bit more, that's when you have to get creative, and I think some of the best things that you could do is just forget about it, for a little bit of time. Even if it's a couple hours, or a day or so, just do not think about it, and try to come back to it with fresh eyes.

If you reposition, rejigger some of the sort of strategic foundations that you've had, one trick that we've done in the past, when we really needed to, is just kind of think of the product, or the brand, as something entirely different from what it actually is. If it's a piece of technology, think of it as some soda, or some type of beverage, or something, and just use kind of lateral thinking to step outside of where you've been, and drive forward with where you need to go.

Rob: Right. Are there any mistakes that you see clients making, maybe when they're trying to do this on their own, or any pitfalls for namers to avoid, maybe if they're new to naming, or they're junior namers?

Scott: With clients, it's interesting. I feel like it's gonna sound weird, but they tend to come to us because they've made mistakes in the past, with their naming. Like they don't get strategic about it, and they're just sort of trying to throw some names up on the wall, and call it a day. They're not able to get deep enough, creatively, to unlock fresh, new ideas that are actually cool. They don't understand, sort of, the linguistic, or the legal hurdles that they'll be facing, soon enough, once they really try to take their name to market. I think, when they come to us, they, in those instances, if they don't already know those challenges, they become aware of them pretty quickly.

Rob: Right.

Scott: For namers, it's tough. I mean we've seen people who are pretty new, who get it, and can just thrive with whatever situation it is that we put in front of them. Then other folks could, potentially, struggle in certain areas. I think it's just like kind of common pitfalls for junior namers are just not being able to go deep enough, sort of plucking the low-hanging fruit, let's call it "maestro," or something like that, and be done with it. The other side is just maybe not being able to fully grasp and internalize the brief, like really understand what it means, and its impact on the client's business, and the client's brand. So just a couple points that we've seen, throughout the years.

Rob: Well "maestro" is a great segue to one of my last two questions. So I have a couple of fun ones that I like to ask, or I think they're fun, anyway. Are there any specific name ideas that you've seen a million times, and you're just tired of, or you kind of chuckle, every time you see it on a list?

Scott: As a naming guru, such as you are, you probably know what the classic set is. You've got your references to Greek gods, you've got your icons, your "maestros," your "catalyst" type ideas. "Hey, let's call it 'premier!'" Stuff like that. Sometimes you just need to plow through that stuff to get to the good ideas. I totally understand that, but it's always tough to kind of have to deal with that in a list.

Then, in terms of trends, I mean there's the conventional .ly's, adding "zen" into it, these sort of .com, or semi-recent .com trends, whatever, it's obvious that that stuff's not gonna be timeless. I think what we really strive for, and I think probably all of us do, is just making sure that the names that we're developing for our clients will really work for the long term. They're not overtly rooted in any kind of passing trend, whatever it may be, but I think, on our side, we really strive to just make sure that they're as timeless as they can be.

Rob: Then, last question, what's your favorite thing about being a namer, and coming up with name ideas?

Scott: Do I have to pick one, or can I [crosstalk 00:21:18] I've created a business, and devoted my current life to it, so one of the reasons I feel like it's the right fit for me is there's this idea that it's essential for any business to go to market. If you don't have a name, you don't have a business. So we're helping people, and businesses, take flight, and being able to do that, right at their inception, or so early on, and having such a big impact is cool. It's great to see your name, or a name that your team has developed, out there. It just feels great.

I think the other side is just the community of namers, and we're kind of an odd breed, I guess, and I just love the fact that I'm able to work with such fun, smart, and talented people, who love words as much as I do.

Rob: Great, well I'm glad you're one of the members of this, I think you called it an odd breed, and I'm happy to be part of that small community with you, so thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and joining me today on the call.

Scott: Thanks so much, Rob. I appreciate it.