Before we entered this age of Big Data, we lived in the age of Big Brands, remember? It was simple; all one had to do was decide if he or she was a Coke or a Pepsi person, an Apple or a Microsoft user, a Nike or an Adidas fan.
Things have advanced since and it is now all of us who have become little brands. We were given new egalitarian e-tools and sent to compete for our companies, our jobs, causes, credibility and attention. And we are not alone in this arena: cities compete for prestige, nations promote their image, causes press us for funds. Everybody and everything nowadays needs a brand name and a brand promise, professionally crafted.
My purpose in life is to name things exactly what they are. Whether it’s an object, an idea, a project, an intellectual property, a team, a place or an event, the process of capturing its essence is the same. At first glance, when you tally everything you need to express with this name or description, it seems impossible to fit so many messages in just one or two words. Yet it is not only feasible, but it works like a charm every time.
With minimal differences, you can do the same process alone or in a group (on occasion, I have done it with groups exceeding twenty people, but in such a setting, it helps to have some experience with facilitation, so as to not incur a complete chaos and end up without the desired solution.)
After I have received (or defined by myself, for my own projects), the set of requirements (better known as the creative brief) I begin the process by writing down any and all words and expressions that have any connection with the property – be they formal or colloquial, obscure or popular, smart or ridiculous. Think “out of the box”; for example: compile things like “experientia docet“ together with “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” and with “the things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school.” and with “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teachers, teacher, leave them kids alone!”. Add any great movies about teaching and school, hilarious books about school, sad books about school, jokes, riddles, anything and everything you can remember about school. (“Try to learn something about everything, and everything about something.”, as well, of course).
This stage can take anywhere between a couple of hours or a couple of weeks – depending on your deadlines. Writing all this down in no particular order is fine – tidying it up comes later. The first goal is simply to capture everything that can possibly be associated with the topic at hand.
The next step is to group all of these proverbs, adjectives, movie titles, punch lines, verses, sayings, comments, feelings, complete opposites, seemingly unrelated images that someone felt compelled to add, into semi-logical batches. As you read and re-read the whirl of words before you, some will begin to naturally stick together, complementing, contrasting or explaining one another.
It isn’t an exact science – the resulting batches of raw text will not get organized exactly the same way every time, as your material will differ. But more often than not, you will have before you a manageable number of loose text groups. If it all still looks rather chaotic, it’s fine. If bits of that content don’t appeal to you or are absolutely nauseatingly unacceptable as potential solutions, that too is fine, they too serve a purpose. (Roughage helps digestion.)
It is vital that you now spend a little undisturbed time and introduce some basic order into this haphazard compilation of words. Perform this step any way that works for you, on paper or on the screen. Read words out loud, or in your mind. Shuffle improvised flash cards or toss wooden blocks with letters onto a big desk or move magnetic letters across your fridge, if you keep a big enough set of them. Or split your page into quadrants, then allocate words and phrases to those quadrants according to some rule that feels right. Or draw large circles, cut out words and phrases and pin them to circles as you see fit. Or cut & paste strings of characters on your computer screen until you have collected them in loose paragraphs. The tools don’t matter, either will be fine; only the results count.
Do not over-think this process, follow your intuition and allow those ad hoc batches to effectively group themselves. Any loose, vague, barely tenuous association among the words in them will do. Just do not skip this step, however ineffective it may seem. During it, your brain is busily memorizing much more about these words than you can be aware of, so support its effort even if you don’t feel very accomplished or sufficiently hopeful at that juncture.
The First Light
Now follows the third and most important stage – that of processing your ore of words, to extract from it your ideal wording for your property. Since you have played with your mud long enough by now and it’s all packed in your symbolic buckets, now you will start noticing that some words or phrases, like glittering nuggets, appear more attractive then the rest. Highlight those nuggets (bold, underline, circle, trace with a red marker, or use the highlighting function of your word processor). Do not separate them from the rest, leave them in their respective spots, but make them stand out in your field of focus.
Now simply glance at everything that you have compiled, organized and highlighted. Read it at random, look for connections, sound out some possibilities. Look again. Read again. And again. Combine some words, ask yourself questions, provide tentative answers, like some of them, dislike others, shudder at many, laugh at most. Just do not stop seeking.
If you haven’t come up with a reasonably suitable solution within an hour and a half, it’s time to take a break. Get some refreshments, go for a quick snack or a drink, visit the washroom, wash your hands as long as you can (the vicinity of water accelerates the process). Return. Try again. Repeat the glancing and the trying and the seeking ad infinitum.
Make a note of anything remotely usable. After a while, you should have several potential solutions, some of which will be very good – until you sleep on them and share them with someone, that is. Chances are these people – if acquainted with your task – will be elated, temporarily (until they too sleep over it). You however will not be happy. Any solution you first thought was just spot on will sound quite weak and insufficient the following day. These temporary, surrogate solutions will pop up every time you look at your compilation. You will become elated and quickly disheartened once or twice at least, before you zero in on the one & only solution you were seeking the whole time.
Open Your Eyes
It is now time to sort and compare these potential solutions. Rating them properly is a very complex exercise. It is essential to evaluate your options using measurable criteria which I will describe in another post. For now suffice it to say it is in your best interest to perform that rating, as assorted stakeholders are about to put pressure on you with full force.
The pressure at this stage can indeed be tremendous. You are driven by either a client deadline, your investors’ impatience or your own ambition for a perfect identity of a product that you yourself yearn to promote. That said, you sense that you still have nothing, that your property is anonymous, indistinguishable from others, hopelessly untamed. Others who have a stake in the process often do not appreciate the importance of what you are doing, so some of them will push for a solution, any solution – and preferably theirs. In most cases, they have no arguments, no proof in data, no valid logic behind their choice, but this does not deter them from calling for an immediate end to the process. Calmly reject such demands by letting measurements speak on your – and your property’s – behalf. This is also an important (albeit unpleasant) role you get to adopt during the process. Feel free to be creative in it as well.
If you are investing both your mind and your heart in this exercise, you will frequently feel absentminded, often almost sick and constantly anxious during it. These are external signals that your subconscious is busily computing all imaginable character or word combinations and that you will very soon stumble upon the right – the only possible – unique solution to your problem.
Despite undergoing the crushing cycle of hope and disappointment a few times, you will unequivocally know when you have found what you were looking for. The perfect name, tag line or slogan will stand out so powerfully among all other ideas that you will be elated.
The perfect solution is always quite simple. It is complete, it lacks nothing, it says it all. It sounds to you and to anyone who hears it as if it always existed. “Of course!” is the only reaction it elicits. It invariably carries a strong emotional charge – be it playful, funny, inspiring or alarming – whichever it needs to be (that’s exactly how it does its duty). And most of all, your perfect solution is memorable – once heard, it just cannot be forgotten.
The beauty of the creative process which generates it is that the perfect solution was always there – from the very beginning – lurking in all those words you compiled, hiding cheekily from you, until you were ready to spot it. I have never come up with a solution which was unrelated to other words and phrases considered.
The example I can share as an illustration is the fastest, most efficient one that I could find (the process can get rather lengthy, especially if it involves other contributors and referees). A while ago, I needed a tag line for a string of online courses I was producing and teaching. At the time, the concept of remote learning was not as popular as it is now. So I had to promote the entire idea of online learning, not just my own e-courses. To achieve this, I hosted open live webinars monthly, free of charge, for almost two years. Each webinar had its on distinct topic and title, so a tag line was needed to link them all. It also needed to inspire and encourage new users to join any e-session as a demo, without fear. At the same time, it needed to emphasize the convenience aspect of online learning, when compared to brick-and-mortar classrooms. After the creative process, all this was achieved with only two words. The other ideas leading to them are far from usable, but their role was to be distilled into an inspiring tag line and that they did admirably.
This ability to zoom in on a perfect name or description for something new and unknown may look like magic to those who have not tried it. But in fact it is an ability latent in all of us. I simply focus on it more often then others (disclosure: I get paid for it) so I know for a fact that it works perfectly every single time.
So next time you need to tame and name a wild unknown property, go for it. Just do the right steps the right way, with conviction and self-confidence and you will be amazed with what you’ll be able to create. (Please let me know how it goes.)