Nancy Friedman, chief wordworker of Wordworking, is a name developer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Wordworking helps companies name things in virtually every industry—from food to finance, mobile apps to medical devices—including products, taglines, and compelling brand stories. I recently read a Fast Company article on her day-to-day work, which made me want to pick her brain about how this unique skill is applied in the delicate craft of naming medical devices.
Tom Fowler, Medgadget: Nancy, just to get an idea about your background, how did you get into this business?
Nancy Friedman: I landed in name development by being in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. I have a masters’ degree in journalism and worked for several years as a newspaper editor and freelance journalist—my beat was women’s health. Writing captions and headlines and short, punchy articles honed skills that would later be useful in name and tagline work. I hopped over to marketing when I was invited to be a staff copywriter at a large San Francisco-based retail company. Part of my job as a copywriter was naming products, and I loved it. A colleague was doing some freelance naming for a Bay Area branding agency, and she invited me to join her on a project. To my immense good fortune, the agency trained us in the techniques necessary for successful naming: mind-mapping, lateral thinking, visual associations, and so on. (Such on-the-job training happens very rarely, I’ve since learned.) I eventually left the copywriting job and started doing naming work for agencies. When I struck out on my own, I had to add project management and salesmanship to my skills—it takes a lot of both to get a client to sign off on a name!
Medgadget: How much does a name matter? Obviously, this is your trade, so it matters, but is it something that gives you an edge, or is it the difference between a flop and a blockbuster?
Nancy Friedman: Without a good product and good customer service to back it up, the cleverest name in the world won’t help you succeed. And, frankly, I’ve seen some companies with terrible names—inappropriate, hard to pronounce, hard to spell—that manage to keep going. But why not start out with the best possible name, tagline, and copy? To do otherwise is to burden your brand at a critical time, when customers need to trust you the most.
Medgadget: Say I approach you to name a new gizmo I created. Is using the device part of your naming process?
Nancy Friedman: No. In fact, I rarely see more than a drawing. Sometimes there’s a rough 3D model. When I named Tria, a laser hair-removal device sold to physicians, I saw an early prototype. The form factor changed quite a bit in the final design revisions, but at least I’d had some hands-on experience. But in most cases I don’t see much more than a written description and possibly a drawing. That’s true for many products I’ve named—clothing, mobile apps, condom…
Medgadget: What can medical device creators do better when working with you?
Nancy Friedman: In my experience, medical-device companies are very good at understanding how to work with people like me. (Other kinds of companies could learn some lessons!) They know their customer, they’ve researched the competition, and they have a clear sense of what makes their product distinctive. Distinctiveness is especially important—in naming, I’m searching for the word or words that will set the product or company apart.
Medgadget: Lastly, what are three must have ingredients when creating a medical device name?
Nancy Friedman: Legal (trademark) availability is paramount. (This is true for most industries, but the stakes are especially high in the medical field, and trademark-infringement lawsuits are extremely costly.) I work closely with the client’s legal team or an outside trademark professional to make sure the names I develop stand an excellent chance of being approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office (and by other countries’ trademark boards, too, if necessary).The name needs to be suggestive (or even fanciful, as with Tria) rather than descriptive. Again, these are legal terms (see this blog post of mine). And the name of a medical device cannot overpromise a benefit. Lawsuit territory! As you can see, I work within some pretty serious legal constraints when I name anything in a medical field. I actually appreciate constraints; they sharpen my focus.