Choosing the Right Name for Your Magazine: A Name Should Be Identifying a Thing, or an Attribute of a Thing, Not an Idea or Philosophy

Article excerpt

Ira Bachrach, founder of San Francisco's NameLab, devotes his time to giving things--including magazines--new monikers. Bachrach names everything--from packaged goods to cars to magazines.

Bachrach has worked on a number of magazine projects for time Inc.'s magazine development group, as well as for Consumers Union.

For Bachrach, naming things isn't just a matter of sitting around and creating catchy phrases--it's a highly technical, time-consuming process. After getting a degree in electrical engineering from the City University of New York in 1962, Bachrach went on to one year of graduate-level linguistics at the University of Rochester, where he invented a system for notating morphemes, the semantic kernels of words (the "van" in advantage, for instance). Ultimately, he was able to notate the more than 6,000 morphemes in the English language. Today, Bachrach and two colleagues with doctorates in linguistics use this proprietary system to create new words--brand names such as Acura, Lumina or TrueVoice.

After discussions with clients about their missions, computer searches, morpheme mixing and extensive legal checks through trademark registers, NameLab comes up with an average of four or five suggestions.

Here Bachrach shares some of his wisdom about what's in a name.

Q: What makes a good magazine name?

A: A magazine is an abstraction--essentially it's a bunch of pictures and words on a piece of paper. The name affects not only whether you buy it, but what it turns out to be once you get it. You can take the same magazine and call it Ribbons & Flowers or Outdoor Entertaining, and the name will create a largely different recollection of what it did for you. The name tells you what to expect to happen--and in that sense magazines are relatively poorly identified. They have names that are typically adjectival or abstract. There's no code to what kinds of names work, since selling a buff book is different from selling a general-interest book. But a name should be identifying a thing, or an attribute of a thing, not an idea or a philosophy.

Q: What do you think a name suggests to the reader?

A: Well, there's the white-box analogy. You and I know there's no difference between two detergents. If I hand you a white box that says detergent and an orange box that says Tide, they'll both clean your clothes pretty much the same. But still the white box won't sell. What you buy says to yourself who you are. The message of the white box is that you are poor.

A magazine subscription is among the most intensively suggestive purchases you can make in terms of what it suggests to your self. The name of something tells you what to expect to happen, and you expect a magazine to change you in some way.

Q: When should a publication think about changing its name?

A: Oh, is that a sensitive question! When it becomes apparent to you that your audience is going away and there's nothing you can do to change this. But you don't want to do it more often than you have to. You do it once and people say, "That's great, the magazine is changing." But you do it twice and that suggests it's failing. …