A handle on the name game

The naming of a magazine is a subtle business – it should be evocative and memorable but timeless, too. And preferably hint at what’s inside…

The recent episode of BBC1’s The Apprentice in which the teams competed to create and sell new magazine brands provided a glancing insight into the way new magazines are conceived and named. One team came up with a hackneyed lads mag concept they christened Covered – potentially not a bad name for a magazine, though perhaps better suited to one where the cover model was dressed in more than a bikini. But the other team excelled themselves with a magazine for older readers. Its name? Hip Replacement.

There in one example you have all the problems associated with naming. From a design perspective Hip Replacement is tricky to fit onto a front cover; and in terms of meaning it demonstrates the vital need to listen to and understand your audience. The gap between the 20-something contestants and their chosen audience could hardly have been more clearly signalled. There is space for irony and humour in a name – witness The Oldie, a self-referencing and cleverer name aimed at the same market – but Hip Replacement goes beyond irony and mocks its potential reader.

Reality TV is never going to provide a perfect example of any process of course, but in this case what we saw in that show was surprisingly similar to the real thing. The process of naming a magazine can often be that vague and chaotic, the difference being the decision is spread over months rather than squeezed into a day.

A typical starting point is to build the magazine’s character around a person’s name. Usually this disappears later in the process, but the mainstream women’s market has a tradition of using real names – think Marie Claire or Cleo. They’ve even been named after their founders (Martha Stewart Living, Rosie, Jane). This is the magazine as personal friend, the names tending to the everyday, and something that has never quite translated to the men’s market where a stuffier approach resulted in titles such as Esquire and Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ). Even today new men’s magazines tend to refer back to old titles (Man About Town) or make loose masculine references (Port) rather than using men’s names.

Independent magazines have great fun playing with these ideas of identity. Karen adopts a person-as-magazine concept similar to those mentioned above but then delivers against that, the magazine being dedicated to the life and times of Karen’s friends and neighbours. Me magazine features a different person and their friends each issue, and Monika creates an anonymous alter ego for its contributors, all of whom ‘are’ Monika.

Another recent twist has been for magazines to change their names each issue. The recent launch issue of fashion store Hostem’s magazine was named Sebastian (a man’s name, at last!), and future issues will each bear different names; while Luxembourg’s City listings magazine reinvented itself by using a different person’s name and portrait on the cover every issue. In Berlin a series of magazines about different areas of the city have each been named after those areas (Marzahn, Wedding, Charlottenburg and later this year, Mitte). From a design perspective, the series of magazines that included issues named Memphis, Trixie, DIN and Univers each took their name from the typeface used in the issue.

Although counter to the idea of recognition, such perpetual change at least solves the issue of names ageing badly. Wired launched in the era of the 56k modem, when access to the all-new information superhighway required being ‘wired’. Today the magazine’s content revolves around the benefits of the wireless internet. Unwired, anyone?

Sometimes names stick by default. I worked on Virgin Atlantic’s inflight magazine, Carlos, a slightly flippant working title referring to hijacker Carlos the Jackal. Six months of development later we didn’t have a better name and the magazine had ‘become’ Carlos. So Carlos it was, albeit with a slightly revised character description.

Usually, though, names go through multiple iterations. The name Fantastic Man is so in tune with its content that it’s difficult to imagine what initial working title Sexy Man might have done to the magazine. And for all Fantastic Man’s postmodern irony, when it came to developing its sister title for women the team had to look back to Victorian times to find the name The Gentlewoman.

In the end names become irrelevant; once a magazine is successful its title becomes imbued with everything the magazine stands for. The word(s) used lose their broader meaning and become, simply, the magazine. The word Vogue, for instance, will almost certainly trigger the thought ‘fashion magazine’ whatever context that you find it in.

At least Vogue refers directly to its subject. Movie magazine Little White Lies is a seemingly random name taken from Radiohead song, Motion Picture Soundtrack. In its original context the full verse does refer to movies (‘It’s not like the movies, They fed us on little white lies’) but the three-words on their own bear no relation to the subject.

Yet 36 issues later the name is synonymous with movies. I doubt Hip Replacement would ever have the luxury of that number of issues to prove itself.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog

 

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