What's in a name? Nowadays almost everything, when it comes to marketing. Just ask the chaps trying to sell Swedish 'Spunk' sweeties in the UK. Hester Lacey on why we take Andrews Antacid after eating Pot Noodles in our Wimpey homes called Maxima
nickers, Cheez Wizz, Pot Noodles, Wash & Go, Doritos, Hooper's Hooch, Solero, Toast Toppers, Vitalite, Pollon Eze, Shock Waves: how do manufacturers think of all those brilliantly original brand names?

Simply sitting down with a pencil and paper and jotting away for 10 minutes or so until "Megane" or "Golden Drummers" materialises on the page would seem to be the obvious answer; but in fact this is a very inadequate approach, according to the professionals. For brand naming is an industry in its own right.

Since 1991, the Brandnaming Company has specialised entirely in naming new and relaunched brands and products. For a price, a team of professionals - marketers, planners, creative types - will apply themselves to the knotty problem of what to call your new cheese spread or fizzy drink or gas boiler or hatchback car.

"Everybody out there needs names," says Cathy Newman, the company's business development manager. Among those who have consulted the company are British Gas, British Steel, Motorola, Playtex, Shell and Britvic.

Reception at the Brandnaming offices in west London is rather elegant, with pale wood floors, wood veneer walls and huge vases of blue and yellow flowers. In the meeting room, a slide projector flashes the key tenets of brand naming on to the wall. "Names are easier to develop than they are to like!" it proclaims. "Without a visual identity, names are only words!"

Quite so, but what does it all mean? "We have to consider very carefully what the client is hoping to achieve," explains Ms Newman. Surely, enormous sales would seem a likely aim? Probably, but not necessarily; there can be more sneaky reasons for an identity change, like disguising a disaster. "Hoover could have changed its name and relaunched after the free flights fiasco, if it hadn't been so big, with such a strong brand name," says Ms Newman.

So how do brand-namers come up with a real wow of a name, that will have the client (and the punters) swooning? The whole process typically takes around three months. Simply developing the brief may involve workshops to help the client "release what they're trying to do"; maybe appeal to a certain age group, or develop a name that fits in with an existing product portfolio, or one that will go against the norm and shake up the market.

But the real work starts when the brief has been decided. Then it's time for the Creative Naming Workshop, which "harnesses client creativity". A Creative Naming Workshop involves around eight people; key members of the client company, plus Brandnaming's specialist copywriters and planners. The planner starts by identifying Creative Start Points - key concepts such as "dynamic growth" or "product performance".

"Then the planner will create games, and the client and company people will pair up," explains Ms Newman. "For example, they could be given a key word, such as 'communication' and a stack of magazines, and they'd rip out anything to do with communication, and make a collage to generate as much vocabulary as possible. Then the copywriters take the output away, put it back in, and start focusing it down." Which sounds positively staid, given that other brand-name searchers have confessed to lying their creative thinkers on the floor and making them draw pictures to the sound of rave music.

Semantics, trademarks and linguistic filters then come into play. Names have to be easy to pronounce, not copyrighted to another company, and not have any unfortunate international connotations. ("There are some Scandinavian sweets called 'Spunk', which wouldn't sell over here," says Ms Newman.)

Finally, it's time to conceptualise: produce the final choice in a sympathetic typeface; try putting it in context (for example, using it verbally, by saying things like "I'm just going upstairs to work on the Melon computer - no, no, it just doesn't work, back to the drawing board"); maybe mock up a letterhead or design a package incorporating it. Et voila. But is all this really necessary? Is the pencil, paper, and 10 minutes jotting truly not enough? Absolutely not, says Bridget Ruffel, a director of the Brandnaming Company. "Fifty to sixty per cent of the time, companies have already gone through internal brainstorming sessions, and it hasn't worked. The way of getting to brand names isn't by starting with close associations.

"If you're thinking of a new brand of cheese, your first thoughts won't be creative, and someone else will already have them copyrighted."

Many companies turn up with a sadly inadequate list of ideas. "People often come in with names they quite like, but they need ability, the technique to think more laterally," says Ms Ruffel. "If they already have a list, it's good to know where they're coming from. But they tend to be quite conservative. We can do better."

Among the Brandnaming Company's triumphs is the naming of Andrews Antacid, an indigestion remedy. "Other brands on the market were called things like Setlers and Tums, which are quite frivolous names," says Cathy Newman. "Andrews Antacid is much more serious, it incorporates a term doctors might use, which means the product takes the high ground. It was one of the most successful over-the-counter launches of the last 20 years."

Wimpey Homes employed the Brandnaming Company to work on their latest range of houses. "Building companies tend to come up with names that fall into a never-ending supply of big categories- rivers or countries," explains Bridget Ruffel.

"But if you're a young couple raving in the pub, you don't want to go home to a two-bedroom starter home called 'The Tweed'. We had great fun categorising who would be buying what sort of house. For example, Mr and Mrs Bungalow like to go to National Trust properties and garden centres, so the names we came up with are to do with National Trust properties and trees." And for those two-bed starter-home ravers? Enter the Practica, the Vista, the Maxima, the Riva and the Libra. Other projects, however, proved more tricky. When LDV were re-naming their Sherpa vans, it took a while for the Brandnaming team to work their way into van-driver mentality. They had to come up with names for two van ranges; a small one and a larger, heavy duty one. "Van drivers have such a different way of looking at things," says Bridget Ruffel. "You can come up with something creative and they just don't want to know. We thought the smaller van could be called 'Otter', not a bad name for something that's fast and nippy around town, we thought. But they came back to us and said: 'You just cannot expect us to take a name like that seriously.' There's just no room for frivolity," she sighed.

It would have seemed rather rude to point out that in fact there aren't that many otters nipping swiftly around the city streets (Urban Fox, perhaps?); and anyway the day was saved when they came up with the satisfactorily unfrilly Pilot for the small van, and Convoy for the larger one.

"I'd love to have a chance to name a newspaper," says Bridget Ruffel. "The Independent - I wonder how they came up with that?"