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50 Smartest Companies of the Year 2021

Margaret Wolfson, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of the naming agency, River + Wolf: “Whether you need a name for an artificial intelligence platform or lipstick shade, a financial firm or line of fitness wear, a new city district or medical robot, nothing is beyond our creative reach.”

While names cannot make or break a brand or company—many good companies or brands have marginal names and vice versa—names do play a crucial role. They are often the first impression that consumers may have with a company, product, or brand. Moreover names—especially company names—have very long shelf lives. Messaging and design can come and go, but names often need to hold up over decades. Because naming is so important and so difficult to do well, many in need of brand, company, or product names wisely turn to help from independent naming consultants and/or naming agencies such as River + Wolf—an agency ranked by  the respected reviewing platform Clutch as one of the best in the world.

Based in New York City, River + Wolf serves clients around the globe, providing a range of services that range from name development and naming architecture to trademark screening and registration, linguistic check, taglines, and design.

A conversation with Margaret Wolfson, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of
River + Wolf

Q. What was the motivation behind establishing River + Wolf?

Prior to launching River + Wolf, I had a long career as a performing storyteller. When you are touring, especially internationally, you have a lot of downtime in hotels. When I discovered there was such a thing as a freelance naming specialist—a job I could do while on the road—I immediately reached out to several branding and naming agencies. Perhaps because brand naming and the kind of storytelling I did—compressing massive myths and epics into hour-long performances—are both about the art of distillation, I quickly became an in-demand naming specialist. Over time, I found I enjoyed naming so much that I switched careers. But I wanted to do more than name. Having built and run my own performance company for years,  I also loved the business-building side of things. That is what motivated me to launch River + Wolf in 2014.

Q. Could you tell us about the company’s process while naming a brand?

That’s an excellent question. Many people think naming agencies or specialists just brainstorm names over a cup of coffee. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like any creative endeavor, naming can be messy. And there is nothing wrong with mess. It is part and parcel of creative work. To keep the mess from turning into crazy chaos, it’s important to have clear process. At River + Wolf we follow the five-step process: Prepare, Develop, Present, Select, and Finalize.

Q. Why are your services so important in today’s age? Could you give us some context?

As noted by the Small Business Administration, there are more than 543,000 new businesses started each month in the United States alone. In 2018, the United States Patent and Trademark Office registered approximately 367,382 trademarks. Factor in worldwide trademarks and these numbers skyrocket—according to the World-Wide Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an estimated 9.11 million trademark applications were filed in the EU alone in 2017. Then there is Asia, one of the largest producers of new businesses and trademark filings, many of which are in English. And while these businesses vary tremendously, they all share this: each one needs a name. As already mentioned, naming can be fiendishly difficult. At times people with little experience are lucky enough to catch lightning in a bottle and land on the right name almost effortlessly, but that’s the exception, not the rule. That’s why naming, when possible, is best handled by professional agencies like River + Wolf.

Q. What makes River + Wolf a unique organization?

I believe our team has an unusual blend of creative and strategic talents that few of our competitors can rival. Unlike the teams of a lot of naming agencies, we come from many of professional backgrounds, not just the marketing or business world—though we have deep knowledge of those areas as well. But we are not a bunch of mad creatives. We are also very analytical and careful thinkers. Additionally, we are insatiably curious about our client’s industry. These orientations, I think, when combined with our linguistic expertise, is the secret sauce to our rapid success.

Q. Could you tell us about one of your big success stories?

We consider all our projects, whether large or small, to be “big success stories”. That said, merging multiple companies a single enterprise poses special challenges. Stakes are high and people are deeply invested in their existing names. We had this challenge recently when working with a higher education technology enterprise that was folding three companies into one. We needed to satisfy the marketing team, the CEOs of each of the three companies,  and the venture firm investing in this new enterprise. That’s a lot of stakeholders to satisfy. Happily, the name we developed—Anthology—hit the sweet spot for all. We also did the design work which was very well-received by the broader team. When Anthology was able to procure the dot com, the whole thing came together into a beautiful whole. We are proud to have contributed to this game changing company.

Q. What clients have to say about River + Wolf

“I’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies in the past, and I found that we got top experience and expertise from River + Wolf at a reasonable cost. River + Wolf hit the nail on the head.”

Susan Scholes, CMO, Anthology, Higher Education Technology Company

“River + Wolf knows the naming business, including all of the legal ramifications that go into it. Through the transparent process, we had great conversations that led to an excellent outcome. We are super excited about our name.”

Margaret Murphy, CEO, Bold Orange, Fundraising Platform

“We were very impressed with how quickly their team worked to meet our deadlines. The team is highly creative with a gift for creating beautiful names and words out of different elements of language. We were very happy with the entire process.”

Whitney Peak, Senior Brand Manager, Proximo Spirits, Beverage Co.

“One of our investors has worked with naming companies in the past and she was very impressed with how River + Wolf operated. River + Wolf really hit the nail on the head and provided us with the quality names we were looking for.”

Diana Van Dusen, Marketing Manager, FLEx Lighting Technology Co.

Q. What is the next step for the company as it continues to grow?

At River + Wolf we always like to explore new projects that are ancillary to naming. A few years back we launched N.O.D., an acronym standing for Names of Distinction. There were many galleries showcasing logo design, but we could not find any devoted to brand names. Our monthly N.O.D. gallery also fulfills our interest in naming education, as it unpacks what we think makes the names we feature exceptional. This year, we have also begun conducting naming workshops for smaller start-ups and non-profits who may not be able to afford a full-service naming agency like River + Wolf. We have also started a naming school for individuals interested in becoming professional brand naming specialists. These two endeavors have been very satisfying—it has been a great joy opening others up to the little understood, but always fascinating journey of developing names for companies, products, and services.

Margaret Wolfson, Founder and Chief Creative Officer

As River + Wolf’s Chief Creative Officer, Margaret names for companies throughout the world, from start-ups and mid-sized businesses to global Fortune 500s. As a naming specialist, she has been quoted in and written for a wide-range of journals, among them the The New York Times, AdAge, The Wharton Magazine, NBC News, Crain’s, Forbes, Huffington Post, TNW, and Fast  Company.

In 2018 she was selected as a top female entrepreneur by the Huffington Post. Margaret also lectures widely on brand naming, most recently at the Wharton School, Columbia University, the Harvard Business Club. Most recently, she lectured in Paris at the Institute Francaise de la Mode and Cinquieme Sens.

Margaret’s work as a naming specialist is deeply informed by a long career as an award-winning author and storytelling performer. This work has provided her with unparalleled management skills, in-depth language ability, and a wide-ranging global perspective. Margaret received her M.A. from New York University in literature and communications.