Andrea Fabbri discusses the potential impact of artificial intelligence in the business of naming and brand development with Scott Milano, founder of Tanj.
[This is an edited version. Listen to the full interview by clicking the player above.]
Andrea: Hello and welcome to Expert Opinion. This is Andrea Fabbri, Managing Director of Branding Business here in New York. Today’s guest is Scott Milano. Scott is a namer, a brand strategist, a creative director with more than 20 years of experience. He is what I like to call a verbal identity master and he truly is. He’s the founder and managing director of Tanj. He and his team have created such legacy brand names as Nintendo Wii, which anybody who has kids is very familiar with. Sony Bravia televisions and, of course, a really well-known financial institution called Ally. Scott is also the creator of Chatnamer.com, a ChatGPT-powered AI naming assistant that unlike many online naming generators out there, is able to create surprisingly interesting name ideas. Welcome Scott, and thank you so much for being with us today.
Scott: Thanks for having me.
Andrea: First thing, your company’s called Tanj. In a conversation about names and language, it would be remiss if I didn’t ask you how did you come up with the name and what does it mean?
Scott: When I started the business, I figured that we would be focused in this particular area of language and brand…I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what types of services we would take on beyond that, but I knew that was our core focus. So, within that, it’s like this notion of what is a brand. You can think of tangible elements like logo marks, visual identity, all that stuff. But at the heart of it is a word. So, we like to think that we make language a very “tangible” asset for businesses. So that’s the first area, or first word that Tanj comes from. The second is a Japanese word. I lived in Japan, speak a bit of Japanese, and the word kind of sounds like Tanj, but means to simplify or to bottom-line something. And for us we think typically think any name of significance is usually a pretty simple idea, it just cuts through the clutter and does the work that it needs to.
And then, lastly, our brand color – it’s a bright orange, sort of tied to tangerines. It’s a fruit that I happen to like, hence the name Tanj.
Andrea: Scott, you developed Chatnamer, which is this AI-based naming tool. I used it. It’s actually really thoughtful and really good. What prompted you to do this “self-destruction?”
Scott: Yeah, definitely not self-destruction. We prototyped Chatnamer in December when all this talk about ChatGPT really lit up and naturally I jumped on it. The first thing I did was to see how it named something, and it was pretty basic. If you put in some prompts of like, “Hey, name me a sushi restaurant,” and it comes up with some basic junkie names that any AI probably would. But then, as I got deeper into it and started to better understand some of its capabilities and how to get more out of it, I started to develop in my mind this model of what we would do normally with a client in taking them through a naming engagement as Tanj, as real creative consultants, but simplifying it into basically an algorithm that you could run simply through ChatGPT. And then tried a bunch of different stuff together collectively as a team.
We were just trying to see what made the most sense…ultimately, we landed on this particular approach that gets decent results out of it. So far so good. And then I think on the tail-end we were trying to figure out how to productize it. We talked with our developer, had some specific thoughts on technological ways to get the most out of it.
So, ultimately, we decided to create a true product out of it and make it its own experience. It’s branded as Chatnamer, it’s got its own name to give it a little bit of distance from our brand Tanj, but it is related to our brand in fairly significant ways.
Andrea: So, I have a question for you as we start to dive into the topic of artificial intelligence applied to our world, the world of creating meaning, of creating identity, of creating stories, whether it’s through a name or through messaging or coming up with concepts and ideas.
So, AI versus HI – Human Intelligence. Jokes aside, where do you see artificial intelligence playing a role in our business?
Scott: It can play a valuable role in a number of different areas. It’s giving you a little bit of value by giving you some initial ideas. It gives you five names. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re math. We’re not responsible for it because we didn’t develop the actual AI behind it. But, often, they’re okay and they provoke some type of thought. So, there’s value being delivered right there.
So, that’s on more of a business development front to get something out in front of folks and then pull them into the Tanj brand. But beyond that, internally too, whether it’s ChatGPT or we’re actually using Chatnamer because it’s a more specific and contained experience, I think it has its most significant role right now as an assistant in just helping generate base level ideas for any creative human intelligence or just to jump off and do a much more thorough, thoughtful exploration.
For us, it doesn’t solve the problem that we’re hired to solve, but it is a tool in a big toolbox with a bunch of other stuff. We’re just interested in exploring it more. It can certainly play a role and then possibly in branding as well.
Andrea: I am sure that it’s going to enter our world as well in some ways, the same way that computers entered the world of designers and suddenly designers were panicking – “we’re going to get out a job!” – and they’re still thriving. It will be interesting to see if a Chatnamer-like tool will enhance our abilities or will it replace? And if so, to what extent? These tools are very much in their infancy. So, logically, one is led to believe that these tools will get smarter and smarter and better and more effective.
Then I started thinking about a typical naming project, and where can AI help? And at the same time, what are the areas that artificial intelligence absolutely does not have a place? What’s your view?
Scott: I think it doesn’t have a place throughout most of the process. At least right now. Who knows what the future will hold, but I don’t think it will ever replace the need for human creativity, being able to tee-up a coherent, compelling strategy, the consultative approach. You can sort of use AI as a therapist. It’s probably just not finely tuned enough to take a client through an often very emotional experience like a naming engagement. It can be highly emotional and certainly very, very subjective. But to your point, thinking about designers and computers, they never replaced the need for a designer. In fact, they empowered more people to create design.
Where I don’t see AI fitting – could AI actually onboard a client and serve that consultative role of really being able to understand and diagnose some of the issues that they’re facing? Could AI act as a sounding board for their concerns and think through and around? Probably not, right? How about complex situations? Anyone who’s ever done any kind of more complex naming assignment knows that there are always competing interests. There’s always sort of different elements that you have to balance. You have to think creatively around and through. Can AI do that and create some sort of novel solution or a novel approach to naming or [produce] a great name that really crystallizes what folks are going for? Probably not.
Can AI build meaning into and build a story around a name? Maybe, but not right now. So, I think on so many different fronts, humans are essential in that process and are never going to be eliminated. I see AI as more of an assistant in its role within any given naming assignment or project or engagement of that type.
Andrea: No, it’s absolutely right. I’m sure that AI can generate a list of great names. That doesn’t mean that the project is going to be successful because those names need to be chosen by humans and the choice is going to entail a rather roller coaster-like experience, a lot of politics and a lot of therapy, as you insightfully mentioned. Generating names and creating names is never really the problem. The problem is – once you have a list of names and you have to lead the client through making a decision, that is where things get very complicated. And I certainly don’t see AI playing a role there. I mean, for example, do you think that AI could ever come up with a name like Tanj?
Scott: Maybe, but would AI know what to do with a name like Tanj? It would just be there and you need true creativity to look at an idea and really imbue it with meaning that is relevant to the offering that’s compelling to a particular audience, that’s unique in some way from the landscape of names and brands that it’s inevitably going to live in. So, to your point, creating names…there’s an art, there’s a science, there’s a craft in that. But that is by no means the whole part of the equation, maybe 20 percent to be perfectly honest. There’s so much more that gets wrapped around it.
Andrea: I know that part of your business focuses on naming, but what about brand language, which is also part of your business? You work with clients to develop stories. I think you used the line “crafting stories that people love.” So there, again, the emotional component of what we do, do you see a role for artificial intelligence there?
Scott: Great question. I do see a role, similar to something like Chatnamer, in that it could help generate ideas and, maybe, headlines or little pieces of language or interesting ways to tell a story. I don’t know, you just pour some interesting approaches into something like ChatGPT and see what it comes out with. I think it could assist, it could potentially inspire, but I don’t think it’s going to wrap everything in a very tight package and be able to share it with a client in a compelling way and get them on board. But for headline generation, if you’re developing something like a brand purpose statement or some other essential piece of language, I think that type of tool can be helpful in at least generating some ideas and pushing it along in the process or uncovering areas that maybe you just didn’t think of. What do you think?
Andrea: I still find what we do to be very much a human activity. A celebration of our unique qualities as humans, we are incredibly creative. I don’t see yet how artificial intelligence can replace human intelligence, but like you said, maybe as a support system for specific tasks, why not? So, in conclusion, Scott, artificial intelligence friend, enemy or frenemy?
Scott: Friend, enemy or frenemy? Technology is usually our friend, unless you get the spinning wheel of death on a Mac and then you hate it…I typically think of technology as a friend and it’s there in service of humans or in service of something that I’m doing to get done, whether it’s work related or fitness related or just life. We’ve got robots that clean up stuff off of our floors for us. Technology is at every point in our lives. So, for me, with AI in particular in our business, let’s just focus it to naming specifically because it’s clearly delivering at least a little bit of value on that front.
I definitely would embrace it and I would encourage others to. I don’t think you need to be afraid of it. I know people are always afraid of new things, that’s just sort of how humans react to certain situations. But, at Tanj, we’ve always been pretty tech-forward in our approach. We’ve built tools to help streamline processes. We’ve certainly embraced all types of technology that’s available to everyone to just enhance how we service clients. Having a big healthy toolbox to pull from, AI is another element of that.
We can’t look 15, 20 years down the line but I think for all intents and purposes, why not try it? Why not see if it has a role? If you like it and it seems to deliver value for whatever it is you’re doing – great, go for it. If not, and you want to just stick to pen and paper, that’s ok too. As long as you’re delivering great work.
Andrea: Maybe there is a future where there is going to be artificial intelligence made and then there is going to be a branded offering brain made. But we’ll see. Scott, thanks so much for being with us today. Again, very much I enjoyed this conversation and your insights. Thank you.