CLOSE
Original image
Lauren Spinelli

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Broadway Understudies

Original image
Lauren Spinelli

On Broadway, “the show must go on” isn’t just something people say; it’s a way of life. Even if a star is out because of vacation or illness, the show can't just close its doors. Instead, the star’s talented understudy steps in to make sure that audiences aren't disappointed—and that the production doesn't lose money. Mental Floss spoke with Broadway musical understudies past and present to bring you behind-the-scenes secrets of the job, which is harder than you might think.

1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF UNDERSTUDY.

Actor Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Broadway's 'Come From Away.'
Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Come From Away.

The public tends to use understudy as a blanket term, but it has a more narrow meaning on Broadway. If you peruse a Playbill, you might see words like standby, alternate, and swing in addition to understudy; each fills in for an onstage performer, but in a specific way. “Standbys are off-stage, and cover only principal roles,” says Josh Breckenridge, a standby in Broadway’s Come From Away. “They literally stand by. They’re required to be at the theater, and in some cases, within a certain radius of the theater, to be on call if a principal role is unable to perform. Understudies are on-stage, every night, in a specific [ensemble] role, and they cover principal roles. Swings are off-stage and cover ensemble.”

There’s a certain chain of events that allows these actors to make it on stage: If a performer is out, her standby will go on; if the standby is also out, the understudy will step in, and a swing performer will “swing in” to cover the understudy’s typical "track," or role. Alternates, meanwhile, cover specific performances to give the principal actors a break. “They’re scheduled to go on every week, whereas a standby just goes on if there’s an emergency, if someone can’t do the show,” Breckinridge explains. Not every show will have all of these layers of redundancy, but according to the Actors' Equity Association Rulebook [PDF], all Broadway shows are obligated to have understudies.

2. ACTORS AUDITION SPECIFICALLY TO BE UNDERSTUDIES.

Usually, actors know they’re auditioning to be an understudy, standby, or swing. Occasionally, though, they’ll be auditioning for a principal part and be cast as the understudy instead. According to Asa Somers, who understudies for Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, “They audition you for the role and then they go, ‘You were great, but we’re going with someone else—but you’re good enough that we would like for you to understudy. Would you be willing to do that?’ So it does happen.”

3. THEY REHEARSE REGULARLY—BUT NOT USUALLY WITH THE MAIN CAST MEMBERS.

The understudies of 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
Dear Evan Hansen understudies Garrett Long, Colton Ryan, Olivia Puckett, and Michael Lee Brown. (Not pictured: Asa Somers.)
Jenny Anderson

Actors filling in for main characters have the opportunity to rehearse twice a week. Typically, they’ll rehearse with each other, with stage managers reading off-book to cover other parts, as an assistant director watches. There are very few of the bells and whistles that accompany a full show, which provides some challenges for the actors. For example, because there are only six standbys for the 12 cast members in Come From Away, Breckenridge says they have to rely on the crew to make up the difference during rehearsals: “There are moments where we have to pause for the crew to shift everything—there’s a little bit of hodge-podging and faking our way through.”

“I think one of the hardest things is how dark it is in rehearsal,” says Garrett Long, who understudies Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy in Evan Hansen. “We just [use] work lights.” Somers says, “I feel like the stage is way bigger when just the work lights are on because you can see everything—the audience, the wings. It’s disconcerting.”

Colton Ryan and Michael Lee Brown both cover Evan Hansen’s three high school-aged male leads—Evan, Connor, and Jared—which means they sometimes play two of the parts they cover in the same scene during rehearsal. “The first scene is one of only two scenes where Connor and Jared are in the same space,” Ryan says. “Because Jared enters first and has more lines, Michael will play Jared or I’ll play Jared. We’ll get to the point where [Jared] goes, ‘Oh, you’re such a freak,’ and leaves. And instead of leaving, [whoever is playing Jared] mimes walking out and will just come back in as Connor. You just have to switch on a dime.”

4. THEY OFTEN COVER MULTIPLE TRACKS, AND HAVE VARIOUS METHODS FOR KEEPING THE CHARACTERS SEPARATE.

“I made a run sheet for each character,” Brown says. “I wrote down exactly, in every scene, their movements—which wing they exit, enter, and every move they make. Props you need to remember, costume changes backstage. When you go on, you keep a copy on each side of the stage, and it’s super helpful.”

Jay Douglas, who covered six characters in The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, had a similar strategy. “I sat out in the audience with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a tape recorder in the other hand, and I would follow each of my people around one person at a time,” he told Playbill. “I would speak every move that that character made into a microphone, and then I would go back and actually type it out in a Word document.” He reviewed his notes and corrected them until he had an accurate description of what every track did, then kept a printed copy in his bag so he could pull it out to reference it at a moment’s notice.

For Ryan, keeping the characters from bleeding into one another comes down to physicality. “They’re all seniors in high school, but they all lead from a very different place in the body: Their gut, their heart—where they keep their instinct,” he says. “I found that tapping into a specific physicality is what can trigger my brain to say, ‘OK, you’re on that track now.’ And then they don’t bleed at all.”

Come From Away includes 12 actors—six men and six women—playing 60 different characters; as a standby, Breckenridge covers five of those actors and their subroles. “You’re one character one moment, you put on a hat and you’re automatically another character, or you slip off a jacket and you become an additional character,” he says. “It’s a subtle change, and it’s typically done with a physicality, with an acting beat, with a register of where you use your voice, and also with accents. As crazy as learning multiple accents can be, it’s actually very helpful with character shifts because that, in itself, can help you change into a completely different character. Dialogue helps, too: I’m speaking Arabic at one point as Ali, but then I’m talking about kissing a cod as the local Newfoundlander. I think that helps you zero in and not jump from one dialect to the next inappropriately.”

5. THEY’RE NEVER FAR FROM THE THEATER DURING A PERFORMANCE.

Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Standbys and swings have to be in, or near, the theater when a show is happening. But when they’re not on, they have a lot of downtime, and they can decide how they spend it. “I shared a dressing room with Megan Hilty, who was the Glinda standby at the time,” says Shoshana Bean, who was the standby for Elphaba in Wicked from 2004 to 2005 (after which she took on the role herself). “We would rehearse sometimes, we would watch TV. I would go to the gym, write music. We were allowed to be within a five-block radius of the building and reachable on our cell phones, so I grabbed food with friends or ran errands.”

Breckenridge says he and the other standbys will often watch the show: “We’re either out in the house, up above in the lighting rig—there’s a seating area for us—or we’re watching backstage,” he says. If they’re not watching, “We go in our dressing room, close the door, turn up the monitor, and kind of do the show there. We can sing full out, say the lines, in the dialect, and not have to mute ourselves as we would in the audience or backstage.”

Depending on the day, the cast of Dear Evan Hansen will also rehearse together or watch the show (they also enjoy playing Bananagrams). One thing is for sure: No standby or swing is lazy. “There’s a misconception that we’re not working,” Breckenridge says. “But we’re working our butts off behind the scenes.”

Understudies, who have their own tracks in the show, obviously can't fully watch what the actor they’re covering is doing—but sometimes, the stage manager will arrange for them to watch the show from the audience, as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s did for Jared Bradshaw. Bradshaw plays a reporter and an Oompa Loompa in the show and understudies for Willy Wonka (as well as the other male leads), who is played by Christian Borle. “He had a swing go on for my role as Jerry Jubilee, the reporter, and he let me watch the show from 10th row center,” Bradshaw says. “It wasn’t for fun—it was to let me watch Christian and see from the front of house where he’s actually standing and what the lighting cues look like.”

6. EVERY TIME THEY GO ON IS BASICALLY LIKE THE FIRST TIME.

“The problem for us is every time we go on, it’s the first time, more or less, because so much time has passed,” Somers says.

And it can be hard to master a role when you don’t go on much. “It was hard to have a job as a performer but not technically get to perform that often,” Bean says. “Most standbys go on very infrequently and it can feel like being shot out of a cannon. Takes a second to get your groove and find your sea legs.”

Long agrees. “I did two and a half years at South Pacific, and I was still working on it at the end,” she says. “[A principal actor] is sometimes gone for a week and by the end of that week you’re like, ‘OK!’ But then you don’t touch it [for a while].”

7. THEY COULD GO ON AT LITERALLY ANY MOMENT …

Sometimes, understudies will know far in advance when they’re going on for a principal actor—like if that actor is going on vacation. But illnesses or other unforeseen emergencies might mean much less notice. Ryan got the first clue that he might have to take the stage for a Sunday matinee of Dear Evan Hansen when he found out, after the Saturday evening performance, that star Ben Platt was going to the doctor. “I had a feeling that the next morning I might get a call,” he says. “It was around 11 a.m. on Sunday when I finally got the text that said ‘Hey, this is it.’” Ryan, who made his Broadway debut that day, says he felt very zen about it all. “The timing was unbelievable,” he says. His classmates and teachers happened to be in town for a showcase—Ryan is in his senior year at Baldwin-Wallace University and is receiving internship credit for his time in Evan Hansen—and “they freaked out, and all got tickets somehow. I couldn’t believe the support I was lucky enough to have out there.”

Sometimes, the call comes even closer to the wire. “I got an hour and a half notice last time I went on, and then before that I almost went on in the first 10 minutes of the show because someone was, like, throwing up,” says Olivia Puckett, who covers the roles of Alana Beck and Zoe Murphy in Evan Hansen.

And in some situations, an understudy or standby will be called in during a show. Bean (who these days is focusing on her music; she released a new single, “One Way to Go,” in March) had to go on close to the end of a matinee of Wicked when star Idina Menzel fell and fractured her rib. “They got me ready in 7 minutes,” Bean recalls. “I was in shock that we were actually going through with it. I was worried about her because no one know what had actually happened when they took her to the hospital. I was determined to keep it together ... I didn't feel I had the right to indulge in my feelings at the time—I felt I needed to be focused and steady, for her, for the show, and to just do my job.”

8. … EVEN IF THEY HAVEN’T REHEARSED THE WHOLE SHOW.

A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory program with an understudy slip.
Chris Messina

Standbys and understudies for principal roles will sometimes get the chance to do what’s called a “put-in,” where they perform the entire show, in their costume, with the cast (in street clothes), the orchestra, and things like lighting cues and props. But it doesn’t always happen.

Ryan, for example, never had a put-in. The day of his first performance, he only ran a few essential scenes on the stage before he had to go deal with the things he doesn't normally have to do: warm up and run songs in the music department; get into costume and miked up; and put on makeup. When he had time, “Cast members would come up to my room and we would run lines,” he says. “We’d never done this at all together, so we were getting a feel of the pace in a 10-minute frame. We spent maybe half an hour on the stage just doing the dancing bits ... Other than that, it was like, ‘Alright, let’s see how you do.’”

Similarly, Bradshaw covered for Christian Borle without having fully rehearsed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Luckily, he got a text from Borle the morning of a regular four-hour understudy rehearsal session, so the stage manager gave him the opportunity to run through some of the things he'd never done before—like riding in the glass elevator and in a boat that sailed 20 feet above the stage (which Bradshaw says was “a little terrifying”). “There was only one thing we forgot to do—there’s a pushcart train that Willy rides out on stage, and we had not done that,” Bradshaw says. “I’m pushing the pushcart and singing this line that I’d never sung before with a Willy Wonka hat on and Augustus Gloop is going up the pipe, and I’m like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Those are the moments you pinch yourself. You’re like, ‘I’m not killing anybody and I’m not dead, so this is good.’”

He also got a little help from his costars: “After the number, Augustus goes up the pipe. I was supposed to be leading off Mrs. Gloop, who is played by Kathy Fitzgerald, but she was essentially leading me.” Their mics were off, and the music was very loud; under her breath, Fitzgerald was directing Bradshaw where to go. In another moment, the actor found himself in the way of Emma Pfaeffle, who plays Veruca Salt. “I was really in her way. In character, she took her hands and pushed me in the chest,” he recalls. “It was one of those perfect moments where she knew that I knew it was OK for her to push me, and her character totally would have pushed me. In a moment like that, when an understudy goes on for the first time, you shove with love.”

If worse comes to worse, an understudy will go on, script in hand—which is what happened during a 2016 performance of Falsettos, when star Stephanie Block and her understudy were both out sick. Stephanie Umoh—who covered the roles belonging to two other actors—went on for Block after doing just a 2.5-hour staging rehearsal. According to Playbill, “Umoh used the script for most of the show, but the audience cheered throughout.”

9. THEY GET PAID FOR EVERY TRACK THEY COVER …

According to Breckenridge, “Swings get paid more than understudies because swings have to, typically, cover multiple roles. As a standby, you can cover, I believe, three roles, and the second that you cover more than that, you have to be paid an additional amount, per week, for each role that you cover.”

Sometimes, moving from swing to understudy means taking a pay cut. Bradshaw, who swung into 10 roles during his eight years in Jersey Boys, had his pay decrease when he took an ensemble role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory even though he's on stage every night. “I was covering six different roles and getting paid for all those. I got paid for dance captain and fight captain,” he says. “Every six months you can get a little increase for pay for signing on for another six months. I was getting paid a lot more doing Jersey Boys. You’d think moving to a new show you’d get paid more, but when you’re in the ensemble every night and covering three roles you aren’t getting paid as much as being a swing and covering three lead roles and three ensemble roles.”

10. … AND A BONUS IF THEY COVER FOR A PRINCIPAL ACTOR.

Broadway performers get paid for eight shows a week—and if you cover for a principal actor and go on in their stead, you get a little pay bump. “Say you’re getting paid $300 a show. When you go on for a principal role, you get an extra $300 because that principal actor is not getting paid that night,” Bradshaw explains. “You get one-eighth of your salary extra.”

But as Douglas explained to Playbill, you only get that bump if you go on for a principal role. “If I go on for my ensemble track," he said, "that does not pay me any extra ... [but] even if I am not on once during the course of a week, I still make my full paycheck, [and] any principal performances that I have is additional money on top.”

Understudies can also expect to get paid more for things like extraordinary risk, “which is when you do something like riding in [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's] glass elevator,” Bradshaw explains. “There was a trap door in Jersey Boys. They let you know that it’s a pneumatic lift and if you stick your arm out your bones are going to snap in half. You have to say you know how it works, but you also get $20 a week to risk your life and ride it. There are all these little bumps you can get as an understudy, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

11. THEY HAVE OTHER ROLES, TOO.

One standby or swing will serve as a show’s dance captain; in Come From Away, Breckenridge fills that role. “It’s my job to maintain the cleanliness of the show, so to speak,” he says. “While a typical dance captain’s job is maintaining just the choreography, with this show, there’s also chairography and blocking and chair traffic. All that stuff that I have to maintain. So on a typical day I’ll watch the show and take notes. If I see something—a traffic issue, or dance moves that have gotten muddy, or blocking that's a little off—I’ll notate it. If it’s something that becomes consistent, I’ll give the actor a note before the half hour [call] the next day, just to make sure they can apply that note in the show.”

12. THEY HAVE A LOT TO THINK ABOUT WHILE STAYING IN CHARACTER ...

“We’re focusing on things that [principal actors] don’t have to focus on at all anymore,” Puckett says. “You walk on stage and you’re looking for your spike mark [a piece of tape that shows actors where to stand], and then you’re looking for where the light is hitting you, and then you’re figuring out if you’re in the right shirt, and then you’re on top of that remembering your lines, and then on top of that you’re in your character.” According to Bradshaw, that type of compartmentalization has a name: “swing brain.”

13. ... AND NEED TO BE CONSISTENT WITH WHAT A PRINCIPAL ACTOR HAS DONE IN THE ROLE.

It’s key that understudies and standbys are consistent with what a principal performer has done in the past, both so they don’t throw off the other actors’ rhythms or wander into a perilous situation. “As the standby, my only intention was to fit in like a cog in a wheel,” Bean says. “A show runs like a well-oiled machine, and it can be dangerous to you or to the other company members if you don't hit your marks and follow the track as it's laid out.”

That said, there is room for a little fun. In his debut as Willy Wonka, Bradshaw said a line in Spanish and threw in a Southern accent on one line. “Willy Wonka is supposed to be unpredictable and you don’t know if he’s telling the truth or lying or strike that, reverse it,” he says. “Any comedian is funnier if they’re doing their own stuff as opposed to doing a filtered version of someone else’s accent. Still, you have to be standing in the right place at the right time. There are holes that open up in the floor and entire ceiling comes down—it’s dangerous.”

14. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THEY’RE NOT LESSER THAN THE PRINCIPAL PERFORMERS.

The performers Mental Floss spoke to all mentioned the disappointment audiences express when a principal actor is out and a standby or understudy is on. While that’s understandable, they want audience members to know that they’re just as talented and working just as hard as the principal performers.

“The term understudy has a connotation that you’re not as good,” Bradshaw says. “It’s tough understudying a star now instead of just an actor. I would want to see Christian Borle as Willy Wonka. I wouldn’t want to see Jared Bradshaw—I would be disappointed! But you get to exceed their expectations. It takes a special person to understudy and to hop in and play a lead in one of these Broadway shows.”

Breckenridge concurs. “The producers, directors, choreographers, they’re trusting us to do, technically, a harder job than what the onstage actors are doing,” he says. Swings and standbys need to be able to maintain and perform multiple roles, sometimes at the drop of a hat. “I think there’s a misconception that we are second best, when in fact, we’re hired because we have the talent to do a myriad of things, like different roles and voice types,” he says. “We’re just as talented and we are an equal piece of this family, of this cast.”

Original image
iStock
arrow
travel
12 Ways Airports Are Secretly Manipulating You
Original image
iStock

Over the years, airports have evolved from bare-bones transportation hubs for select travelers to bustling retail centers for millions. They’re being designed to both complement and influence human behavior. Everything from the architecture and lighting to the trinkets on sale in the gift shops is strategic. Here are a few tricks airports use to help travelers relax, get to their gates safely and on time, and hopefully spend some money along the way. 

1. They make sure you can see the tarmac

One key to a successful airport is easy navigation. Travelers should be able to get from security to their gate without getting lost, with help from subtle design cues nudging them in the right direction. In design lingo, this process is called wayfinding. “I tell my staff that signage is an admission of failure,” says Stanis Smith, executive vice president and leader of the airports sector at consulting firm Stantec. “Obviously one needs signs, but the best thing for designers to do is look for ways you can assist with wayfinding that are subtle.”

For example, in many new airports, passengers can seen through to the tarmac immediately after they leave security, or sooner. “More important than anything is a view directly out to airside and you see the tails of all the aircraft,” says Robert Chicas, Director of Aviation and Transportation at HOK, the architectural firm that helped redesign the Indianapolis International Airport. “Does it matter whether it’s your aircraft? Probably not. It gives you an orientation so you know generally that’s the direction you need to head in.”

2. The signs send subliminal messages

“Very, very little in the style of an airport sign is arbitrary,” writes David Zweig, author of Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. Take the font, for example. In 75% of all airports, you’ll find one of three typefaces: Helvetica, Frutiger, and Clearview. All three are sans serif because it’s easier to read at a distance. The unofficial rule for size, according to the Transportation Research Board’s guide to wayfinding, is that every inch of letter height adds 40 feet of viewing distance (so a “3 inch tall letter would be legible from 120 feet”). Sometimes different terminals will have their own distinct signature sign design—like rounded edges or a specific color. “If you are ever in an airport or campus or hospital or other complex environment and suddenly something feels off, you sense you are going the wrong way, there’s a good chance it’s not just magic or some brilliant internal directional sense,” Zweig writes, “but rather you may be responding to a subconscious cue like the change of shape from one sign system to another.”

3. They lighten the mood

Newer airports incorporate as many windows as possible, even in stores. “There’s a trend that the shops face the tarmac. Passengers tend to walk more into shops that have direct access to the sunlight,” says Julian Lukaszewicz, lecturer in aviation management at Buckinghamshire New University. “If they’re closed off with artificial light passengers feel they are too dark and avoid them.” 

4. They herd you with art

That big sculpture in your terminal isn’t just there to look pretty. It’s another tool to help travelers navigate. “We like to use things like artwork as kind of placemakers that create points of reference through an airport terminal,” says Smith. “For example, in Vancouver International Airport we have a spectacular 16-foot high sculpture at the center of the pre-security retail area. People say, ‘Meet you at the sculpture.’ It acts as a point of orientation.” 

Art also serves to create a sense of place, transforming the airport from a sterile people-mover to a unique atmosphere where people want to spend time (and money!). In one survey, 56% of participants said “a more culturally sensitive and authentic experience tied to the location” is something they’d like to see more in airports by 2025. 

5. They use carpeting

In many airports, the long walk from check-in to gate is paved in linoleum (or some other hard surface). But you’ll notice that the gate waiting area is carpeted. This is an attempt to make holding areas more relaxing by giving them a soft, cozy feeling, like you might find in your own living room. Happy, relaxed travelers spend 7% more money on average on retail and 10% more on Duty Free items. And it doesn’t stop with a layer of carpeting. Yoga rooms, spas, and even airport therapy dogs are becoming more common as airports look for new ways to relax travelers and encourage spending. 

6. The “golden hour” is key for profit

In airport manager lingo, the time between when a passenger clears security and boards their plane is called “dwell time.” This is when, as the Telegraph puts it, “passengers are at a loose end and most likely to spend.” Especially crucial is the “golden hour,” the first 60 minutes spent beyond security, when passengers are “in a self-indulgent mood.” Display boards listing flight information are there in part to keep you updated on your flight, but also to reassure you that you still have plenty of time to wander and shop. Similarly, some airports are installing “time to gate” signs that display how far you are from your destination. And because 40% of us would prefer to avoid human interaction when we shop, self-service kiosks are becoming more common in airport terminals. According to the Airports Council International, 50% of American airports now have robo-retailers.

7. They’re increasing dwell time

The “golden hour” is great, but two golden hours are even better. “One hour more at an airport is around $7 more spent per passenger,” says Lukaszewicz. Anything that’s automated, from check-in to bag drop, is meant to speed things up. And it works. Research suggests automated check-in kiosks are 25% faster than humans. “A lot of airports, especially in Japan and New Zealand, are now doing this, where you don’t actually get any assistance from any staff member from check-in,” says Lukaszewicz. “You print your own baggage tag. You put it on the bag on the belt. You go through auto-security and immigration where there is no one. At the boarding gate you just touch your barcode and they open a gate and you walk onto the plane without any interaction.” One study found that for every 10 minutes a passenger spends in the security line, they spend 30% less money on retail items. Last year, the TSA announced it would give $15,000 to the person who comes up with the best idea for speeding up security.

8. Shops are strategically placed

Most airport spending is done on impulse (no one really needs a giant pack of Toblerone), so the key is getting the goods out where they can be seen by as many people as possible. Shops are located where airport footfall is highest. Some airports force passengers to wander through Duty Free to get to the gates. And the more twists and turns, the better. According to one report from consulting company Intervistas, Duty-Free shops with “serpentine walk-through” designs have 60% more sales “because 100% of customers are exposed.”

Shops and restaurants are often clustered to evoke a Main Street feel, because people tend to shop in bustling environments. “It’s no different than if you’re in a town in Europe or in Manhattan,” Smith says. “Retail succeeds when it has a critical mass.” 

9. They go local

Airport shops are packed with souvenirs and trinkets that reflect the local culture because that’s what travelers want to buy. For example, more than 20 years after its release, ”Sleepless in Seattle” shirts are still a top-selling item at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, shoppers go wild for potted cactus plants. “Local brands, local services, reinforce this idea of place, and that you are in a special place on your way to the rest of the world,” says Ripley Rasmus, senior design principal at HOK. 

10. Walkways curve to the left

The majority of humans are right-handed, and according to Intervistas, this influences airport design. “More sales are generated if a walkway curves from right to left with more merchandise and space on the right side because passengers are looking right while (perhaps unconsciously) walking left,” says one report.

11. A single queue puts us at ease

While the line for check-in and security may seem absurdly long, a single queue actually lowers stress levels by increasing the perceived sense of fairness, according to Lukaszewicz. No one worries the other line is going faster than theirs, because there is no other line. “If you implement a one-queue system for check-in, or for security, so one long line and then you go just to the next available counter, passengers perceive it as more fair because each person standing in the same line,” he says. “It’s strange but true because you always think the queue next to you moves quicker.” 

12. The security officers get conversational

Since 2007, the TSA has been pouring $200 million a year into agents trained to spot suspicious behavior in passengers. The program, called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) was developed by a psychology professor at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco named Paul Ekman. It involves a list of 94 signs of anxiety and fear, like lack of eye contact or sweating. But one report found that SPOT is ineffective because "the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance." 

Another method of screening passengers is simply to talk to them. A 2014 study found that asking open-ended questions—known as the Controlled Cognitive Engagement method (CCE)—is 20 times more effective than trying to monitor based on behavior. For example, an agent might ask a passenger where they’re traveling before prodding them with a random question like where they went to college and what they majored in, then watch for signs of panic. “If you’re a regular passenger, you’re just chatting about the thing you know the best—yourself,” says researcher Thomas Ormerod, PhD, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England. “It shouldn’t feel like an interrogation.” In the study, officers using conversation-based screening caught 66% of deceptive passengers, compared to just 3% who used behavior-based screening.

Original image
iStock
arrow
job secrets
13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants
Original image
iStock

When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.

1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.

“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.

The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.

“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of The Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”

2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.

Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.

For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”

3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.

Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.

Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.

4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.

“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.

So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.

5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.

When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.

But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.

6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL

The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.

Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.

Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.

7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.

One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.

Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.

Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.

Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language. (Obviously, that one didn't get presented to the client.)

8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.

Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”

9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.

Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonetic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.

Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.

Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”

10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.

“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”

To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.

11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.

The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish parameters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.

Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.

As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.

12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”

13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.

Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios