What's in a Name?

Why getting Asili's name just right was so hard, and so critical

Between translating from Swahili to English, then checking the cultural connotations, then finally conducting trademark searches, my design team, which first worked on Asili in 2013, had to ensure that whatever name we used was appropriate, evocative, and scalable.

Here's what I learned.

Keep it short and sweet

When we asked community members for potential names of the service, they had descriptions like “for our family and community” which had a beautiful meaning, but was literally over 10 syllables! When you want a service to be memorable and relevant to a variety of audiences, shoot for something short, sweet, and easy to remember.

Check on the availability of a name 

This is an area we overlooked in our initial enthusiasm. We were so excited about some of our initial names–Pamoja (meaning ‘together’) or Kesho (meaning ‘tomorrow’)–that we did not take the time to check how many related organizations already used these names. Our lesson learned? Do this early and often!

Find local sounding boards

We had several key folks who helped us quickly prototype some of the words we created: ARC’s staff in the DRC, an American who has studied Swahili in Kenya, and a colleague from Burundi who works in global health. By checking with Swahili speakers in four different countries, we were able to quickly tease out the connotations of the names across many contexts.

Google Translate is your best friend and worst enemy

As we scrapped many names from our initial list, we found ourselves turning to Google Translate for support. This was great, real-time service, but it also had us working in a vacuum. We were relying on literal translations without any context of how the words were used, which required us to vet our choices with local speakers.

Stay inspired

After eliminating the first 20 names, we started to run out of steam. We decided to hold a brainstorm with some of the most creative minds at IDEO and IDEO.org. With the energy of this incredibly vibrant group, we were able to generate names around the types of emotions and parallel descriptors that the brand represented.

Ultimately, we landed on Asili, which means ‘foundation’ in Swahili. It represents the essence of what the service stands for—a foundation for a better future—and hints at how the business operates, a foundation for services and delivery rooted in Bukavu. 

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