Code naming – a seriously funny task

Code naming – a seriously funny task

I don’t know what you think, but in my experience one of the most entertaining activities in market intelligence is to come up with code names for new projects. It’s like creating a cryptogram. Ideally, if you know what the link between the name and the object is, you won’t forget it even if the link is quite obscure. And if you are not aware of the link, the obscurity will make it impossible for you to guess it.


Corporate secrets are hidden in project names


Project names are essential in hiding corporate secrets from colleagues and all other parties that have no need to know them. Secrecy is required, for example, to make sure that the names of other companies within the scope of the project are not revealed.


This could be particularly critical in a situation where companies are being studied as a potential acquisition targets. Insider knowledge easily turns into insider trading – a punishable crime.


In short: a good project name is a serious and often legally required matter.


However, defining less than serious project names is also a great way to trigger laughter. When joy butts heads with safety, joy tends to win, hands down, every time.


The long tradition of code naming


Having fun with code names has a long tradition. During World War II the shared enjoyment of choosing amusing code names in Britain even became Chefsache – a matter for the boss. Sir Winston Churchill personally had to enforce a “strictly serious” policy on choosing code names [Macintyre, 2010]:


“They ought not to be given names of a frivolous character such as “Bunnyhug” or “Ballyhoo”. Intelligent thought will already supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names that do not suggest the character of the operation and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called “Bunnyhug” or “Ballyhoo”.


No matter how wise the policy, time and again jokers come up with inappropriate code names.


Also German military intelligence used code names during World War II. “Golfplatz” (Golf Course) was used as the code name for England, and “Samland” for the US [Macintyre, 2010]. These code names are clearly useless, as the link between the code name and the entity to be obscured is immediately obvious.


To avoid coming up with too revealing project names, the Israeli Defense Force has developed a random generator to depersonalize code naming. [David, 2015].


What is a good project name like?


In the business world, most companies don’t have the luxury of a random project name generator software. Therefore, they have to be more pragmatic. Below are my two cents worth of practitioner’s experience for code naming.


A good project name…


  1. …offers all sworn-in team members an immediate hint to the project, but it should be sufficiently cryptic to keep everyone who’s not need-to-know guessing what the project is all about. For example, the name “Pyramid” too strongly suggests a project in Egypt while the name “Library” does not, unless you know the implicit link to Alexandria’s famous ancient library.


  1. …is simple to remember; preferably a noun or a name.


  1. …is neutral to the outcome of the project. The name “Waterloo” may be perceived as hinting at a result that may neither be aspirational nor shared by all. “Crusade” is off-limits in any case.


  1. …is acceptable to all stakeholders, especially when the project name is used also outside of the company’s own borders.


Harnessing Wagner to support business


Let me share a real-life example to illustrate the last mentioned criterion of acceptability. When discussing a transaction with a Bavaria-based family-owned company, the project code name “Rheingold” was chosen after a Wagner opera. The name refers to the river Rhine which connects Germany and The Netherlands as well as to Gold, i.e. the creation of value together.


When meeting with the German company’s delegation, to whom the project name had been proposed in writing earlier, it became apparent that the owner of the Bavarian company had been enthused by the name. The owner was, indeed, a Wagner admirer, and so the choice of an appropriate name for the project helped kick-off the negotiations in a positive atmosphere.


If that isn’t funny…



David, S. [2015], Operation Thunderbolt – flight 139 and the raid on Entebbe airport, the most audacious hostage rescue mission in history, Little, Brown & Company, New York, p. 201.

Macintyre, B. [2010], Operation Mincemeat, Bloomsbury, London, p. 56.




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