Why the BlackBerry Wasn't a Strawberry David Placek says that product names should evoke pleasant associations and avoid being either too literal or random Before it was the BlackBerry, it was a lump of plastic and microchips that was difficult to name. Its Canadian developers wanted to call it ProMail. They knew something was missing. So they went to Sausalito, California, where an elite group of linguists, poets and advertising veterans spend their days naming some of the world's most successful products. The staff at Lexicon Branding — which invented "Pentium" for Intel, "Dasani" for Coca-Cola, and "Openreach" for BT — started brainstorming. After two weeks they had arrived at "Strawberry". A doctor of linguistics scrawled "too slow" above the word "straw". The name was refined to another fruit that is now a global telecoms brand. Indeed, the brand value of the BlackBerry — in many places shorthand for all smartphone products, as Kleenex is for tissues — is one of the soundest assets that Research in Motion, the ailing parent company, owns. Product naming has become more scientific since Lexicon opened 30 years ago, says David Placek, the company's founder. The first challenge is conceptual: to find something that is unusual but suggestive. The name should not overpromise — such as the Orange/T-Mobile venture "Everything Everywhere" — and it should not sound random or bizarre. Naming a handheld e-mail device after a fruit was not random, Mr Placek emphasises. Lexicon determined in the late 1990s that the word "e-mail" made people anxious. Their focus group was passengers disembarking from the Sausalito ferry, outside San Francisco. "So the conceptual path we went down was: what things lower people's blood pressure?" Summer activities were a common theme.
"From there, we went down the tangent of summer fruits. They're fresh." If BlackBerry is an unusual and good name, what is a random and bad name? "Mondelez" is a test case. This eightletter invention — the last syllable pronounced "ease" — is the new name for Kraft Foods' snacks business. Monde and delez are meant to evoke "world" and "delicious". Mr Placek dismisses the name like a medieval guild member inspecting the craft of an amateur. "Mondelez…you hear 'eaze' like 'sleaze'. I'm getting nothing from it. Maybe it would work for a restaurant." The formula of Lexicon, which invented the air-freshener brand Febreze, is evoking pleasant associations without describing what the product does. "It's about taking something that's relevant and spinning it in an unexpected way," Mr Placek says. "Unpredictable words get more attention by consumers in the marketplace. They begin to tell a story and tell it faster." Literal-minded names such as ProMail are terrible, he says, because "the story-telling ends there. "It's mail. It's nothing else." Procter & Gamble, the American consumer products giant, retained Lexicon to name a new mop. Lexicon avoided the word "mop" and instead focused on four words that evoke pleasant aspects of mopping: sweep, swipe, swish and swift. The result was the P&G brand Swiffer. A name such as Swiffer is increasingly a product of analysis as much as creativity. Staff fiddle with databases of prefixes and suffixes or databases of sounds easy to pronounce in Japanese. Before names are submitted to the client, a global network of linguists tests them to ensure that no part of the word carries negative connotations in foreign languages. This can be an important exercise: manda-leez sounds roughly like a sex act in Russian. Individual letters are tweaked to make a name seem fast — such as the "v" in Viagra — or advanced, such as the "x" in Xbox or Xstrata. "'B' is a letter that conveys reliability," Mr Placek says, explaining one reason for choosing blackberry rather than another fruit. "Our linguists did sound-symbolism research and this is one of the things they discovered. We don't know why 'b' feels reliable or safe — maybe because of the word 'bank'." Every car company has a cheap, entry-level vehicle whose name attempts to transcend the car's limitations. Which is the best of the brands Picanto, Picasso, Yaris, Atos and Panda? "Picasso," Mr Placek says firmly. "It says, 'I'm creative'. Product names are about form, function and behaviour. In the case of these cars, you don't want to dwell on the form, which is small, cheap, plastic. It's all about behaviour. The behaviour in 'Picasso' is bidirectional. It says something about your behaviour: you have
respect for art. It also says something about the car's behaviour. Picasso was a free spirit. He had wives and girlfriends. He was modern. The car is not called a Van Gogh. Van Gogh was depressed. He cut his ear off." Lexicon's 27 members of staff work in teams of two, throwing ideas back and forth. As fun as it sounds, it is clear that the lawyer rules over the linguist. "Eighty to ninety per cent of the time we have to abandon the name because of legal or trademark issues," Mr Placek says. Two people work full-time to cross-check all names against international trademarks. An exact match will disqualify the name. But near-sounding matches such as "Blockberry" would also disqualify it. The effort to find unclaimed words pushes product-namers toward a dangerous boundary between clever-sounding and hopelessly random names. "It's important to have the name be believable," Mr Placek says. He refers again to the Citroen Picasso. "There has to be something in the car that's consistent with what his art is about." Parents may look at names such as BlackBerry and think that their child could come up with it. But such names are the product of $100,000, three-month exercises that blend concept and language within the confines of the law. Not all of it requires a doctorate in linguistics. "The keys of the BlackBerry," Mr Placek confides. "They look like little blackberry seeds." Read more on - Brand name development, product naming services, naming services
Published on Jul 31, 2012
David Placek says that product names should evoke pleasant associations and avoid being either too literal or random. Before it was the Blac...