Anyone who has spent time poring over a book of baby names or wrestling with the legacy of great-grandma Bertha knows that coming up with a name is no trivial matter. And when it comes to the multimillion-dollar baby that is a major brand, the pressure is on.
That is why nervous corporate parents come to David Placek's door. Over the past 30 years, the founder of Sausalito, Calif.-based Lexicon Branding Inc. has focused solely on giving brands their names.
For Lexicon, those creations have included such household names as Swiffer, Dasani, and here in Canada, BlackBerry. More recently, Mr. Placek was on Canadian soil – and bearing fruit – once again: Lexicon helped with rebranding ING Direct to Tangerine.
"Just how important is a name? My simple answer to this is, nothing will be used for a longer period of time or more often than a company's name," Mr. Placek said. "It's not just a creative exercise. It's a strategic one."
Because brand identity is the core of any marketer's plans, companies are willing to shell out to make sure they get it right. Lexicon's services start at $45,000 (U.S.), but for bigger corporate projects that require multiple interviews with management – as Tangerine's did – the cost is typically doubled, closer to roughly $90,000 depending on the project.
The average thinking person might well balk at the price tag, especially since coming up with a name does not seem, frankly, all that hard to do.
But companies such as Toyota Motor Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and Apple Inc. have decided that it's worth every penny. So how does it actually work?
First, there's the research. ING spoke to roughly 10,000 people, inside and outside the company, to figure out how people feel about the brand, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and to test the names it was working with, among other factors. (Lexicon contributed by surveying about 5,000 employees and more than 1,500 customers.)
For ING, that was important because it highlighted the fact that customers do not have the same skepticism toward banks in Canada as in the U.S. There was no need to rebuild lost trust. And secondly, customers tended to see ING as different.
"So we wanted to make sure we didn't create a name that was more traditional, more stodgy, or more like other banks," Mr. Placek said. "We had to keep our freshness."
After research is done, two-person teams of linguists at Lexicon come up with a long list of names. Each team is given a different briefing: One team knows everything that management wants, the current name, and the research results. Other teams are given less information, to free them up to think more broadly.
The long list for Tangerine was about 3,000 names, which is astounding. (Try to think of 3,000 words.) But Mr. Placek explains that many of these are accounted for by different variations on a single idea: Adding a prefix for example, or listing different tree names if there is one idea based on a tree.
"To be successful here, you have to not worry about being very efficient," he said.
That long list is quickly cut in half. Then a longer process cuts it down to a meaningful long list of 300 or 400 that management will consider. When the list got down to roughly 40, Lexicon's legal team stepped in. They tossed out names that might violate other trademarks, but also those that are legally passable but too similar to others to be effective amid all the marketing clutter.
Finally, linguists comb through the names to ensure they are pronounceable and have positive connotations in a number of different languages. (For Tangerine, they looked at about 12.) Then they go back to market research to test their options.
"Then we argue," Mr. Placek said.
Sometimes, Lexicon will create new words for a name. This can be useful to communicate that a company is innovative – as was the case for Pentium – or in a category where competitors are using very descriptive words. When Procter & Gamble Co. created Swiffer, for example, its biggest competitor was Clorox Co.'s ReadyMop. P&G considered names such as EasyMop and MegaMop before coming to Lexicon.
The team helped P&G figure out that consumers' associations with the word "mop" – a floppy, messy tool pushing water and dirt around the floor – were not good. Since pretty much everyone hates mopping, Lexicon also proposed that the product sound just a bit more fun, almost like a toy.
Lexicon played with the sounds from words for cleaning – wiping, brushing, sweeping, swiping. Their first idea was to take the word "swipe" and transform it into Swif, with one F. Then they added another F, but the word just came to a stop. It was not active enough. They finally landed on Swiffer, which has been a huge success.
"I've been told ReadyMop is about a $200-million brand. Swiffer is almost a $4-billion brand," Mr. Placek said. It's also expanded to other products such as the Duster and the WetJet.
For Sonos, a brand of high-end audio equipment, Lexicon took the Latin root for sound, "son." It then structured the name as a palindrome to communicate the idea that it is seamless. It was also a plus that the word ends in OS, since the company wants people to think of its equipment as more than just speakers. They are an operating system.
Lexicon is not the only player in this space. Many ad agencies will come up with brand names for clients. (In the case of Tangerine, its Toronto agency John St. was deeply involved in the process with Lexicon.) And there are other competitors who specialize in naming, such as San Francisco-based Landor Associates and the Omnicom Group Inc.-owned firm Interbrand.
For all the projects he has done, there are plenty of brand names Mr. Placek wishes he'd created. DreamWorks, for example, perfectly sums up a team of people whose work is all about imagination – they dream by day. He admires Lexus for coining a name at a time when most cars were named after people, such as Ford, or after animals like Mustang. The name sounds like luxury. And it is perfectly constructed to be pleasing to say, he explains, rhapsodizing about the order of vowels and consonants in a way only a person obsessed with words can.
"It's very crisp," he says. "I love the X in the middle. It's just an extraordinary name."
When ING Direct rebranded itself as Tangerine this year, it was the result of a process that started with a list of roughly 3,000 possible names. That was eventually whittled down to the following shortlist:
LEXICON'S GREATEST HITS
In the 30 years since Lexicon was founded in a San Francisco apartment, David Placek has worked on more than 3,500 brand naming projects. Here are some of the most recognizable brands he and his team have helped to create:
Forester and Outback for Subaru
Scion for Toyota
PowerBook for Apple