Product Names Make Dasani And Swiffers Sell

A product may be useful and appealing in its own right, but the brand name can make or break its success. In a piece for The New Yorker, staff writer John Colapinto profiles a firm, Lexicon, that's dedicated to matching new products with the right brand names.

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NEAL CONAN, host: That BlackBerry in your pocket was not named a strawberry, and there's a reason - the word straw just sounded too slow. A lot of services or products would probably do just as well or badly under other names, but the right moniker can make a difference, and a few have helped brands to establish a kind of monopoly - think Kleenex. In a piece for The New Yorker, staff writer John Colapinto profiles Lexicon, a company that matches products and brand names. Their successes include Swiffer, Dasani and Pentium.

If you dubbed a product or a service or a store, call us and tell us how you came up with the name. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email is: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. John Colapinto joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN COLAPINTO: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And I think probably the name that epitomizes the process and the success of this company was for a processor. Previously, processors went by numbers and were anonymous?

COLAPINTO: Absolutely. Yup. The Pentium chip invented by Intel, it was a better chip than had existed before. And back in those old days of the late '80s, the chipmakers all shared the blueprints for chips. And that was because Dell Computer, for instance, didn't want to have to rely on one supplier in case that one supplier went down for whatever reason. So all of these people cooperated, sharing the chip blueprints. And then, Intel very aggressive CEO in Andy Groves said, you know, let's make a better chip and then let's not share it. Let's build a whole bunch of factories, extra factories, so they don't have to fear that one of them will go down. And he then tried to trademark what was, I believe, it was either the 486 or the 586 at that point that had went before the courts.

And it was discovered that, in fact, you could not trademark a generic number like that. So he turned to a naming - he didn't give up, let's put it that way. He turned to a naming company. By that time it was the 586 chip that was about to be named and this company then got to work trying to name it, and that was Lexicon.

CONAN: And they went through this process, which is fascinating. A lot of a - well, it sounds like a lot of college sophomores sitting around up at night just shooting the breeze.

COLAPINTO: Yeah. I mean it has that sort of impression when you sit in and listen to the creative team work on names, but it's actually - a lot more is going on there or so they'll tell you. You know, they actually do these kind of deep, sort of, subconscious analyses of what names and words and phonemes evoke in the brain and what would be triggered. And so it's a good deal less causal than it looks.

And I think, I mean, some people question whether or not it really is necessary to do this, but certainly these naming companies will say that in a world where, you know, products have just proliferated at such a huge rate and they've gone around the world with the Internet and so on, you really have to come up with names that are unique and trademarkable, but that also push those little triggers, you know, that make us want to buy. And that's a complicated thing to get to. And watching this company do it was actually pretty jaw dropping.

CONAN: In fact, though, you went back and explain some of the process to the - that Pentium executive, that Intel executive and he said, boy, it's a good thing they didn't tell me that because I would have had second thoughts about this.

COLAPINTO: Yes, it's interesting. The Pentium name was dreamed up through a bunch of different processes that they used. It was - they were actually directed by Intel to come up with something that sounded like an ingredient weirdly enough; because it's something that goes into the computer, it had to sound like an additive. Yeah. But it also had to sound rare and unique, and so they looked to the periodic table of the elements and had the word titanium, which sounded like something they could work it. And then they thought, well, hey, sodium is an additive in food as salt, so they like that suffix -ium.

And they then put it into a computer, actually, these different prefixes and suffixes that they have in their computer software. And it churns out these lists of thousands of names. And you could only be a professional namer to be willing to look through names with these infinitesimal differences and actually A) be able to detect them, and B) not die, you know, of boredom.

The head of the company happened to see the word Pentium in this list, and a couple of things occurred to him. It was this 586 chip that they were naming now, fifth generation penta, the Greek word for five. Also, it had, of course, the -ium ending, but it had something more unique. It had a -tium, T-I-U-M, which is not - it occurs very rarely in language, anywhere. And so we thought it'll have uniqueness. It'll have, maybe, trademarkability, to use a horrifying word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLAPINTO: They had to go to their lawyers and look at - it was only later, Neal, in the sort of deeper linguistic analysis that one of their linguists said, look, you know, it's a powerful processor and it's got the powerful plosive of P at the beginning. It's got that strong plosive T in the middle. But it's got the M and the N that hums through the word Pentium. So you've got the power and you've got the uninterrupted hum of the of - well, when I quoted this back to Grove, who had OK'd the name many years ago, he just said, oh man, it's good they didn't tell that to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLAPINTO: You know, he's a no-nonsense kind of guy.

CONAN: He didn't want to hear that what they were trying to do is compose, in effect, a one-word poem.

COLAPINTO: Yes. This is exactly the problem with naming. I mean, really, it is, in a way, what they're doing. I mean, I really sort of bought into this whole idea enough to believe that, indeed, there are certain words that have compressed within them this sort of euphony, the nice sounds that will stick in our minds and that are fun to say, but that also touch off associations in our mind. And that is an awful lot of what poetry does in a few stanzas or in a haiku, just a few lines. And I think that the best names, perhaps, are mini poems, one-word poems.

CONAN: Give us an example of a one word poem aside from Pentium.

COLAPINTO: Yeah. I mean, one of their really great and successful ones is Swiffer, the - that cleaning product. And what was interesting about that is that the word - I think the first time I ever saw Swiffer on the shelf, it seemed sort of familiar to me, and I think it had something to do with that word, which - actually, when you look at it, you realize, no, it's not saying swift. It seems to be, but it's not quite saying that. What it is doing is it's using certain parts of words that we think of when we mop up or clean. We sweep. We swipe.

If we want to be a product that is supposedly easy to use and will clean up quickly, then we want that notion of swift that it will be over quickly. But that ER suggests that it is the Swiffer. I'm not the Swiffer. It's doing the work. I am merely using the Swiffer. And it was interesting how David Placek, the CEO of Lexicon, explained to me that the rival company to Procter & Gamble that decided it had to come up with another - something to compete with the Swiffer, they called theirs ReadyMop. No one's heard of the ReadyMop.

And actually, one of Placek's main rules when they were naming this new electrostatic method of wiping things down was to avoid the word mop like the plague. You didn't want to evoke this drudgery. So instead, you've got this Swiffer name. And I just can't resist adding that his creative teams, when they were coming up with names, he gets them to think about things that are very different than the product. So he said, let's come up with the names of a party game, sort of like Twister. You remember that game where you put your foot here and your leg there?

So he actually had them dreaming up playful names to suggest, you know, this kind of playfulness, and then it would take away the drudgery of work. Now, if you think of all those associations and those word parts, put them all together, that's a one-word poem.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some listeners in on the conversation. If you've ever named a product or a service or a store, give us a call. Tell us how you came up with your moniker. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Scott, and Scott's with us from Saline in Michigan.

SCOTT: Yes. Hi. I just wanted to tell - explain how I named my small sanitary ware company in Saline, Michigan. It's called Blue Earth Ceramics. And the reason I named it that is because I was kind of a lefty-type person back in the '60s, and there's this catalog. It was called the Whole Earth Catalog, and...

CONAN: Sure. It just had an anniversary. Yeah.

SCOTT: Yes. And it was, you know, that picture on the front of that catalog was the very first time anyone had ever seen a picture of the Earth, and it was blue. And so I kind of named my company after that.

CONAN: And what does it have to do with ceramics?

SCOTT: Well, actually, nothing, it turns out. I just wanted a name that would be catchy. And it does turn out that there is actually a blue Earth ceramic made by the native American Indians, that if you do a Google search, you'll find that and - but it was just a coincidence. It was - I just was looking for a catchy name.

CONAN: OK.

COLAPINTO: I can tell you, categorically, that you're on the cutting edge. When I was talking to Lexicon, they were telling me that blue is the new green. Everybody is sick of talking about green products and the green Earth and so on for environmental, you know, evocation. Now we're moving on to blue. So you were there already. So congratulations to you on that.

SCOTT: Well, thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with your company, Scott.

SCOTT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dave in San Rafael. We named our new dog travel website dogtrekker.com because we feel it not only barks dogs, but as a verb it speaks travel, journey, walk, hike, hit the road, roam, et cetera, different than the simplicity of boring dog-friendly travel name and more simple and understandable, not to mention to spell, than the peripatetic pooch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLAPINTO: Well, I know that Lexicon would actually have - maybe take issue with you a little bit because one of the things that I was told, actually repeatedly by different professional naming companies, was that you want to avoid anything that's actually too descriptive, that's just a label that says what you are. So Dog Trekker, I do actually think is kind of a good name because it's got certain things going for it.

But, you know, they probably would've told you to call it Glitch or something bizarre, sort of like the way Google is a search thing instead of, you know, those things that they initially launched like Jeeves or, you know, Ask.com. Those things that seemed to be more readily something that was going to serve you, like Jeeves or Ask, that was going to give you - instead the one that won was Google, and who knows why.

CONAN: We're talking with John Colapinto of The New Yorker magazine. In his piece he visited a focus group which came up with names for cars called Hawkbat, Bustang, and the Killer Whale, and the head of the company watching the group through a one-way glass remarked, this is why we don't get consumers to name things.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Janie(ph) . Janie with us from Chillicothe in Ohio.

JANIE: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

JANIE: Thank you for taking my call. I developed a product for male dogs, and it's called - male dogs who mark or leg-lift indoors, and it's a serious problem. And we wanted to have a bit of a lighthearted approach and also name our product in such a way that people would know what it is. So we named it Tinkle Belts. So it's Tinkle Belts for boy dogs. And there's a bit of a sense of humor about it, a bit of lightheartedness, but people also really know what it is.

COLAPINTO: John Colapinto, do puns work?

You know, puns are - they do work, but they can be overdone. They can be a little cutesy, and you know, your sort of present day - your kind of modern companies tend to be steering away, actually, a little bit from things like Tinkle Belts. Although I kind of like Tinkle Belts. How could you not?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JANIE: That's what I say.

COLAPINTO: I mean, if it was something for, like, you know, male, like adults, human beings, I'd be disturbed by it. Like Depends, you know, the diaper for - you know what I mean? And it does - as long as there's a clear graphic on the package indicating that grandpa's not supposed to wear the Tinkle Belt, I think we're good to go.

JANIE: There is. There's a little dog on it wearing his Tinkle Belt.

COLAPINTO: Ah, there you go.

JANIE: And we were able to trademark.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. Thanks very much for the call.

JANIE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And I've been mispronouncing your name. I apologize. It's John Colapinto.

COLAPINTO: I was going to point it out. I was going to say that - but that actually works in a naming program.

CONAN: Well, it does, but it also speaks to one of the universal principles you pointed out of naming, which is shorter is better. You got too many syllables there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLAPINTO: It's true. It is true.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to - this is Chris, and Chris with us from Denver.

CHRIS: Hi. I find this process fascinating, and your guest has done such a good job of explaining the complexity. I know in my lifetime the world has become so much smaller and additional consideration in branding and naming include what happens when the product is sold in Mexico, and the name doesn't translate. Also, social media considerations, website considerations, and in some cases the transition of a brand name that is so great, like Kleenex, Google, Dixie Chicks, that become either a noun or a - or in some cases a verb because of overuse. Is that a good or a bad thing? I've thrown out several things, and I'll hang up and let you respond.

CONAN: And I will put one word to you, John Colapinto, and that is Nova.

COLAPINTO: Yes, Nova. And that, of course, was the name of a car here, and in Spanish it means no go, so that's not a good name. Although I have to say a branding professor that I spoke to named Bernd Schmitt said to me that, in fact, names are less important than these naming companies that are trying to make us think, and he insists that the no go, the Nova, sold very, very well, for instance, in Mexico. So I don't know if he's right. I confess I didn't fact check that because it didn't make it into my story. But it is held up as the ultimate example. There are also unbelievable - I think there's a drink in Japan called Pocari Sweat, which I think doesn't translate well here.

CONAN: Probably would not so well here under that name, yeah. It is also the case - well, here's an email from Katie in Redwood City. I recently opened my own business, found my chosen name was only available as a URL for an exorbitant price. After a little bit of thought, I used thesaurus.com to find an appropriate word that fit my need and had a URL that was reasonably priced. I was a little disappointed at first but now thrilled with my business name, Bliss Concierge. It couldn't have worked out better. She did what Lexicon does. She did on a small scale what Lexicon does on a big scale.

COLAPINTO: Absolutely. Having to, you know, check whether or not a name is in use. I mean, there are some sort of disaster stories of companies that didn't properly check. And you know, you really have to be careful of that because products are just proliferating around the globe.

CONAN: Their enormous numbers are exploding, and finding names, getting more into the abstract, as John Colapinto points out in his article, "Famous Names," which runs in the October 3rd issue of The New Yorker Magazine. And the author was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for being with us today.

COLAPINTO: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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