Here’s how New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto begins “Famous Names,” in the magazine’s October 3 issue: with an edge-of-your-seat account of the naming process that resulted in … the BlackBerry! In 1998! Stop the presses!
That story was already well known to those of us in the branding business, and to many civilians as well, when Alex Frankel related it in greater detail in his book Wordcraft, which was published in 2004. It was repeated in newspapers and magazines. But maybe you haven’t heard it. In that case, read the New Yorker article. Yes, it’s behind a paywall. Sorry about that.
You should also read Colapinto’s article if you’ve never heard the story of Ford Motor Company and the branding of the Edsel. It occurred in 1957, and it’s been told in print about a zillion times. But maybe it was new to John Colapinto and his editors.
I wonder about those editors, though—or, more specifically, about the magazine’s vaunted fact-checkers. Maybe they were on vacation, or replaced by interns, when this quote from the story’s protagonist, David Placek, made it into print: “You want to name it something that the big guys—A.T.&T., Southwestern Bell, California Bell—would never think of.”
Memo from the Left Coast: there never was a “California Bell,”* only Pacific Bell. Oh, and while I’m being picky: New Yorker, may I introduce you to Snopes.com? I don’t believe you’ve met, because you clearly never read the authoritative debunking of the Chevy Nova myth. Nova does not mean “no go” in Spanish; that's no va, which has a stress on the second syllable rather than the first. As a matter of fact, the Chevy Nova sold quite briskly in Spanish-speaking markets.
Listen, I’m happy to see a story about my little corner of the business world published in a classy rag like the New Yorker. Plenty of people don’t know that naming consultants exist, and I’m all for spreading the word. I’m also delighted to read about David Placek, who gave me my first work as a contract name developer more than 20 years ago and from whom I gratefully learned about mind mapping (which the New Yorker inexplicably capitalizes), sound symbolism, and focused brainstorming techniques. Placek’s company, Lexicon, has developed many famous names, including Swiffer, PowerBook, Dasani, and the aforementioned BlackBerry. Naturally, Placek’s own name turns up on a frequent basis in stories about brand names. He’s the usual suspect for this sort of thing, which makes me just a little suspicious ... and disappointed. Surely there was some news about naming—and some new faces—that Colapinto could have uncovered.
Actually, he comes close. About halfway through the story, Colapinto mentions, almost as an aside, the recent uproar over Netflix’s new Qwikster brand. Does he ask David Placek, or any other naming professional, for a comment? He does not. Nor does he address the other hot-button issues in naming and branding: domain aftermarkets, automated name generators, crowdsourcing, and the general effect of the Web on names and trademarks. (He doesn’t interview anyone involved with trademark issues.) The closest he gets to a discussion of naming trends is this:
In the past fifteen years or so, naming has entered a kind of postmodern phase, venturing from descriptive, functional labels labels—Mop & Glo, Mr. Coffee, Cocoa Krispies—toward esoterica like Viagra and Dasani, in which the meaning yields only to deep textual analysis.
“Entered”? Viagra has been around since 1998. Dasani went on the market in 1999. A lot has happened since then with naming trends, but you’d hardly know if from Colapinto’s oddly antiquated article.
I grant that my familiarity with the subject may make me too critical. But even if you came to the story knowing nothing about brand names (is that even possible in our commerce-saturated culture?), the New Yorker story would let you down. It’s not just those factual errors I mentioned; the story is also misleading: “Naming experts” do not “agree on several universals of great names.” (I can give you examples of successful names that break the “rules” of shortness, consonant-vowel-consonant construction, and “pleasantness.”) Lexicon is not the only, or even the largest, naming consultancy in North America, and its techniques aren’t the Holy Writ.
Finally, when your article’s subtitle is “Does It Matter What a Product Is Called?”, you might want to bring in some dissenting voices with actual influence, instead of a single Columbia University marketing professor who “guesses” that “Amazon would be just as successful if it was called Nile.” Colapinto could have cast a slightly wider net and talked to prominent contrarians such as Seth Godin, who maintains that it’s more important for a brand name to have “a built-in SEO strategy” than “to capture the essence of your positioning.” Or the powerful venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who like Godin believes that domains are more important than names and that naming professionals are expensive nuisances.
If I were assembling a panel discussion on “Does It Matter What a Product Is Called”, I’d want to hear those points of view. (I’d disagree with them, but I’d want to hear them.) I’d want to read about them in an important national magazine, too. But the New Yorker ignores them.
It’s not that you won’t find anything of interest in the story, especially if you come to it without a background in marketing or branding. The anecdote about the naming of Intel’s Pentium chip (old news again: it happened almost 20 years ago) provides insights not only into how names are born but also into how they’re sold. “One naysayer, [Intel CEO Andy] Grove recalls, said that Pentium sounded ‘like a toothpaste.’” Overcoming client negativity takes courage and persistence—and, in this case, the resources to conduct focus groups and interviews on three continents. (The budget for this sort of thing is another subject Colapinto neglects to address.)
I also enjoyed the article’s final scene, in which a team of six Lexicon staff members performs a blue-sky exercise about the cars of the near future. Lateral thinking, thought experiments, contrarian ideas—they’re all explored in a nonjudgmental yet carefully structured atmosphere. If you’re wondering what sort of questions you should be asking about a company or product name, and how to encourage focused creativity, this passage should give you some good ideas.
Please, though: don’t repeat that story about the Chevy Nova. Just because it appeared in the New Yorker doesn’t make it true.
*Except for a company that makes mission bells.
P.S. On his blog, linguist Arnold Zwicky offers another perspective on the New Yorker article.