‘Wordcraft’ details birth of brand names and semantics of ‘berries’

"On Language"

Chicago Tribune

There is a moment every marketer both dreams of and fears. It is the time when a brand name, by decree of the dictionary or whims of the zeitgeist, becomes a common noun or a verb. This can be a blessing—the ultimate validation of a name that is both catchy and meaningful. But it can also be a curse. The more widely a word is used, the harder it is to legally protect as a trademark. So we “xerox” a memo, “fed-ex” a package or “google” a blind date, to the chagrin of squads of copyright attorneys in corporate headquarters.

In a brand name’s infancy, however, the thought of gaining this kind of cultural currency is an inspiration to professional namers, says Alex Frankel in his new book “Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business” (Crown, $24.95).

Namers long to launch their creations into the vernacular—casual use around water coolers and in chat rooms. The lawyers can worry about the rest.

Frankel’s book, like a tour of a sausage factory or the U.S. Capitol, shows readers places they’ve never seen to explain processes of which some would rather remain unaware.

He describes how names are born—usually in magic marker on whiteboards, alongside myriad other suggestions—and how a select few make it big, sometimes bigger than the name of the company itself.

The trick for corporations is to contrive a word that doesn’t sound like a corporate contrivance. The more corporate it sounds, the greater the risk of a backlash against brand names among consumers.

Frankel, a journalist who started his own short-lived naming firm in Silicon Valley, chose five names to tell his story: Accenture, BlackBerry, Cayenne, e-business and Viagra.

Along the way, he introduces little-known but hugely influential naming firms such as Lexicon Branding in San Francisco—which coined Dasani, Febreze, Pentium, PowerBook and Zima, among hundreds of others—and Wood Worldwide in Manhattan, which has christened many best-selling drugs, including Paxil, Viagra and Zocor.

It was Lexicon that came up with the name BlackBerry for a hand-held computer made by its client, Research In Motion (RIM). With the help of linguistics consultants, it analyzed possible names’ semantics (meaning), phonetics (sound) and something namers call “sound symbolism.”

For the RIM device, Lexicon was seeking a name that would communicate the ideas ‘easy access’ and ‘quick response.’ One namer thought the hand-held communicator looked sort of like a strawberry, its tiny keys resembling the seeds on a berry’s surface. But he thought the word “blackberry” sounded better.

Lexicon brought in a linguistics professor to examine why.

“Black,” he noted, has hard and quick consonants that move the word along; “straw” begins with the sluggish hiss of the “S” and ends with a “w,” slowing the speaker down.

Dubbing the device “BlackBerry” also benefited from alliteration and symmetry—two five-letter parts, each beginning with a capital “B” (thanks to “intercapping,” or capitalizing a letter in the middle of a word).

RIM credits the name for BlackBerry’s success; it has sold millions, including 435 to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Viagra was even more of a verbal phenomenon, landing in the Oxford English Dictionary just three years after the product was launched in 1998.

The drug itself—sildenafil citrate—was patented by Pfizer in 1991 as a heart treatment. When researchers noticed the drug offered other benefits, Pfizer turned to Wood Worldwide for a name. Wood offered “Viagra,” noting the aptness of the word’s sounds for the nature of the drug’s remedy—”Vi” for virility or vigor, “agra,” meaning “claim” or “take” and suggesting the energy of “aggression” and the fertility of “agriculture.”

Seeing the birth of brand names may lead readers to look at the ever-growing place of brands in their own lives and speech, Frankel said in an interview by telephone.

“Part of my hope is that the reader would come away from this book and look at the world in a slightly different way,” he said.

“They would see their own vocabulary filled with brand names and wonder if that’s good or bad.”

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