There’s really no way to know whether the handheld wireless device called BlackBerry would be equally popular if it had been brand-named Airwire, Badge, Banjo, Banter, Outrigger, Transilion, Vion, Waterfall or any of the other 75 possible names suggested for it by naming consultants. But in his new book, Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business, author Alex Frankel doesn’t hesitate to claim that the BlackBerry name – the “best choice” – definitely improved the product’s acceptance and sales.
Frankel is an unabashed fan of successful brand names. “To me a brand is everything,” he writes. In Wordcraft, he offers “an overview of naming things today” mainly by telling the stories of five successful efforts: BlackBerry, Porsche’s Cayenne, Viagra, Accenture, and IBM’s use of the term “e-business.” BlackBerry and Cayenne, according to Frankel, are examples of using known words for a new product. Accenture and Viagra are examples of inventing a name. IBM’s “e-business” is an example of how a term that is not a brand or trademark can be used to enhance a company’s image.
Professional consultants are involved in creating four of the five examples – or, maybe five, but Porsche wouldn’t tell Frankel whether it had outside help when the company known only for sports cars made the decision to produce an SUV and name it Cayenne.
Accenture, the name picked to rebrand Arthur Andersen Consulting, came about after an intra-partner lawsuit that made a name change mandatory. Frankel explains that a schism had been growing for years between the traditional auditors at Arthur Andersen and its newer, more profitable, consulting division. The court ruled that the company was to be divided into two separate firms, with the auditors to keep the Arthur Andersen name and the consulting division to come up with a new ID in 147 days.
To do this, Andersen Consulting hired Landor Associates, a professional naming organization, and also asked for suggestions from its employees. Frankel says 3,000 names were generated by Landor and another 2,600 by employees around the world. Landor whittled the list down to 30 choices that were voted on by the firm’s 1,250 partners. The winning moniker was contributed by Kim Peterson, a Danish employee, who e-mailed that he drew his inspiration from the thought: “accent on the future.”
The name caught on with clients, says Frankel. And just in time, too. Andersen Consulting had already become Accenture in January 2001, when Arthur Andersen accountants got caught shredding paper at Enron. Thus, Accenture was “able to sail free from the mess.”
In telling the tale of how Viagra – the product and the name – came to be, Frankel notes that a new description of the condition Viagra addresses has been as important as the brand name. According to Frankel, it was the naming consulting firm Wood Worldwide and Pfizer marketers who decided that the problem was to be called “erectile dysfunction” rather than “impotence” (so unmanly).
Frankel praises IBM for “taking ownership” of the expression “e-business” to connote “the value customers derive from networked computing.” IBM didn’t invent the phrase and never tried to turn it into a brand or trademark. But by popularizing the phrase in its advertising, he says, IBM successfully impressed new IBM services in the public mind.
Yet if Word Craft is often fascinating, it’s also sometimes frustrating. The writing is sometimes repetitious while Frankel ignores information that cries out to be revealed. He fails to explain, for example, why Accenture was accepted while the new name for Philip Morris – Altria – which was also produced by Landor Associates, has been a “notorious” failure. Typically, the financial press mentions that Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris USA somewhere in the story lest the reader remain clueless.
In addition, Frankel mentions that when Andersen Consulting was changing its name, other Big Six firms were adopting new names, too. He cites PricewaterhouseCooper Consulting renaming itself “Monday!” Two questions naturally arise: Were professional namers involved in that one? What were they thinking? It’s true that that “Monday!” barely lasted through Tuesday because IBM dropped the name when it added PwC to its IBM Business Consulting Group, but the questions remain and Frankel is no help.
Frankel writes about techniques used by naming consultants to expand their output. He describes how Lexicon Branding, the firm that came up with Powerbook and Pentium as well as BlackBerry, sometimes breaks staffers up into separate teams or “misleads them into thinking they are creating a name for one client when it may be meant for another.” Perhaps more revealingly, Frankel says that “identifying clients that produce good products helps Lexicon tie its reputation to successes not failures.” Not a bad strategy…
Overall, Frankel makes a convincing case that, for any product, a good name is an asset well worth seeking. And along the way, Wordcraft drops all sorts of fun information about the naming process in and around its main case histories. Frankel tells, for example, how the people of Denver fought against having Mile High Stadium clunkily renamed “Invesco Field at Mile High.” Money talks and Invesco won, but feelings ran so high, Frankel relates, that John Hickenlooper, a local bar owner who led the fight against the name change, was elected mayor of Denver in a landslide.