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Name-calling

What the name of your company and products says about you and your business.
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It was Shakespeare, of course, who reognized that the value of a good name exceeds the crass considerations of cash.In the abstract, that is still true. But in the Bard's day, a good name didn't cost upwards of $35,000, as it can today. At least that is generally the price San Francisco-based NameLab, a prominent commercial-names factory, assigns to one of its creations. A bit steep, perhaps, for half-a-dozen or so letters, but a successful brand or corporate name can put a new company on the marketing map, set a product head and shoulders above competitors, and even make its way indelibly into the language. On the other hand, left to chance or collective company wit, a misnamed entity either gets accepted into the Edsel hall of fame or risks becoming just another whatsis.

Not that good names save bad products, admits NameLab founder Ira N. bachrach, but in these days of product me-tooism, a dull or inappropriate christening is undoubtedly a handicap even to the best of the lot. Individual pride of ownership often influences a whole line of ineffectively described goods, like, say, Osborne. And corporate presumption can insist on such dubious items as the Apricot, a microcomputer brand name patterned after the Japanese manner of speech in pronouncing the first two worlds of the product's manufacturer, Applied Computer Techniques. NameLab is devoted exclusively to ensuring that such a fate doesn't befall its clients -- including such market makers as Pepsico, Procter & Gamble, Honda Motor, Hiram Walker, Miles Laboratories, Gillette, Chrysler, RCA, Federal Express, and other big-timers to whom an effective brand name clearly is a prized asset.

In the four years of its existence, NameLab already has left major marks. To position a Nissan Motor Corp. of America entry, it came up with "Sentra." For Nynex, one of the companies to emerge from the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. breakup, NameLab came up with the name "Datago" for the company's chain of retail computer stores about to open in the Northeast. And although NameLab deals mainly with packaged goods and business entities, lately it has been dabbling in movie titles, which, like any other packaged good, also must hazard the economic consequences of drabness. For better or worse, NameLab recently changed ABC Motion Pictures's derivative "The Making of Emma" to "Foxtails."

But despite some 130 jobs to its credit in areas ranging from cars to pastry, NameLab's most notable entry so far came in 1982 on behalf of a tiny start-up that intended to sell portable computers. The founders, two engineers from Texas Instruments Inc., were content to name the company and its product after a local address; hence, Gateway Technology. The little machine presumably could be sold as Gateway, inasmuch as a computer is a "gateway" to some vague, but assuredly noble, end. To scientists, the connection seemed clever enough. But not to the company's prime investors, a partnership headed by Ben Rosen and L. J. Sevin. Justifiably concerned lest Gateway mean little to consumers and even less to Wall Street, Rosen urged that NameLab be consulted. Enter Ira Bachrach, with his intensively linguistic and peculiarly totemic approach to naming things. Within a few weeks, Gateway was presented with several snappier choices, among them Cortex, Cognipak, and Suntek. Oh, yes -- and Compaq.

No one can say for sure that the company might not have done equally well under the banners of Cognipac, Gateway, or even Tip-Top. Nonetheless, as Compaq, the corporation went on to sell $111 million worth of computers in 12 months, a U.S. record for first-year revenues. But this almost didn't come to pass, due to concern that the name might be challenged. In many of its particulars, trademark and service mark law is so vague, confusing, and regionalized that general counsel often prefers the discretion of another choice to the valor of stepping on toes, however unrelated. Gateway's attorneys felt that the proposed new trademark came too close to "Compac," a registered service mark of a transatlantic cable switching network owned by ITT Corp., and asked that it be reconsidered. But with a public offering at stake, the board of directors sought a hot name, and Compaq it stayed. "If you ask lawyers, 'Should I go outside?" Bachrach complains good-humoredly, "they'll say, 'God, you could get run over!"

An expert in marketing packaged goods from an earlier career in advertising, the 46-year-old Bachrach has discovered that the rules there apply to nonpackaged-goods fields as well. To this discipline he also brings an approach to language developed in his graduate thesis that involves relationships among semantic fragments, by which he tried to win the George Bernard Shaw prize for developing an English phonetic alphabet. (Thuh pryez rhemaynz unwon evun toodae.) As a result, many NameLab creations enjoy multiple effects, sometimes via neologisms with implications that are hidden within ancient but evocative roots. To be sure, Compaq computers could easily have been called "Compacts," but with humdrum impact, weaker suggestiveness, and stage-sharing with cars and cosmetics.

The client had ordered up a word that would be memorable and at the same time "take command of the idea of portableness"; something that would distinguish itself from all the other IBM Personal Computer compatibles. NameLab developed a table of basic word parts called "morphemes," of which some 6,200 exist in English. An unabashed morpheme addict, Bachrach fashioned "Compaq" from two "messages," one of which indicated computer and communications and the other a small, integral object. The "com" part came easily. The "pac" followed with more difficulty, since its phonetic notation included endings in "k," "c," "ch," and, possibly, "q." NameLab considered all four of them. When the "q" hit, Bachrach gasped eureka.As a bonus to the assigned burden, "paq" also was affectively scientific, he reasoned, strongly hinting of "somebody trying to do something precisely and interestingly."

As a significant benefit, the "paq" suffix fits neatly into what could become a product family name: Printpaq, Datapaq, Wordpaq, and the like. Combining a corporate name with a product name results, by mere repetition, in consumer acceptance of substance and reliability. "By naming subsequent products '-paq,' "Bachrach reasons, "they get added free exposure. It doesn't cost them a dollar in advertising."

When Compaq's board of directors asked what would happen if the company wanted to produce larger systems under the restrictive 'paq' concept, Bachrach explained that all good solutions are limited. The more general a solution is, he philosophized, the less effective. "Look, if it works," Bachrach told the board, "your name will become the dominant symbol for portable computers, like Xerox is the symbolic identity for copiers. If that happens and several years from now you want to introduce a megasupercomputer, you can always change your company name or use a model that doesn't have a 'paq.' In the meantime, you'll be crying all the way to the bank. A name that's any good," he lectures customers, "is scary. If it isn't, it's not going to accomplish very much."

Names like Compaq and Sentra (and, adds Bachrach, generously commending the pioneering work of others, Kleenex and Jello) are what he calls "attributive nouns" -- symbolically appropriate images or evocative sounds that are NameLab's stock in trade. Shoppers accept them as a quality of the product, Bachrach explains, like its color or size, but understand that there is more to it. (In Sentra's case, the idea was to denote safety and security.) Opposed to this effective concept is the limiting "argument" -- a shampoo named, say, Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific. The consumer assumes that is the only benefit of the product. Since a shampoo has a complex set of attributes, creating the assumption that the only thing it does is to make hair smell good is, according to Bachrach's way of thinking," an unhandy identity to have." Bachrach tends to eschew cute phrases like "Shake-'n'-Drink," on the grounds that, among other things, they lack "visibility," and thus "they go by and the brain doesn't cue in on them."

To get an angle on the product or corporate attributes NameLab needs to work with, Bachrach insists that each client take part in a three-hour meeting to agree on a ranked list of messages to be expressed in the chosen name. NameLab's estire staff is present: Bachrach, his two professional linguists, and a secretary. The other side usually consists of one or two executives.

NameLab then sharpens its pencils and taps a computer for an apropos combination of language and speech fragments, symbols, and metaphors that Bachrach has arranged by the thousands. Because a name can be made up of two or three of these, mathematically there are literally millions of possibilities. Most, obviously, are nonsensical and can be dismissed. Eventually, sifting the words through screens of characteristics, Bachrach ends up with perhaps 300 more-or-less sensible combinations (the average is 150). These are culled for the 20 or so strongest candidates. Fashioned haphazardly out of fragments as they are, most NameLab names turn out to be newly minted expressions that ingeniously seem like real words.

About three weeks later, there is a second meeting, at which the expectant client is presented with the recommendations, each of which is analyzed symbolically -- where it was derived from, how it positions itself among similar items, what it is apt to mean in public perception. The client picks one, pays an ownership fee after a search determines that it is legally eligible, and proceeds to use it.

One of the most recent companies to submit to that ritual entered NameLab's Marina Boulevard doors as undistinguished Digital Transactions Inc. (DTI), and departed a few weeks later as the assertively all-capital AMBI Corp. But, as in most instances pertaining to novice name-seekers, the reidentification didn't come without second thoughts.

Started in 1982, the Stamford, Conn., company had one product, a modest-price computer-cum-telephone that, in the absence of a marketing muse, DTI's two engineer-owners had dubbed the Teleterminal. The name left Roy Dudley, the company's director of corporate communications, cold. So did the corporate identity itself, since the product wasn't really digital, and the "transactions" in this context was nothing more than an arcane electronics term appreciated only by fellow engineers. Somehow, DTI had to establish itself; the days of selling technology on its own merit were over.

Bachrach came to the rescue. Without a better name, he argued, the company would forfeit the all-important tactic of pervasiveness. "If you're selling against IBM or AT&T, the larger you're perceived to be, the better. If you're a small company, it makes sense to have the company name the same as the product name. There are thousands of companies all converging on electronic devices. If you make a corporate name that's embedded in the product name, you'll be seen as large, and mentioned more often in magazines and newspapers. Every time the product is written about, the company is evoked." That, said Bachrach, was the issue.

Furthermore, he added, the strange hybrid had the rare potential, like Kerosene and Milk of Magnesia before it, of entering a generic term forever into the shoppers' lexicon.

The board decided to go ahead. At the meeting between NameLab and the company's executives, it was determined that what was needed was a name that was generic, that was virtually impossible to mispronounce, that immediately created a subliminal sense of recognition, that would be memorable when the company went public, and that symbolically conveyed the marriage of a phone and a computer. Further, if products with that name were to be marketed overseas, it couldn't translate into something embarrassing, as had a desktop telecommunications unit called the Chat Box in the United States that became the "Cat Box" in France.

Given the nature of the product, NameLab sought a packaged-goods structure that conveyed duality -- a "fusion noun," in Bachrach parlance. "If we didn't give users an easily said, unique, and interesting word, they'd call it a telephone or they'd call it a computer. It's both, but you can't get people to talk about the thing on their desk as a 'telephone/computer."

In point of fact, it was almost called a BiSet, the runner-up proposal, but the maestro much preferred AmbiSet. "When you first encounter the word, your brain defines it by a process called 'association," explains Bachrach. "The primary association with 'ambi' is 'ambidextrous.' As complicated as it is, every child learns the word in elementary school." Even so, the folks back at DTI remained nervous. "These people were undergoing a personality crisis," Dudley assesses. "They had early attacks of insecurity about who they were going to be. Their corporate identities got mixed with their personal identities. It was very tense." Adds an inured Bachrach: "All clients feel a distaste for packaged-goods methods."

"Whether or not we like the name is immaterial to the fact that we're in business to achieve certain goals," Dudley reasoned. "We want high recognition. We want people to start using the name. Memorability is the key. It's not going to happen with 'Digital Transactions." Perhaps Dudley was supported by the serendipitous, subliminal effect of the characters hidden within the name -- IBM and American Bell -- but ultimately all agreed. They would go with Ambi.

Still, nerves remained jangled. One night, an executive was watching television when an ad for an Ambi soap came on. "They've stolen our name already!" he complained. "We thought it was exclusive." No matter, Bachrach explained patiently. You can't own a name. For instance, there are 200 applications of "Ivory," and one of those happens to be a soap, too. Other Ambis exist, but none pertained to an electronic product. "Ambi" was, indeed, Bachrach reassured, theirs to exploit.

With that, Dudley went about literally reordering the corporate identity at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars. Hardly had he paid the last printing bill when the next crisis struck: the discovery of a telephone called an Ambiphone. There it was, neatly packed in a box in the window of a Stamford toy store. This Ambi didn't ring or interconnect, it simply squeaked to the presumed delight of three-year-olds. Its manufacturer, a plastics company from The Netherlands, had also developed a fusion noun, based on the first two letters of Amsterdam. Dudley had to break the news to the boss, but this time it was taken in good humor: The real Ambi already was in strong demand.

Names are Ira Bachrach's second calling, as it were. After cashing out from his own advertising firm and subsequently dabbling in venture capital, his next-to-last undertaking was to enjoy the fruits of compound profit through early retirement.But the talkative Bachrach is capable of delivering off-the-cuff monologues for long stretches at a time, and his containment within the household didn't take. Please, Ira, his wife pleaded, find something to do!

That is when he dusted off his college thesis work on patterns that form words in English. He decided the same principles of linguistics could be applied to product descriptions -- indeed, possibly quite profitably. And if nothing else, at least it would get him away from the house. By a good 40 miles, as it turned out: For the first two years, NameLab operated in obscure secrecy out of a small office in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. By sequestering the operation, Bachrach could exercise a hobby; he never intended to have to put in a full week. But alas, like many a covert operation, it was found out by a diligent reporter, Carrie Dolan, after NameLab's own name mysteriously kept cropping up in research. When Dolan's article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, NameLab's phone didn't stop ringing, much to the owner's consternation. "I kept trying to insist that the company didn't exist," says Bachrach, "but nobody believed me."

Forced out of the closet, NameLab moved to the San Francisco waterfront, where it presently occupies a hectic floor-through in what otherwise is the Bachrachs' peaceful marital domicile. So for the beleaguered Mrs., it is back to square one. Except that now she helps out, too.

And with good cause: Bachrach's name-calling talents were so much in demand that more than one NameLab has had to turn down hefty contracts. One was for Time Inc., when it was launching a weekly television magazine. Time intended to call the project "TV Cable Week." But just before the debut, the publisher got nervous; tests were showing that people expected an uninteresting guide like the ones in newspapers, not the elegant publication Time had just spent millions on. So at the last instant, they rang up NameLab.

Bachrach couldn't have agreed more: The title was flat and denotative. "But it was the kind of job that terrifies us," he recalls. "If you do it and it fails, everybody is going to know it was your name." Without the buffer of nine weeks to mull it over, NameLab turned down the chance. "Naming a magazine is really hard," admits Bachrach (who happens to think that the internally devised "INC." is "absolutely brilliant"). "To people who read, the issues of what makes a magazine more desirable are much more complex than what makes toothpaste desirable."

Such distinctions ultimately become the concerns of NameLab's linguists, who take the messages of the clients and formulate tables of morphemes -- the cores of the semantic units within a word. They usually don't have to struggle too much, however, because Bachrach believes, like Mies van der Rohe, that less is more. In product and company titles, though, two syllables is about as less as you can go. The focus on brevity doesn't so much have to do with the soul of wit as with a concept called "visibility." Expounds Bachrach: "These things are part of your everyday life. Since you have to say them often, you try to do it efficiently, and you assign them short, friendly, familiar words. Your brand of beer isn't Budweiser, it's Bud. If you make a name which is short, friendly, and familiar, people will use it, and that becomes the thing, rather than the type of thing. It's because of having a familiar name, and a familiar name has to be short."

Along with Nynex's "Datago," which to Bachrach "utterly magically" at once suggests retail, volume, fast service, and, because of the "go," a combination of "computers and communications," one of his favorite NameLab creations is "Mind-set." The new West Coast home-computer company, known pre-Bachrach as RHB Computers, makes a sophisticated graphics system that uses a television set for its display. The word comes from yet another NameLab pool, a collection labeled "adapted metaphors." These are a category of words that describe complex concepts in condensed form. A prime example is Sears's Die-Hard -- the best adapted metaphor in the history of brand names, according to Bachrach.

"It's a class that makes for brilliant brand names. What you do is take the literal meaning of the word and use it to describe your product. Your value overwhelms the metaphor." Not only is the Die-Hard battery long-lived literally, but in part it also is, as the metaphor has it, stubborn. "So you get to steal a word out of the language," Bachrach confesses. "Mindset" is like that. Not only does it literally reflect the sensation that there is a brain in the TV apparently thinking like a person, but the metaphor value of "strongly held opinion" gives the product credence as well. "The advantage to that is if you took an identical product and gave it a less accidentally clever name, say 'Video-computer,' you'd have to spend at least 10 times as much [in advertising] per retained impression than for 'Mindset."

Sometimes it happens that effective names aren't names at all. Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, has successfully marketed lines of computers and calculators purely by catalog number, and only recently word-named a product -- its new ThinkJet computer printer. Mercedes-Benz calls its cars by numbers as well. To automotive or electronics cognoscenti, numbers contain information that is direct, appropriate, helpful, and effective; such a hierarchical sequence as Mercedes-Benz's conveys more information than an emblematic name like the Diplomat (a 1950s automobile). "If you want an efficient-sounding car instead of a social emblem," Bachrach concedes, "240 is symbolically a good name."

One other numbered product that earns at least partial Bachrach approval is Lotus Development Corp.'s microcomputer software, 1-2-3 -- a name that handily expresses its ease of use and triple functionness. Besides, as Bachrach believes, "you can't separate names from products," and 1-2-3, he grants, is a good product. And the naming approach was commendably distinctive within the "noisy" set of business software.

But 1-2-3 could have been a problem, because at the retail level, the software which generates the most sales has "fusion" names -- viz, Visi-, Easy-, Peach-, and so on. These promise a series yet to come; a series, says Bachrach, connotes big-ticket, big-time, highly profitable products to a retailer. Thus the name "1-2-3" lacks the promise of a long-run product that some formidable fellows share. As for Lotus itself, the name fails muster entirely. "It's a memorable, easy name," Bachrach acknowledges, "but it means nothing -- maybe an automobile or a flower. There's a dissonance between the mechanicalness of 1-2-3 and the aestheticism of Lotus. When you have dissonance, it's hard to remember the name.It's pretty, but prettiness isn't a characteristic of software."

But neither is "Apple" a characteristic of microcomputers -- except in the morpheme-laden eyes of Bachrach. "When Apple was created, there wasn't any computer market. Computers were awful things that screwed up your utility bills. They had to name a company, and the marketing issues were simplicity, friendliness, safety, and trustworthiness." Although to an untrained observer that describes a Boy Scout better than a computer, Bachrach proposes that an apple is a wonderful symbol of such qualities: a computer that didn't screw up your phone bills.

The ill-fated Texas Instrument TI 99/4 was a stubbornly held number-title that, in Bachrach's view, "helped kill the product." The now-defunct machine came off as being "complex and difficult to deal with technologically, more oriented toward mathematics than toward human things. A slash is a grammatical element that people who are less skilled in reading don't encounter very often and don't understand the meaning of. There was considerable pressure from retailers to adapt a real name, but they just wouldn't do it. A slogan won't take the place of a name."

But real names can be just as disastrous. Digital Equipment Corp.'s "Rainbow" fares nearly as poorly in Bachrach's estimation. "When Apple happened, computers were seen as packaged goods that consumers would buy based on affective messages. DEC, which had insisted on calling its products PDP-11 and VAX, decided that here was a workstation that was meant to be friendly. So what do they do? They copy Apple. They pick a nonspecific positive-affect symbol." No doubt that sounds just fine to a linguist, except, as Bachrach points out, it came five years after the fact. By then people had accepted the idea that computers were friendly, and they didn't need to be convinced by brand names. Worse still, in Rainbow, "they created the first feminine name in the history of computers. It said 'noncomputerlike.' Yet they were selling it as a professional workstation. They patently stuck a label on the thing; there was no 'rainbowness' at all. With Apple, the message is obvious and appropriate. With Rainbow, it's just terrible."

As for the noncomputerlike but masculine "Adam," Bachrach allows that "there are worse names.It was meant to say 'simple, archetypical, human.' If I were them," Bachrach adds, throwing Coleco Industries Inc. free advice from his packaged-goods past, "I would want a pair of products -- an Eve eventually."

He also blesses "PC," because it is "consonant with 'IBM.' They didn't have to put any competitive message on the name of the product. PC without the word IBM still indicates 'this is IBM's computer.' And it's meant to be generic -- the definitive such product. If the rest bring out 'PCs', it won't do IBM any harm. IBM can get away with this; they're less concerned with trademark value than the others."

But it falls to the nonsensical (in English) Atari, though, to win Bachrachian huzzahs hands down. Atari "is pure gold in packaged-goods terms." The name given to Nolan Bushnell's small electronics company back in 1974 "was accidentally brilliant. It was the sixth name Bushnell tried on the list, but it's brilliant nonetheless. He created a word that is pure, has no combinations of vowels that are difficult to say, and that's also unique. Because it wasn't a natural English word, he could develop strong rights to it, too." Another advantage of "Atari" is that it sounds Japanese, Bachrach feels. "He didn't think of that either, but to young people, all good things that don't come from the United States come from Japan. The Japanese are smart enough to have figured this out."

NameLab's notoriety draws requests from all over the country and from all levels of income. Naturally, not every business seeking a clever name can afford to indulge itself at tens of thousands of dollars a throw. It could try to play on Bachrach's sympathies, though: He feels it is unfair that only large companies have the resources to hire specialists. "A small company has to sit on a shelf competing against them. There's no way they can get the heavy muscle. There are so many people out there who have good products who should be in business but who don't have the resources."

One such product is manufactured by Kleen-All Products Inc., a small enterprise the Oklahoma City. Recently, the folks from Kleen-All phoned in with a plea for assistance. The company had a product that removes chewing gum from clothes. For no apparent reason, it was called Turbo. Turbo was selling like frozen hotcake batter in local supermarkets, demonstrating such uncanny demand that the founders felt they could go national with it.But they had been advised that the label was ugly and the name even worse. Bachrach had to tell them that NameLab was apt to be expensive for small companies; they could expect a fee of $30,000. "But," stammered the voice, "that's our annual sales!" Instead, Kleen-All proposed sending him a free bottle. "If you have any ideas what the name ought to be, let us know." After Bachrach got a look at the homespun creation, he was moved to send them a book on design and a few pointers.

Over the four years of its existence, NameLab's storerooms have steadily filled with products in similarly budgeted search of names. Such blandishments are not apt to do the trick, however. Bachrach already is facing a two-to-three-month backlog, and demand is continuing to mount. For a person to whom the business was never meant to be more than a pastime, that is a severe problem. "The obvious solution," says the would-be retiree ominously, "is to raise the price."

Last updated: Jul 1, 1984




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