Does it matter what a product is called?
BY JOHN COLAPINTO
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A great name, one consultant says, “takes reality and just alters it a little bit.”
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY SEYMOUR CHWAST
In the summer of 1998, a group of executives from a small technology startup called Research in Motion arrived at the California offices of Lexicon, a firm devoted to inventing names for products. The executives had brought with them the prototype for a new device, a two-way pager that could send and receive e-mail wirelessly. They could not agree on a name, but they had a few contenders: EasyMail, MegaMail, and ProMail.
“Everybody likes to name something ‘Pro,’ ” Lexicon’s founder and C.E.O., David Placek, told me dryly. Placek is a stocky man of fifty-eight whose unassuming presentation—blue blazer, shirt and tie, clipped blond hair—disguises an unpredictable imagination. He told the executives, “You guys are the underdog. You want to name it something that the big guys—A.T. & T., Southwestern Bell, California Bell—would never think of. You have to be distinctive, a little bold—or rebellious.”
To begin the naming process, Placek and a few members of his staff interviewed commuters riding the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito, where Lexicon’s offices are situated, near the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. They wanted to know how, in those early days of the digital revolution, people felt about the prospect of being able to receive e-mail everywhere. “When you said ‘e-mail’ to someone, it wasn’t a joyous thing,” Placek said. “The way I explained it to Research in Motion was ‘Blood pressure goes up.’ ” Placek told the executives that the device needed a name that would soothe this stress response. MegaMail, with its connotations of an unstoppable avalanche of virtual messages, was definitely out.
Most projects at Lexicon start off with free-associated Mind Maps—large diagrams of words that spread out like dendrites from a central concept. A map of hundreds of words, generated at the pace of a brainstorming session, can take less than ten minutes to produce and can resemble a Cy Twombly scribble painting. The maps help to stake out linguistic territory, and to bring forth the deeper associations that a particular product evokes—“the words underneath the name,” as Placek puts it. For the Research in Motion device, he said, “we had teams working on ‘things that are natural,’ ‘things that are fresh,’ ‘things that are fun.’ At a certain point, we got into the area of ‘things that are enjoyable.’ ” On a Mind Map, someone wrote “strawberry.” Then someone wrote beside it, “Strawberry is too slow.” Placek pronounced the word—“Str-a-a-a-w-w-berry”—drawing it out. “This technology is instantaneous,” he said.
On the map, someone else wrote “blackberry.” “I’d love to be able to say I saw it on the wall and said, ‘Wham, this is it! I’m a genius!’ ” Placek told me. But the process by which a name is selected from hundreds of candidates can be arduous, and often comes down to a combination of instinct, abstract reasoning, and the client’s idiosyncratic demands. “Blackberry” went onto a list of about forty potential names that Placek took to Research in Motion’s offices, in Waterloo, Canada. In the next few weeks, he and the R.I.M. executives narrowed the list, and eventually talked themselves into the name Blackberry. Its strengths, they decided, were not limited to blood-pressure-lowering associations with fruit. The word “black” evoked the color of high-tech devices, and the gadget’s small, oval keys looked like the drupelets of a blackberry.
Lexicon employs two in-house linguists and consults with seventy-seven others around the world, specialists in languages as diverse as Urdu, Tagalog, and Hindi—a critical resource, Placek says. They screen names for embarrassing associations. (The industry abounds in tales of cross-linguistic gaffes, like Creap coffee creamer from Japan, Bum potato chips from Spain, and the Chevy Nova—in Spanish, the “no go.”) They also offer input on the unconscious resonance of particular sounds. In the mid-nineties, Lexicon funded a linguistic study whose results suggested that the sound of the letter “b” was one of the most “reliable” in any language—“whether you were in Poland or Paris or New York,” Placek said. He mentioned this to the Research in Motion executives, and they decided to capitalize both “b”s: BlackBerry.
In January, 1999, the BlackBerry was launched. Despite heavy competition from the Droid and the iPhone, it remains one of the best-selling smart phones, with seventy million subscribers worldwide. Lexicon’s most successful names—among them Pentium, for Intel; Swiffer, for Procter & Gamble; PowerBook, for Apple; Dasani, for Coca-Cola—have become immensely lucrative global brands, which collectively have brought in billions of dollars for their companies.
Of course, not all successful brand names are created by professionals. Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the name of their search engine by misspelling “googol,” the word for the number one followed by a hundred zeros. The name Coca-Cola was devised by an accountant working for the drink’s creator—he thought that the two “C”s would look good in advertisements. But such happy accidents are increasingly rare. Products are proliferating around the world, from automobiles to cleansers, drugs, and, especially, electronics. In 1980, there were fewer than ten thousand registered high-tech trademarks in the United States; now there are more than three hundred thousand. The ideal contemporary name works across languages, on search engines, and on Twitter and Facebook, all while displaying the ingenuity necessary to stand out—a difficult standard for business owners to meet without help.
Placek maintains that the best brand names, like poems, work by compressing into a single euphonious word an array of specific, resonant meanings and associations. But he prefers to emphasize the practical aspects of his work. “I’ve learned that if I use that with prospective clients—‘Hey, what we’re creating here is a small poem’—you can see people sort of get concerned,” he told me. “Like, ‘This isn’t really about art here. This is about getting things done.’ ”
Brand naming has existed for centuries. Italians made watermarks on paper in the twelve-hundreds. During the industrial revolution, companies sought to inspire consumer confidence with names borrowed from their owners’ families: Singer sewing machines, Fuller brushes, Hoover vacuums—all names that are still in use. Before the First World War, there was a wave of abstract names ending in “o” (like Brillo and Brasso), followed, in the nineteen-twenties, by one of “ex” names: Pyrex, Cutex, Windex. But, according to Eric Yorkston, a marketing professor at Texas Christian University, modern brand naming—with its sophisticated focus groups and its linguistic and psychological analysis—began in the years after the Second World War, when the explosion of similar products from competing companies made imaginative naming an increasing necessity.
In 1957, the Ford Motor Company made an enormous investment in a newly engineered and designed mid-priced car. When Henry Ford introduced the first affordable automobile, a half century earlier, the lack of competition allowed him to name it, prosaically, the Model T (coming, as it did, after the Model S). Now, with the rise of G.M. and Chrysler, Ford was forced to take a different approach. It hired an advertising agency and asked its employees to generate potential names. (The list—more than eighteen thousand names in all—included Citation, Corsair, Pacer, and Ranger, which were scrupulously tested with focus groups and man-on-the-street interviews before being rejected.) Ford even wrote to the poet Marianne Moore, asking her to think up a name that would “convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design.” Moore responded with a list of names that demonstrated a serene distance from the commercial marketplace: among them were Intelligent Bullet, Utopian Turtletop, Bullet Cloisoné, Pastelogram, Mongoose Civique, and Andante con Moto.
Ultimately, Ford executives, unable to reach an agreement, reverted to nineteenth-century custom and named the car after Henry Ford’s son Edsel. Launched with an unprecedented, fifty-million-dollar advertising and marketing campaign, the Edsel was one of the most spectacular business flops in history; the name has become synonymous with failure.
During the sixties and seventies, companies looking for brand names increasingly turned to Madison Avenue advertising agencies, with their professed expertise in the collective unconscious of the buying public. Snappy, “Mad Men”-style initialisms became popular: A.T. & T., 3M, I.B.M., G.M. With the mergers-and-acquisitions boom of the nineteen-eighties, brand names took on a new importance. “A lot of the value that was being paid for companies was for their brands,” Kevin Lane Keller, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth College, says. “There was no other way to justify paying x billions of dollars for this company from just the physical plants, equipment, and everything else. It was intangible assets.” In 1982, amid this new interest in brand naming, Placek launched Lexicon, which was among the first companies in the United States dedicated solely to the practice.
Placek grew up in Santa Rosa, California, where his father was a flooring contractor and his mother a homemaker. After graduating from U.C.L.A. with a political-science degree, he worked for the Senate Commerce Committee, researching solar energy. He liked Washington, but the job often involved little more than pouring water for senators. In 1976, he went to Missouri to become the press secretary for Governor Warren Hearnes in his run for the U.S. Senate. During the campaign, Placek said, he began to understand how words could make ideas salable—especially when those ideas were compressed into a brief, memorable phrase. “I learned the beauty of a well-written headline,” he said, “and began to think that this was something I could do.”
He returned to California, where he got a job in the San Francisco office of Foote, Cone & Belding, a prominent ad agency. As an account supervisor, he had a gift for communicating to creative teams the messages that clients wanted to convey about their products, and then running the intimate creative sessions that helped turn those messages into advertisements. He got his first experience of naming while working on the Levi’s account. “Every denim line, spring and fall, had to have a moniker, usually just for the business-retail end of things,” he says. He remembers a line of children’s jeans for which his group, working with the manufacturer, dreamed up the name Little Levi’s. “Beautiful little name,” he said. “The alliteration. Things I didn’t know about at the time. The ‘L’s working together. It was a good name by accident.”
After six years, Placek was hired by an aggressive new agency called S & O, where he was put in charge of new-product development and naming. By then, he had become a devotee of the 1970 book “The Practice of Creativity,” by George Prince, a former adman who, with the inventor and psychologist William J. J. Gordon, created an organization called Synectics, which ran workshops on how to increase creativity in small groups. The method stressed openness to ideas that seem irrelevant to the problem at hand; one of Gordon’s maxims was “Trust things that are alien, and alienate things that are trusted.” At the workshops, Placek said, he developed many of the techniques he employs at Lexicon. He guided teams on “excursions” that elicited creative responses by introducing unexpected stimuli, “maybe passing out sports magazines if we’re naming a women’s cosmetic.” Placek’s methods helped him excel at S & O, where he ran naming sessions for Taco Bell, Holiday Inn, and other major corporations. In 1982, after less than a year, he left to start Lexicon.
For almost a decade, the company relied on naming jobs subcontracted by other firms. In the mid-eighties, it came up with Outback, for a Subaru S.U.V. At the time, just about every new S.U.V. name carried associations with the American West: Scout, Cherokee, Wagoneer. Placek wanted to suggest ruggedness but avoid predictability. “I love Oscar Wilde’s line that an idea that isn’t dangerous is hardly worth calling an idea at all,” he told me.
Lexicon’s first big success came in the early nineties, when Apple hired Placek to name its first laptop. The new computer would replace the Macintosh Portable, a sixteen-pound behemoth not much smaller than a desktop computer, and Lexicon’s brief was to devise a name that would overcome consumers’ skepticism about Apple’s ability to make a truly portable computer. “We were looking at those word units: ‘port,’ ‘carry’—metaphors for things that are small,” Placek said. “So ‘book’ was there.” The notion of computing speed and performance was captured by the word “power.” Lexicon combined the terms to come up with PowerBook. Placek says that some people at Apple thought the name boring. “My response was ‘Yes, it is two common words put together, but there is no such thing as a PowerBook.’ ” The PowerBook was introduced in 1991 and became an immediate best-seller.
Placek maintains that an effective brand name can shape an entire industry. Until 1992, when Lexicon came up with the name Pentium for a computer chip made by Intel Corporation, microprocessors were identified by number, and for a long time were considered so fungible that manufacturers would share design specifications. “The salesman would tell you, ‘This computer has a 286 processor, this one has a 386,’ ” Placek told me. “And you’d say, ‘What’s the difference?’ And they’d say, ‘It’s faster.’ But there’s nothing special about those things.” Intel’s new microprocessor was the first one capable of running the video and graphics that were about to transform the home computer. The company’s C.E.O., Andy Grove, wanted to make it stand out. He declined to share the specifications with other chipmakers, and, after finding that it was impossible to trademark a number, he decided that the new chip needed a name. His marketing team hired Lexicon.
Because the microprocessor is the brains of the computer, Placek decided that the name had to sound like a fundamental component of the machine. Lexicon looked to the periodic table of the elements and found titanium, which suggested scarcity, strength, and worth. Placek also had to consider Intel’s marketing team, which had asked for a name that “sounded like an ingredient”—something that goes into the computer to enhance it. So Lexicon took note of sodium, an additive that enhances a dish. Using the phoneme that the words had in common, “ium,” the company generated thousands of names. “I remember being in the office by myself on a Saturday morning and going over a list,” Placek said. On it was the word “pentium.” “The first thing I thought of was the Pentagon, and I thought, Huh, that’s pretty interesting, because it’s a shape.” Then he remembered that “pente” means five in Greek. “I thought, Wait a minute—we’re going from 486 to the fifth generation, the 586.”
The name seemed promising, but Lexicon first had to determine whether it was original. Much of a naming company’s daily business is scanning worldwide databases to make sure that a name does not impinge on an existing trademark. The law prohibits any names “close enough in sound, appearance, or meaning” to create “confusion”—wording vague enough to make companies leery of duplicating even a syllable of another brand name. Violations can be costly; in the nineties, Microsoft launched the Web browser Internet Explorer and was sued by a small company in the Midwest that had already used the name. Microsoft was obliged to pay five million dollars for the rights. More recently, the movie-rental service Netflix announced that it was renaming the DVD-by-mail part of its business Qwikster. In two days, its Web site received twenty-four thousand comments, many of them negative; critics pointed out that the name was indistinguishable from that of a former Amway enterprise, a chain of convenience stores, and a “hard-rockin’ trio” from Montana.
“Ah, just the person I was looking for.”
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Lexicon’s lawyers found that Pentium bore few similarities to existing names. “We see ‘ium’ in things, but ‘tium’ is less occurring,” Placek said. There remained the hurdle of convincing Intel to accept the name. “Clients typically drill down on ‘I don’t know, is that really supporting our positioning? Because that really means this, so I don’t really know if it would work.’ ” One naysayer, Grove recalls, said that Pentium sounded “like a toothpaste.”
In order to convince the company, Placek conducted focus groups and interviews in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, presenting subjects with a fictitious new car called the Porsche Pentium and asking them to describe it. “People around the world said, ‘That’s the premium line, that’s the performance line,’ ” Placek noted. “We were probing: ‘Who drives that?’ ‘Well,’ people said, ‘a person that’s successful, educated.’ We were able to communicate back to Intel that this name had a lot of what we call ‘intrinsic value.’ ” In October, 1992, Grove announced the name on CNN. Despite skepticism in the computer-trade press, which predicted that “Pentium” would never catch on, the name quickly replaced the numbering system and became the centerpiece of Intel’s global advertising campaign. Placek said, “Instead of saying, ‘I’m thinking of an H.P. or a Dell—what’s the difference?,’ now consumers were saying, ‘I want a Pentium computer.’ ”
“It was one of our great success stories,” Grove told me. “According to our own internal research, in the late nineties Pentium was a more recognized brand name than Intel—which is actually a little scary.”
Not everyone is convinced of the power of brand names. Bernd Schmitt, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School, points out that when a product is launched its name is only part of a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign that also involves advertising, research, and social media. “Would Amazon be just as successful if it was called Nile?” he says. “My guess would be yes, because the name is just a starting point for a brand. The most important branding decision is more about brand strategy, distribution channels—where are the customers you want to reach?” Furthermore, virtually any name can be made successful through the sheer ubiquity that a multimedia ad campaign provides. Grove told me that his executives chose Pentium from a group of finalists that included Razar and Intellec, and thought that they could “probably have made any of these names work by repetition and exposure.” Schmitt concedes that a name can help grab attention, but the degree to which the name alone dictates a product’s success has never been precisely determined. “We would need to do a lab or field experiment where we have various names on a single product,” he says. “That’s tough to do.”
Yet it is difficult to imagine that “The Great Gatsby”—with its crisp, alliterative, lightly ironic title—would have fared as well under Fitzgerald’s preferred name, “Trimalchio in West Egg,” or that “Pride and Prejudice” would have flourished as “First Impressions.” And, while field experiments of the sort that Schmitt suggests are impractical, businesspeople are often willing to take the importance of names on faith. After all, the Patagonian toothfish—a large, sharp-toothed codlike fish—became popular among diners after it was renamed the Chilean sea bass; likewise the slimehead, reborn as the orange roughy. A few years ago, Lexicon was hired to rename a dessert—small nubs of ice cream coated with chocolate—that Nestlé was selling under the name Snack-a-Bites. Lexicon re-dubbed them Dibs, a play on the childhood expression “I’ve got dibs on that.” The product was a hit.
Naming experts agree on several universals of great names. It’s probably best to keep them short. (Dibs beats the longueurs of Snack-a-Bites.) Names that display a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern, like Gatorade, Lipitor, and Amazon, are often easiest to say, since these sorts of letter combinations are among the first that infants learn in any language. Pleasantness of sound—the use of alliteration and assonance—also plays a part. But Placek said that it can be dangerous to become too programmatic about what he calls “tactical” aspects of naming. The real goal, he says, is to determine what “story” a client wishes to tell about his product (it’s faster, it’s more powerful, it’s easier to use) and then find a word that evokes it, without being predictable or even necessarily logical; straightforward labels do not worm their way into the consumer’s subconscious, touching off the insecurity and acquisitiveness that provoke the impulse to buy. Not long ago, Lexicon was hired to name a new product for Colgate: a portable mini-toothbrush whose bristles contain a bead of breath-freshening liquid that users can safely swallow. Placek ruled out names with any suggestion of portability or miniaturization—too predictable. Instead, he wanted a word that merely evoked those qualities. Lexicon came up with Wisp, which satisfied the criteria of insubstantiality and lightness (not to mention shortness and euphony) and also suggested “whisper,” something that the user might do with greater confidence if there were no particles of his dinner lodged in his teeth.
The very best brand names, Placek says, can help a company gain a near-monopoly. Kleenex and Xerox have not only become synonymous with the products they represent; they have replaced the actual names. Placek cites Google, iPod, and Amazon (none of them Lexicon names) as contemporary names that have come to define a product or service. “I’m not sure you could find an experienced marketing person who wouldn’t say that these names made a difference,” he said. As a young man at Foote, Cone & Belding, he was tutored by Mike Koelker and Chris Blum, who in the sixties and seventies created television commercials for Levi’s jeans that helped make denim a symbol of the global youth culture. “They would talk to clients about using film to create what they described as ‘a strategic alteration of reality,’ ” Placek said. “In a way, isn’t that what Google or iPod or BlackBerry does? It takes reality and just alters it a little bit.”
In the past fifteen years or so, naming has entered a kind of postmodern phase, venturing from descriptive, functional labels—Mop & Glo, Mr. Coffee, Cocoa Krispies—toward esoterica like Viagra and Dasani, in which the meaning yields only to deep textual analysis. (Dasani, which Lexicon devised for Coca-Cola’s brand of bottled water, is supposed to convey health and purity through the root “sani.”) Much of this comes from the growing role of linguistic professionals in naming products.
In the early nineties, Lexicon was naming a new cereal for General Mills, and Placek asked Will Leben, one of his freelance linguists, what he thought of the name Triples. Without hesitation, Leben said that the name would test best with focus groups around the idea of “crisp.”
“I said, ‘How do you know that?’ ” Placek recalls. “He said, ‘Well, look at the sound trip. Look at the “p.” Puh. Cris-puh. It’s perfectly matched.’ We went into focus groups and everybody said Triples would be best for crispness. So then I thought, O.K., there is more to this linguistics than just having people give us Greek and Latin names or Sanskrit.” Placek invited Leben to become a full-time member of Lexicon’s staff.
Leben, who had studied under Noam Chomsky at M.I.T., was an expert in Hausa, a West African language, and taught at Stanford University from 1972 until 2003. He took the job at Lexicon, he says, “because it opened up a whole new way to make linguistics useful.” One of his first tasks was to do a study of what linguists call “sound symbolism”—the way sounds convey meaning independent of what a word actually signifies.
For the study, which was called Sounder, Leben asked test subjects a hundred and thirty-five questions—“Which car sounds faster: Tarin or Parin?,” “Which sounds more luxurious?”—to tease out the associations evoked by individual letters and sounds. The results were dramatic, he says: Tarin sounded “faster” but “less luxurious” than Parin, because less work goes into pronouncing a “t,” which uses only the tip of the tongue. The “p” sound uses the “massive articulators” of the lips, so it is “heavier, slower, and thus more luxurious.” The “b” sound—a plosive, like “p,” but with the vocal cords and the lungs engaged—sounded more luxurious still. “We checked four other world languages and got the same results,” Leben says. “It works in Japanese, Polish, Spanish, and Dutch—these things are either very common or universal.”
In 2001, Leben and another linguist completed a second study, called Sounder II, using five hundred subjects in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. “We were trying to get toward emotions,” he says. By asking questions such as “Which sounds more happy, which more sad?,” “Which more alive, which more lifeless?,” and “Which more daring, which more insecure?,” Lexicon isolated consonants—such as “c,” “v,” and “p”—that conveyed vigor, liveliness, and well-being.
The Sounder studies changed the way that Lexicon generates names. In the mid-nineties, the company was hired to name a new mop, developed by Procter & Gamble, that used disposable pads charged with static electricity to pick up dust and crumbs. Placek instructed his staff to avoid any reference to the word “mop” (which evokes drudgery), but the name still needed to suggest the act of cleaning. “So what are the actions?” Placek said to me. “You dust, you sweep, you swipe, you wash.” The name also needed to convey ease and speed. From a list that included “swipe,” “sweep,” “swift,” and “fast,” Lexicon isolated various sound combinations, including sw, ft, sh. Then, Placek explained, “you just start building out names.”
The process generated thousands of possibilities, and Leben particularly liked “swiffer.” “ ‘Swiff’ is phonologically very close to ‘sweep,’ ” he notes. “The two vowels are distinct, but ‘i’ and ‘e’ are pronounced close to one another in the vocal tract.” “Swiff” also, of course, sounds like “swift”—the job will be over soon. The ending was also important, he says. “ ‘Er’ means it’s something that performs an action”—and thus carries the suggestion that the Swiffer is doing the work, not you. The Swiffer, launched in 1999, has become a half-billion-dollar brand in fifteen countries; Procter & Gamble now uses the name for an array of cleaning products.
Placek is fond of pointing out to potential clients the difference in name recognition between the Swiffer and the knockoff Clorox product, the ReadyMop. But not every C.E.O. buys Lexicon’s linguistic rationales. Talking to Intel’s Andy Grove, I recounted Lexicon’s analysis of the word “Pentium”: “The ‘p’ and ‘t’ at the beginning of the first two syllables are voiceless sounds,” Leben had told me. “They’re quick, they explode. But the consonants at the end of the syllables, the ‘n’ and the ‘m,’ they hum—mmm—the way you think a microprocessor should.” Grove heard me out patiently. Then he said, “Lexicon is very lucky in not having presented this idea to me.”
One morning in late March, Placek assembled six staff members in Lexicon’s main work studio, a large room with a wall of windows looking out onto Richardson Bay. The team was beginning an “exploratory,” an anticipatory exercise to create names with such great intrinsic value that they would suit products that did not yet exist. Today’s project was car names. “What we’re trying to do is get ahead of what car companies might be thinking when they come to us a year from now,” Placek said. To make sure that the names did not infringe on any trademarks, Lexicon had posted on the wall some eight hundred and fifty existing car names, ranging from Gullwing to Veloster.
In the next three weeks, the team generated thousands of names, and then—with the aid of consumer focus groups and e-mail exchanges with linguists—selected a few keepers. (One focus group that I observed came up with Hawkbat, Bustang, and Killer Whale. Placek, watching the group through one-way glass, remarked, “This is why we don’t get consumers to name things.”)
Propped against a wall of the studio was the Mind Map that had got the process started. It was built around the notion that, in response to environmental concerns, rising gas prices, and the recession, the cars of the very near future will be smaller and more fuel-efficient. The nucleus term “natural transportation” was written in the center of a ten-foot-by-six-foot foam-core board. From it sprouted hundreds of scribbled words, covering the surface: “deep,” “birds,” “propagation,” “wings,” “butterflies,” “stained glass,” “arteries.”
The team members were seated at café tables scattered at one end of the loftlike room. Placek shared a table with Marc Hershon, a senior staffer in his early fifties who has worked at Lexicon for fifteen years. Hershon, who is also a screenwriter and a teacher and performer of improvisational comedy, was dressed in creative-worker motley: goatee, black shirt, colorful tie. He told me, “Early in our process, it’s a messy thing. You can’t just go, ‘I’m going to give you twenty-five great names, and I’m going to write them out right now.’ There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and playing around. Then you start shaving away all the stuff. And it’s almost like creating a sculpture. The name is in here—let’s get to it.”
To the uninitiated viewer, the beginning of the exercise would be difficult to distinguish from chatting—a group of co-workers on their lunch break, idly chewing over a topic. But Placek was tactfully closing off unproductive lines of inquiry and clearing the way for ones that seemed to have promise. An hour into the session, as the team started to lose energy, he introduced a thought experiment: gasoline reaches eight dollars a gallon, and, rather than own cars, people buy memberships in a comprehensive transportation system.
“I think we should think about naming a brand, a platform—just like Swiffer is for all kinds of cleaning things,” he said. “It should be a name that fits a small car, a rental city bike, and a shuttle bus, like a big van.” He glanced at the Mind Map, where the word “wave” was written. “I’ll use Wave,” he said. “Wave is my transportation provider.”
“It would be interesting to ask what people’s threshold is for riding public transportation,” Hershon said. “People don’t like riding the bus, it’s too crowded—”
“Germs,” Placek said.
“Germs,” Hershon agreed.
“I guess that’s it,” Placek went on. “How to create a name that would affect public transportation?”
“I was thinking of this whole idea of moving toward sustainability and recycled materials,” Greg Alger, a linguist, said. “A lot of it is driven by a sense of responsibility. So I think a sort of responsibility direction might be worth pursuing.”
“Can you give me an example?” Placek asked.
“Um,” Alger said, glancing around the room. “Like an example of . . . ?” he said.
“Well, like, you’re talking about a car brand—Pledge.”
“Right!” Alger said. “Exactly! Something like that. I mean, take the Civic, for example.”
“O.K.—perfect example,” Placek said. “Even better.”
“A sense of responsibility that people have to the environment,” Alger said.
“Community Car,” Placek mused. “The Eco car.” He looked dissatisfied. “But Civic is a great name,” he said—those vigorous “c”s and “v”s. “See how fast that is? And yet totally unexpected at the time.”
Then Placek addressed the unthinkable: that car companies would get rid of names altogether. “It just becomes Honda’s P-190: it gets a hundred and ninety miles to the gallon. Very practical, and it’s a pledge to the world. Because gas is going up, no question about it. Peak oil—that’s that term that says we’re running out. And I think that’s in 2030, something like that?”
“Sooner,” a bearded staffer named Allen Kohlhepp said. He cited a recent WikiLeaks revelation. “Some documents showed that the Saudis are lying about the amount of oil they have,” he said.
“I’ve got a name for a new car,” someone said. “The Peak.”
“Drive it till you run out,” Hershon said.
“The Last Car You’ll Ever Need,” Kohlhepp said. “The Slimmo.”
“The Peako,” Placek replied.
Hershon, jotting on his iPad screen with a stylus, nodded and said, “I’m writing those down.”
|Scooped by Charles Tiayon|