The man behind BlackBerry, Swiffer and Scion on how to do branding right
In the brand-naming world, Sausalito, Calif.-based Lexicon has become legendary for its work over the last 30 years, and no wonder. It named the Pentium chip for Intel, the PowerBook for Apple, the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble, and Dasani for Coca Cola. As a recent New Yorker piece about the firm observed, Lexicon also managed to transform Research in Motion’s bland, corporate, painstakingly matter-of-fact smart phones into caressable little devices, all with the word Blackberry.
It’s not an easy trick to pull off, says Lexicon founder David Placek, who believes a good brand has to blend numerous variables, including resonance, pluck and the ability to tell a service or product’s story, often in just a few characters.
Following Netflix’s now-famous Qwikster debacle, I called Placek to learn more about his job, and how both big and small companies might do a better job of selecting brands for themselves. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Q: Let’s start with a really annoying question. Why can’t you just tell a client, ‘I’m going to give you 25 great names, and you’re going to love one of them.’ That tactic seems to work just fine for Don Draper.
A: Ha. I think a number of clients might think like that. For us the role of a name is to help someone tell a story, to break [consumers’] habits, to convey something new — all in a world with trademark protection and the need to work fairly well across a number of languages. That’s saying nothing of needing an available URL.
In our work sessions, we might show our clients 25 names, but it’s really treasure hunting, a way for us to go back and forth and see what will get attention and general interest and get something new into the market. Most people don’t appreciate how hard this is, and how valuable this word, their brand, will be to them in the future.
Q: What do you say to the Columbia Business School professor in the New Yorker piece, who argues that a brand is just a starting point for a brand, and that Amazon would have been just as successful if it had been called Nile?
A: He’s an academic, and he’s absolutely wrong. First, Amazon takes the claim of the world’s largest river. It’s also the assembly of those letters — the sound of it, the ‘z’ in there. And Jeff Bezos connected the name so beautifully to the world’s largest bookstore. Think about it. The idea of a bookstore is kind of boring, but Amazon is a place where there’s a lot going on and a lot of interest.
What brand names do very well is establish an idea as quickly and as efficiently as possible, and Amazon, as a brand, was much more effective in establishing this new force in the marketplace than Nile could ever have been. Nile is smaller in sound, it’s technically a shorter river, and it’s frankly boring — nothing against the Egyptians.
Q: What other brands have really knocked it out of the park, in your view?
A: I think Zynga is just a really good name for a company that’s about wanting to give the world permission to play. It’s saying something new and telling a story. It’s efficient and punchy and unique without seeming to try too hard.
I really like Groupon, which is very practical and just took idea of coupon but found a way to convey that it’s something new. I love iPhone, which tells you without trying too hard that this isn’t just a phone. Another brand that I like is Raystream, which is a video compression service whose name projects sun and streaming. The company was formerly called Interdom, a slow-moving name that sounded like someone was calling from downstairs. But the company bought Raystream and smartly adopted its name.
Q: And names you don’t like?
A: I’m sure there are a lot of them. The hotel chain Extended Stay is about as flat as it comes. There’s no color to it, no hope of comfort. If you’re going to stay at a hotel for two or three weeks to do an audit of a company, could anything sound more bleak than heading to the Extended Stay? It’s right out of the old Soviet Union.
Q: What do you make of startups that use non-U.S. domains to create a brand, like dlvr.it?
A: We’re certainly looking at these names. I think it works in cases where it’s not forced. Bit.ly is fortuitous, for example.
There’s such a scramble to get a .com., .net [or] .biz, and people are understandably trying to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars or getting into a dispute over a URL. My best advice here is to find a natural break in the word, like bit-ly. The mind will [remember that]. If you make something awkward or hard to spell or it’s overly clever, it won’t work and you’ll only be doing your competitors a favor. You want them to be jealous of your brand name, not to think: ‘We can beat that.’
Q: Do startups face any challenges that are distinct from big companies that are choosing a new brand?
A: Larger companies have more money and that may help when it comes to launching and sustaining a new brand. But after that, it’s all the same. It’s the challenge of: What’s the strategy? What’s the story? Whether you’re a three-person startup or an organization with 10,000 employees, it’s really the same process, which is nice in that the playing field is pretty even.
Q: Do you think the name Qwikster would have been given less grief it it hadn’t come out of Netflix?
A: My own opinion — and Netflix isn’t a client — is that they underestimated the value of the Netflix brand and the equity that brand has. So they made a change in business strategy and a change in name. If it had been maybe leaked out that ‘we’re thinking about this service, like Netflix Q or Netflix Quick’ — that [might have been less disastrous]. But all of a sudden, it was, ‘We’re doing this,’ and people thought, ‘Wait a minute. Are they pulling a fast one on us?’
Q: Interesting that you suggest Netflix Q. Should a big brand spinoff ideally reference the parent brand?
A: No, I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with Qwikster. The brands don’t have to connect through. Just look at Procter & Gamble: They have dozens of brands. With Netflix, it was just a question of how it was managed. Of course, there was also debate about whether it was the right thing to do in the first place.
Q: You’ve talked about boiling a company’s story down to one name. Is it insanely broad to ask how you do that?
A: It’s block and tackle stuff. What are you doing? What’s the benefit? What’s the competition out there? If everyone is descriptive and highly suggestive, then you don’t want to be there. So you take out a territory; ‘We’re not going to describe this’ service or product.
Then it evolves around: What’s our personality? How do people feel when they use this service or when they are wearing this product? And you start to get qualities or sounds. When we created Swiffer, we thought: What does this product sound like? You’re swiping, you’re wiping. It’s easy and swift and — boom — Swiffer. But that wouldn’t have come out of an objective where people said, ‘It’s a more effective cleaner and saves people time.’
The same was true with Blackberry. People’s blood pressure goes up when you talk about email, so we went for simplicity and usefulness and a little bit of joy.
Q: It used to be that products were very descriptive, like Mr. Coffee. Do you think they’ll go retro again, sort of as children’s names have?
A: I think that’s possible. As tech moves along and we make a leap from one technology into another, there’s an opportunity to be descriptive in nature. Then it fades away, and people again have to create Zyngas and Pentiums. Think about the earlier search engines. You had InfoSeek and WebFinder. Then we got so much clutter that people couldn’t sort it out. It’s then that you began seeing Google and, more recently, Bing. I’m sure we’ll have some new, ultra-intelligent search technology, and the cycle will start anew.
Q: Any thoughts on uniformly lowercase names, or names that input a capital letter mid-word?
A: As for inputting a capital letter, we did that with PowerBook, to sort of add emphasis and strength to it. I know from a reporter’s standpoint, it’s probably a little bit of a hassle. That’s true on the client side, too. But in fact, we tell them to try and police it, to remind people — and reporters — that PowerBook has an inner cap ‘B,’ for example. You can train people to respect a design mark.
On lowercase names, I don’t know that it materially affects anything. I’m not a designer, and I suspect [lowercase letters] have a tendency to weaken the overall impression of a name. But generally speaking, it probably doesn’t have any real effect on what the name communicates. I think in most situations, [lowercase names] are trying to communicate gentleness and calmness. I also think that it’s designers trying to be designers.