Building a Better Moniker
Jan. 10, 1987
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but will it sell?
A snappy name can be a big factor in the success of a new product and corporations increasingly are turning to outside help for just the right moniker.
''It's a most amusing business,'' said Ira Bachrach, founder of the name consulting firm NameLab. ''It's better than I ever thought it would be because we're always dealing with new things.''
The work is also extremely profitable. For five weeks of effort, the typical customer will pay $50,000 if Bachrach and his cohorts come up with a suitable name. If not, the customer pays for only labor and expenses.
Using computers and a complicated linguistic system, NameLab has successfully devised more than 240 product names for 135 different companies since Bachrach started the company in 1981.
NameLab came up with Sentra when Nissan wanted a safety-oriented name for a new compact, and Honda came to NameLab when it needed a name for a new line of luxury automobiles. It got Acura.
Bachrach said NameLab develops a usable name - and collects its full fee - about 70 percent of the time.
''One of the reasons we succeed more often than we fail is that we only take on jobs that look like we can do them,'' he said. ''It's not all that deep of a strategy.''
Bachrach, 47, can afford to be selective. When he created NameLab, he had been retired for three years, running marathons and traveling, living off the money he had made in high-tech advertising and other ventures.
''It turns out that you work for more than a living,'' he said. ''It's your identity. My wife got tired of my complaining that I didn't have a business card.
''It began as a hobby and it still is, sort of. The idea was to do something that got me out of my wife's hair without ruining my life.''
When Bachrach decided to return to work, his options were somewhat limited. He was ''technologically obsolete'' because of the radical changes in electronics since 1960, when he received his engineering degree.
He had been drafted for a job before completing a graduate degree in linguistics, but he still had his old thesis, in which he had developed a new notational system for English based on units called morphemes, ''the smallest meaningful kernels within words,'' rather than sounds or letters.
''I had observed it was very handy if you wanted to make new words,'' he said. ''The only way I could think of that people would pay me to make new words was to make brand names for things.''
Bachrach meets with a client and gets a precise definition of the product and the message they want to convey. Honda, for example, wanted to say ''advanced precision automobile'' for the line that eventually became Acura.
Bachrach's five employees search through a list of 6,900 morphemes they have compiled for word roots that mean or imply those cues. The list includes the regular English morphemes recognized by linguists and others they have culled from product names, television and slang.
NameLab linguists enter all applicable morphemes into a computer, which then combines them in all the ways the phonetic rules of English will allow. The linguists then cull from the list all the words that do not have other attributes the customer wants - visibility among other printed words, recognizability as a brand name in speech, hard or soft tone.
The final, short list is checked for trademark availability and presented to the client with NameLab's recommendations for which name will work best.
''Everyone else had done it and still does it creatively,'' Bachrach said. ''Really smart fellows sit around and say, 'Let's call it Jell-o,' whereas what we do is we mechanically make every word the language will permit expressing the messages they're after.''
Bachrach's biggest clients are those in the package goods business - makers of shampoo and detergent, deodorant and toothpaste. Because of intense competition, he says, he does not reveal which brand names his firm has devised, although he will say he has worked for such corporate giants as Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, Gillette, General Mills and PepsiCo.
The location of NameLab's Marin County laboratory is kept secret and its files are coded because ''people could do all kinds of things to screw up each other's product launches,'' Bachrach said. ''You wouldn't believe the things that go on.''
While Bachrach admits his company has produced its share of flops, he recalls just one case where ''the name killed the company.'' That was a company called Publishing Technology, which invented a device to reproduce computer software right in the store.
NameLab devised the name Softra - for software transaction - and the name was plastered across the machines. But, Bachrach said, people thought they were buying cheap imitations with that name rather than the originals.
''It was our fault. We made a dumb name,'' Bachrach said. ''If we had left it Publishing Technology, nobody would have paid any attention to it because it doesn't mean anything to the general public. As long as the name wasn't dominant, it wouldn't have gotten in the way.''
End Adv Weekend Editions Jan. 10-11