Name Games

The book really should have been called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Naming Products, Along With Much You Didn’t. It is chock-full of information and examples, indefatigably packaged into types and themes and categories and other time-honored social science boxes that suck the life out of even the most fascinating subjects. The writerstwo serious, bespectacled gentlemen sporting distinguished facial hairtell us that there are so many brand names in America that our landscape is actually…wait for it…a brandscape. They apply labels to various types of names: initialized and acronymic names (IBM, Alcoa), allusive names (the Mach3 razor), arbitrary names (Apple), and the coined names currently in vogue (Agilent, Lucent). They write about how names influenceand are influenced bythe other modes of language, and how namers come up with names. We’ve taken brand names apart…auditioned the rhetoric of brandspeak…circled and perhaps corralled the topic of brand names’ symbolismsketched the long and short of creating lists of brand name and trade name nominees. And so, so much more. They even invoke morphemes and lexemes, and, just as you’re inching for the door, they launch themselves into some of the more fascinating lacunae of trademark law. At least they didn’t show home movies.

It’s not all boring. There are, for example, several pages in which the authors discuss the perils of transporting brand names across linguistic boundaries, pointing out how Volkswagen’s Vento means fart in Italian, how Este Lauder’s Country Mist makeup means manure in German, and how Powergen, the Italian maker of a battery charger, showed its obtuseness when it insisted on dubbing its Web site www.powergenitalia.com. These Porky’s-caliber yuks enliven the proceedings considerably.

Amid this wealth of thought and information, Rivkin and Sutherland’s central message is that brand names matter. Good names give products memorable identities and suggest an image to consumers. Brand names are so important that there are people (among them, Rivkin) whose jobs consist of thinking them up. Who among us hasn’t sat in front of the television, stupefied by some commercial, wondering, What genius came up with that? Chances are, it was a now-significantly-wealthier genius. One of these name-conjurers, we learn, was paid $70,000 for advising US Air to change its name to US Airways. Another firm raked in $75,000 from the Infiniti car company for choosing the letters J and Q to go with the company’s J30 and Q45 models.

For all that money and attention, however, it’s not clear that brand names really make much difference. Rivkin and Sutherland highlight a number of brand names that they admire, such as Windows, the Microsoft operating system that the authors call inspired, and others they detest, such as Mirant and Agilent, which do not connect to a brand or product in any way. But Windows wasn’t a success because it was called Windows. Windows was a success because of Microsoft’s brilliant strategy of becoming the operating system in most of the world’s computers just as prices dropped and people galloped to the stores to buy the machines. True, Windows was a felicitous and even elegant choice of a name for the operating system, but does anyone doubt that Microsoft could have called it the Mirant operating system or the Agilent operating system, without anyone batting an eye? Think about that era: We all had to learn a whole lot of new words, many of them illogical and stupid, including Microsoft itself. A rose by any other name is still a rose.

Or take another favorite of the authors’: Viagra. Rivkin and Sutherland can hardly contain their admiration for Pfizer’s brilliance in naming its love drug. Because Viagra rhymes with Niagara, it suggests splendid vigor and a natural marvel. It begins with a voiced fricative and suggests speed and power (velocity, vroom)….The sonorant r is voiced and implies the fullness of roundness, resonance, and rolling. Be that as it may, let’s come down to earth. We’re talking about a drug that restores sexual potency to middle-aged men, an item as close to a fountain of youth as civilization has yet invented. Pfizer could have called the drug anything short of Childmolesta and guys would have taken it.

Names are useful and interesting, but Rivkin and Sutherland overvalue them in the general scheme of things. The quality of the product is crucial. People will learn the name Schwarzenegger if they like enough Schwarzenegger movies. Over the years, Ford has produced minivans it has called Aerostar, Windstar, and Freestar; none of those names has mattered as much as confidence in the Ford brand itself. For years, my family used a margarine called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! It wasn’t because we couldn’t believe it wasn’t butter; that was completely believable. It was because they flooded the Sunday papers with 35-cent coupons. Later, we switched to Promise margarine, a name so vague that you can imagine it being used on everything from dog food to mouthwash. We switched because some nutritionist said that while all the margarines were filled with dangerous triglycerides, Promise probably had the fewest. In my mind, Promise immediately became renamed I Can’t Believe My Arteries Aren’t Clogged with Glop. There’s no question that Rivkin and Sutherland have thought long and deeply about brand names, and they offer more than a few insights. They have amassed what is essentially a museum catalogue devoted to their passions; and while intermittently interesting, a lively read it is not.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.