When I arrived at nine in the morning, I found a low-ceilinged room that once had been a U.S. Navy vault. Its walls were covered with whiteboards and its center dominated by a large wooden table. I pulled up a chair and got out paper and pen. I joined a group that sat thinking and blurting out ideas, six of us trying to come up with a name for a new computer network. We hunkered around the table while a set of floor heaters crackled. It was my first day as a freelance namer, and we were making up a word.
Our group of six, including an actress, a poet, a computer programmer, and me, a business journalist, spent the day naming a computer network that would be used by small businesses. We looked no different from corporate workers casually dressed in loose-fitting blouses, button-down shirts, and khakis. At first our task seemed mundane, basic. But as our leader goaded us to think about this new word in different ways, through different angles and filters, the task assumed great depth and importance.
At the outset he asked us simply, “What does a computer network do?” The question hung in the air like a Zen koan . . . What is the sound of one hand clapping? By midday we recognized the almost tangible gravity and importance affixed to our naming project. We ran through dozens of exercises designed to tap the ideas we had in our heads, to get them out on paper, and to get us to keep things fresh, to avoid static thinking. The very idea of a new network twisted and morphed before us—seen at one moment as a light-rail system, then as a steel girder infrastructure, briefly as a bible. We tossed out words—Ensemble, Copernicus, Socket, Tango, Chainlink. We filled pages of butcher paper with words penned in many hues, tore pictures from magazines, wrote advertising slogans, and watched television commercials about the company selling the network. The task was not so much to come up with one single winning word, but to brainstorm hundreds of possibilities—to get all the ideas out. Someone else would sift through them later.
I went home that evening with a legal pad filled with scrawled esoteric notes: data river = information ecosystem, interfusing + Galapagos—>braindock!!, ear to the ground, life versus company, the network that moves mountains. And even a few hastily jotted haikus: Rising from the dust / An unstoppable success / A chorus of one and The fabric of work / Gliding effortlessly fast / Zigging and zagging.
Naming the network gave me a sudden glimpse into another world. It seemed strange and futuristic, weird that we were being paid $300 a day to create a noun—a person, a place, or (in this case) a thing. As I began to look around with a more critical eye over the next few months, I saw a full-fledged language industry whose work was synthesizing words. And I met an array of people creating new words or reassigning existing ones to drive commerce forward by getting people to use certain words and change people’s behavior. Like so many other things in our prepackaged world, it seemed, words, too, were being turned out with factorylike efficiency, crafted to fit into our vocabularies.
But in the beginning, a word is just a word. The word might be scribbled in dry-erase marker on a whiteboard (like so many that day), uttered by an executive during a corporate brainstorm meeting, dreamed up by a naming consultant in the shower, or spewed out of a computer. It might be an existing word or a brand-new combination of characters. It might have specific connotations for a listener, or it might be totally foreign. At its outset, a brand name is just a string of letters without much meaning in relation to the product to which it is attached. But then it moves from being a word to being a name. And, finally, emerging like a butterfly into the world, it becomes a full-fledged brand name.
Sometimes the word succeeds beyond the wildest dreams of its creators, like a virus sent into the world to infect common speech. This is a successful brand launch. The created word is loaded with meaning, and the public responds well to that meaning, embraces it, becomes loyal to it, makes it a “household” name. Names can be emotional, contentious, controversial, valuable, dramatic, poetic, powerful, manipulative, human, cultural, international, invisible, pervasive, and ubiquitous.
As a culture, we have become a world of speed-readers, able to scan a newspaper article from the headline and understand an advertisement by just glancing at it. A name, if it is constructed right, plays into this scheme, so that its intended audience will grasp it immediately and implicitly. Jean-Marie Dru, in his seminal business text Disruption, puts forth the notion that communication is no longer a product attribute but an integral component of a product. In other words, the product is the message.1
For most humans, the act of learning language and new words is a constant, ongoing process, although it is most pronounced during the first two decades of life. People generally start talking at eighteen months of age. At age two, most babies know fifty words. By the age of three, this number surges to around one thousand. By six, the average child knows thirteen thousand words; at eighteen, around sixty thousand. This means that most of us learn an average of ten new words each day from our first birthday on—the equivalent of a new word every two hours of waking life. And increasingly these words are brand names.
The modern marketplace teems with brand names—with a corn chip called Doritos Cooler Ranch, a car called Nissan Maxima, a beer called Moosehead, ready-to-eat frozen meals called Lean Cuisine, a food processor called Cuisinart, an airline called Virgin Atlantic, and a pain pill called Tylenol (derived from the chemical name for acetaminophen, N-acetyl-p-aminophenol). Each name, through heavy advertising, means something to every consumer. But how far, really, are these words from those I had scribbled in the meeting I attended . . . words like braindock and interfusing that seem totally meaningless?
By the time I had become a creator of new brand names, I was well aware that we live in a world filled with them, that brand names are a part of the soundtracks of our lives—some by chance, some on purpose—and that words owned by corporations have become core components of our modern language, if not a new language entirely, seeping into vernacular speech. Instead of drinking a cup of coffee, increasingly we “get Starbucks.” We “do the StairMaster.” We fedex packages, take an Advil, and apply ChapStick. These brand names are synecdoches—they represent larger things. By supplying meaning to consumers, brand names assume great worth in the marketplace. As adman Claude Hopkins writes, the best names “are almost complete advertisements in themselves.”
Slowly but surely the many words created and trademarked by corporations have come to resemble a new language unto themselves—a sort of pan-human language for a globalized world. The act of creating and trademarking words almost ensures that big-time brand names will become part of a new brandspeak, or what Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has called a “lingua branda.”
Colors of paints are no longer just reds, yellows, and blues but thousand of variations on the primary colors: Equator Glow (yellow), Yacht Harbor (blue), Evening Symphony (dark blue), Juicy Fig (brown). Ralph Lauren Paint has some of the most interesting names in the business: Farmer’s Jacket (blue), Summer Espadrille (yellow), Morning Surf (blue), Pacific Sarong (green), Locker Room (black), and Yorkshire Hound (orange).
Great companies no longer prosper solely from the efficient production of goods, but also from the ubiquity of their brand names, from the prevalence of their “concepts.” In a book critical of what he calls “the new network economy,” writer Jeremy Rifkin identifies the switch: “What is really being bought and sold are ideas and images. The physical embodiment of these ideas and images becomes increasingly secondary to the economic process. If the industrial marketplace was characterized by the exchange of things, the network economy is characterized by the access to concepts, carried inside physical forms.” The ease with which consumers associate brand names with positive attributes now directly affects a company’s market share. We live in the information age, and anything sold must become part of the data stream. The naming firms I happened upon, and later worked for, have the interesting job of creating and inserting verbal or text messages into this flood of data—they are coiners of words, information-age neologists.
Among the many players in the communications industry—the advertising agencies, public relations firms, crisis management groups, and brand strategists—as a reporter I was attracted to the small naming firms. The field is filled with language crafters, makers of meaning who look at language in a clinical fashion, and who craft new words and appropriate existing words for new uses. Discovering this group of namers was like finding the group of workers most emblematic of the new state of things, manipulators of the new postindustrial economy. The names that succeed seem to penetrate human interactions transparently. Others fail. I wanted to know how and why this happens.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wordcraft by Alex Frankel. Copyright © 2004 by Alex Frankel. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.