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The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business

Wordcraft by Alex Frankel
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"Five little words: BlackBerry, Accenture, Viagra, Cayenne, e-business. Two of the words are appropriated (BlackBerry and Cayenne); two are completely made up (Viagra and Accenture); and one (e-business) is a composite word made of a word and a letter that already exist. . . .These five words are the characters in this book."

Words shape and move the modern marketplace; they are at once ubiquitous and invisible. But where do words such as Saturn, PowerBook, and Tylenol originate? How did we come to "xerox" our paperwork and "have a cup of Starbucks"? Which names work, and why? For journalist Alex Frankel, what began as an exercise in curiosity--tracing the evolution of a handful of the most successful brand names from the marketplace to their places of origin--resulted in a year-long journey in which he gained access to a previously undiscovered world of forward-thinking creatives: professional namers, the unique group of marketers responsible for inventing words that ultimately become a part of our everyday vocabularies.

Wordcraft is Frankel's in-depth look at how companies name themselves and their products and, in the process of defining their business through words and language, develop narratives that define the way they present themselves to the outside world. His lively, fly-on-the-wall narrative takes us into the conference rooms of Lexicon, the world's largest professional naming firm, where we see how the highly successful email pager known as the BlackBerry got its name. We travel to Germany to learn how Porsche approached the naming of its controversial SUV, a car that challenged the company's famously sporty image. The creative team behind Viagra explains how they took a completely fabricated word and turned it into a powerful idea. We witness how IBM assumed ownership of the word and story of "e-business" and in so doing turned around its corporate mindset and returned to a dominant industry position.

The book is filled with stories about how things get their names, but it's not just tales of business meetings and product launches. We meet the characters who populate the naming world, "information age neologists" like freelance namer Andrea Michaels, who plays professional Scrabble and competes on TV game shows when not brainstorming for corporate clients. And we learn about the civic unrest that erupted in Denver when the naming rights for Mile High Stadium were sold. Frankel laces his narrative with cultural and historical references and quotations from thinkers as diverse as Marianne Moore and Lawrence Lessig, all of which add a layer of richness and depth to this book's multithreaded and engaging stories.

For anyone intrigued by the power of words and ideas in today's marketplace, Wordcraft is a captivating tour of a fascinating world.

From the Hardcover edition.
The Crown Publishing Group; April 2004
256 pages; ISBN 9781400054336
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Title: Wordcraft
Author: Alex Frankel
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.