Tech's Product Name Guru: Meet the Man Who Coined BlackBerry, Azure and More

How do they come up with technology product names like "BlackBerry" and Windows "Azure"? In this Q&A, David Placek, the guru whose company came up with those two and many more, takes us inside the product name game.

David Placek, founder and president of Lexicon Branding, has worked with numerous high-tech vendors during the past 26 years—Microsoft, Intel, Nokia, Apple and RIM, to name a few. Product names that have come out of Lexicon's four-month creative and linguistic processes can be found throughout the tech industry (Intel's Pentium and Apple's PowerBook), and many have crept into pop culture. Ever heard of the BlackBerry?


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Most recent, Lexicon worked with Microsoft on Azure, its new cloud-computing operating system, that will be available in the second half of 2009. Lexicon Branding works in industries other than high-tech, too: automotive giant Toyota (the Scion car) as well as Procter & Gamble (Febreze spray) are two of the many well-known product brands that have been created in Lexicon's Sausalito, Calif., headquarters. (From ThinkPad to iPod to Twitter, see "How 10 Famous Technology Products Got Their Names" for the inside scoop on how today's and yesterday's top tech devices and services got their names.)

Placek's company experienced a bit of controversy in 2006 when Microsoft debuted its digital music player, named Zune. The blogosphere erupted because of the similarity between "Zune" and the Hebrew word "zi-yun," which, roughly translated, is the U.S. equivalent of the "f-word." Lexicon had worked with Microsoft on naming the device, and Placek asserts that Zune and zi-yun are two different words, with different pronunciations and different spellings.

David Placek
Lexicon Branding Founder David Placek (Image: Lexicon Branding)

Today, Lexicon has 26 employees and works with 80 language experts around the world to ensure that no linguistic lapses occur with their clients' products. Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum talked with Placek about why high-tech vendors need Lexicon's help, how hard it is in the Internet Age to develop and secure product names, and his first impressions of the yet-to-be-named BlackBerry device in 2001. When a high-tech vendor hires your company, what are they looking for?

David Placek: There's typically two kinds of cases. The first is when they have tried to name the new product internally or tried to work with their ad agency, and then they run into trademark problems or language roadblocks, where it's just not easily pronounced in certain languages, or it means something negative.

Also, they can't seem to get that internal support—people aren't rallying around [the new name]. So they're a little bit behind the 8 ball, and now they've lost time. It's no longer fun, and they're frustrated. So they'll say, we'll send you the list of what we've done, and now it's up to you.

The second type of audience is really not that interested in the creative process or participating in it. It's an important and strategic task for them, but they've decided to go outside with someone like us, who has a proven process, to help them. We rarely get someone saying, "We want to work with you guys, and we've got some ideas to bounce off you." It does happen, but it's infrequent. Can you describe your process?

Placek: The first phase of the process is working with a client to understand: What does the product, service or technology do? What's the benefit? What's the competition? From there, we work hand in hand to actually create a role for the name and creative goals for Lexicon, as a framework for the collective process.

During this, they are throwing ideas out there. They are saying: We really want this be a colorful brand or a name that has energy in it. Or some might say: We want it to be approachable and simple because previous products or competitors are too engineering-oriented or maybe are a little on the cold side. So in that sense, they are throwing out ideas for directions, tone and feeling. Along those lines, do you often have debates with your clients about the need to think broader and not just stick with a tech-heavy name, like the XCell-o-meterTX7, which the engineers love?

Placek: That conversation happens here every week, and not just with technology companies, though I think there's more conversations with them. What we really try to share with them, from our experience and with the foundation of our success, is that if you just describe something, you're really telling a very poor story.

What you want to do is stimulate people's imagination and get them interested in [your product]. For that you have to have a name that has a level of provacativeness, so that it signals, hey, there's something new here. Once you have [your customers'] attention, then you can explain to them what it is. People will get it. But it's more important that you begin to tell a story rather than just describe something. Most people, after conversations about it with us, and thinking about names like BlackBerry, Java or Apple, begin to get a sense of that.

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