by Thomas Wailgum

Tech’s product name guru: Meet the man who coined BlackBerry, Azure and more

Nov 11, 200810 mins
Enterprise Applications

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?

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.

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. Beyond creative challenges, how tough is it to find a brand-new name for a technology product given today’s large amount of trademark, copyright and other legal issues?

Placek: It’s very tough. In most businesses, as you gain experience and your people gain experience and longevity, and you invest in company systems and software, there are many of the aspects of the business that get simple. But in our business, every year trademarks are filed, and we still have only 26 letters of the alphabet. And every year more and more trademark clutter is added to that space, which we have to maneuver through.

There are more products in the marketplace than there were 26 years ago, people are more competitive and there are more ways to reach customers. So, it is more challenging. To give you perspective: Trademark law is divided into 42 classes; technology is Class Nine, with Apple, Cisco and software and hardware. When I started Lexicon 26 years ago, in Class Nine, there were about 15,000 registered trademarks. Just last week, I had our trademark team run the numbers: There are over 650,000 registered trademarks in that class. Now that’s just for the U.S. If you’re a Cisco, Intel or Microsoft, you’re not just doing business in the U.S. You’re going to do business in 25 or 30 countries, at a minimum. You can imagine the challenge we have before us. So how often do you and your staff come up with an awesome name, and you check on it and someone else is already using it?

Placek: Every day. Microsoft just announced their new operating system, the brand for Azure, and we worked with Microsoft to develop that name. From a creative standpoint, we probably developed 3,500 directions, or what we call concepts, at [the first stage]. We worked them to down to 700 to 800 candidates that had, on a continuum, some strength to a lot of strength. And through the legal process and linguistic vetting process, we ended up with about 50 or 60 names to show the client. One of your more famous names is the BlackBerry. Did you foresee how big the name would eventually become in terms of pop culture and adoption in the business world?

Placek: About becoming the BlackBerry nation? I don’t think so, in the beginning. When we first met with the RIM team, they came out here to Sausalito, and they put the device down in front of me on the conference table. I have to say: I really remember that; I remember being quite impressed by the device.

We wanted to give them a great name, which could really help them. At that time, they were going up against the pagers, and everybody had a pager. They were going to compete with all the telephone operators and providers. So they came thinking that they needed a really good descriptive name because they didn’t have any money. We actually said the opposite was true: You need to have a really distinctive name. And let the operating companies, like AT&T, let them have the more conservative and descriptive names. But I had a sense that this was going to be really good product. The BlackBerry is also fondly referred to as the CrackBerry. Did you see that one coming?

Placek: No, we didn’t. In a way, it’s just a measure of the popularity and the addiction of the machine. We’ve talked with [RIM] about that. I think it’s just a harmless thing, and I’d take this just as a compliment. If it was a losing product, it wouldn’t have a nickname like that. How long is the process, from client first visiting you to when the product is announced?

Placek: For us, it’s about a three- to four-month process. We also do research with the target audience to make sure it’s going to resonate with them. We will typically do a linguistic and cultural check in about 25 languages, and we’ll do that in-country. Lexicon now has 80 PhD linguists in 36 countries. We do that, first, just to make sure we don’t have any real negative connotations. And second, [we make ask] is it consistent…and does its sound and structure align with what this product is going to do? We know it’s not going to mean the same thing around the world, but sound wise is it easy to pronounce? That takes time—a couple weeks of research. If we were just doing the creative piece, it’s a six- to eight-week process. With all your linguistic work in foreign countries, you must be a fountain of knowledge of slang and slur in all kinds of languages?

Placek: We toyed with the idea of putting together our findings. We’ve been doing the linguistic and cultural stuff for about 14 years. On an annual basis we might do checks on roughly 1,200 to 1,300 candidates that are moved through our system. When you get down to the final five, six or seven names, you’re taking those through the countries. So, we’ll do 120 projects a year, which is probably, say, 1,000 names, and multiply that by 14 years—we uncovered a lot of stuff. Some is humorous and some negative. It would make for some interesting reading. Has the Internet helped your creative processes more than it has hurt, say, due to all the extra legal work you now have to do?

Placek: It’s been a great tool for us. Obviously, securing URLs represents a challenge and has made the job harder. But from a creative and information standpoint, we’re able to get information about what people are talking about, by reading blogs, and getting a sense of people’s vocabulary online. What’s a favorite technology name you didn’t come up with?

Placek: Google. It tells a story, like I said before: When you think about search engines before Google, there was just a preponderance of engineering type words or phrases—like Webfinder, Websearcher or Webcrawler. We all experienced that as: These things aren’t very efficient or effective, but it was the best that the marketplace was providing. And then here comes Google. Right away [Google] telegraphed a different experience, a different behavior on their part, and that I can behave differently toward it. That’s the beauty of a name like that.