BY SARA HAMMEL
Twelve years ago, executives at two energy firms, InterNorth of Omaha and Houston Natural Gas, wanted a catchy name for their newly merged companies. Their choice--Enteron--drew attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Numerous callers pointed out that enteron is the medical term for the canal through which people excrete solid waste. Three days later, the company name was changed to Enron.
For corporate America, there's nothing fun about the name game. Companies undergoing mergers or launching new products often worry about selecting a name that offends in another language, inadvertently smacks of fifth-grade bathroom humor, or sounds like someone else's trademark. The wrong name can have serious consequences: Last year, for example, Reebok unveiled "Incubus," a new women's sneaker. In medieval folklore, Incubus was a demon who ravished women in their sleep. Reebok discontinued the shoe in February.
To avoid similar fates, more companies are turning to product and corporate naming specialists. The naming industry, comprising a handful of boutiques, a few medium-sized firms, and several "corporate identity" outfits, will bill clients an estimated $25 million this year (a single name can fetch between $25,000 and $100,000 in today's market).
There's a name for it. Naming pros can hardly keep up with the demand for their services. "We turn down projects every day," says S.B. Master, who heads the Berkeley, Calif.-based naming firm Master-McNeil. "It's a fairly arcane area. [The size of our staff] is constrained by the number of people who have a clue." As Master points out, the ideal naming pro--a linguist sporting an M.B.A.--is a relatively rare breed.
Even for the experts, coming up with the perfect name is hard--and getting harder. That's because the available candidates are being continually snapped up. In 1992, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office received applications for 125,000 new trademarks; the number jumped to 200,640 last year. As a result, more namers are resorting to made-up names--or "coined" words, as they're known in the trade. Perhaps the most famous example is Intel's "Pentium," which was dreamed up by Lexicon Branding Inc., a Sausalito, Calif.-based naming firm. Because the Intel computer chip was a fifth-generation product, Lexicon chose the Greek word pente, which means five, and added the suffix "ium" to suggest strength.
While some pros regard coining as the wave of the future, traditionalists frown on the practice. "I think a good name has a soul, has a feeling, inspires," says Sam Birger, chairman of Whatchamacallit Inc., a naming firm with offices in Boston and San Francisco. "Given a choice, we'd rather use real words." For a recent IBM software release, Birger's outfit chose makoro, Swahili for a dugout canoe, the only method of transportation to the deepest part of the jungle.
To find the right name, some pros rely on computer software or databases to spew out options. Others prefer old-fashioned brainstorming, using pen and poster board to come up with 100 or more names to throw into the pot. "Sometimes you find your best creativity comes after a couple of pints of Bass Ale," says Birger.
Naming firms often turn to linguists to weed out offending words in different languages. "The funniest stuff happens when you're not paying attention to cultural differences," says Russ Meyer, head of the naming division of Landor Associates, a branding consultancy and design firm. The classic example is General Motors, which shipped its Chevy Nova to Latin America in the late 1970s without doing its homework: No va means "it doesn't go" in Spanish. Landor recently avoided its own potential disaster. "We came up with a name [for a company], `Telemon,' " says Meyer. "It was wonderful--until we went to Thailand, where it means `intercourse with your mother.' "
The wrong sound also can be a problem. Meyer reports that a food company recently considered putting out a product called "Feasties." "When you say Feasties, and when you don't get your `t' in there, you're in trouble," he notes.
Bland choices can be just as deadly. Remember "Like" cola, the beverage launched by 7 Up in 1982? "It was like calling it `Not Really' cola," explains Ira Bachrach, president of NameLab Inc., another San Francisco firm.
But even professional namers concede that for companies, a good product is every bit as important as a good name. Some of the best names are based on the owners' names, says Landor's Meyer. "I think of Hershey's--it probably didn't communicate chocolate [at first]. But, by God, it does now."
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