Even more than the crazy wigs and high-protein clothing, it's the name that makes Lady Gaga. If her name were Bethany Cranston (or, say, Stefani Germanotta), forget about it.
Everybody wants a Gaga name for their new product/website/startup. But if you've ever brainstormed about names, you know how deflating the process can be. The URLs for every four-letter word in the English language have long since been snatched up. Yet you crave something unique, something legally protectable. So here come the artful misspellings ("Gene-yus") and the syllable mashups ("TechnoRiffic"). Later, as you review your whiteboard full of gawky names, someone walks by with a BlackBerry and you seethe with envy. That's how it's done. (Hey, has anyone trademarked Graype?)
No one in the naming world has generated more envy than a boutique firm called Lexicon. You may not recognize the name. But Lexicon has created 15 billion-dollar brand names, including BlackBerry, Dasani, Febreze, OnStar, Pentium, Scion, and Swiffer.
Lexicon's steady success shows that great names do not come from lightning-bolt moments. (Nobody gets struck 15 times.) Rather, Lexicon's magic is its creative process.
Consider its recent work for Colgate, which was preparing to launch a disposable mini toothbrush. The center of the brush holds a dab of special toothpaste, which is designed to make rinsing unnecessary. So you can carry the toothbrush with you, use it in a cab or an airplane lavatory, and then toss it out.
Lexicon founder and CEO David Placek's first insight came early. When you first see the toothbrush, Placek says, what stands out is its small size. "You'd be tempted to start thinking about names that highlight the size, like Petite Brush or Porta-Brush," he says. As his team began to use the brush, what struck them was how unnatural it was, at first, not to spit out the toothpaste. But this new brush doesn't create a big mass of minty lather — the mouthfeel is lighter and more pleasant, more like a breath strip. So it dawned on them that the name of the brush should not signal smallness. It should signal lightness, softness, gentleness.
Armed with that insight, Placek asked his network of linguists — 70 of them in 50 countries — to start brainstorming about metaphors, sounds, and word parts that connote lightness. Meanwhile, he asked another two colleagues within Lexicon to help. But he kept these two in the dark about the client and the product. Instead, he gave this team — let's call them the excursion team — a fictional mission. He told them that the cosmetics brand Olay wanted to introduce a line of oral-care products and it was their job to help it brainstorm about product ideas.
Placek chose Olay because he believed that beauty was an implicit selling point for the new brush. "Good oral care means white teeth, and white teeth are better looking," Placek says. So the excursion team began to come up with intriguing ideas. For instance, they proposed an Olay Sparkling Rinse, a mouthwash that would make your teeth gleam.
In the end, it was the insight about lightness, rather than beauty, that prevailed. The team of linguists produced a long list of possible words and phrases, and when Placek reviewed it, a word jumped out at him: wisp. It was the perfect association for the new brushing experience and it tested well; it's not something heavy and foamy, it's barely there. It's a wisp. Thus was born the Colgate Wisp.
Notice what's missing from the Lexicon process: the part when everyone sits around a conference table, staring at the toothbrush and brainstorming names together. ("Hey, how about ToofBrutch — the URL is available!") Instead, Lexicon's leaders often create three teams of two, with each group pursuing a different angle. Some of the teams, blind to the client and the product, chase analogies from related domains. For instance, in naming Levi's new Curve ID jeans, which offer different fits for different body types, the excursion team dug into references on surveying and engineering.
Necessarily, this often leads to wasted work — in the case of the Wisp, the excursion team found themselves at a dead end with the Olay project. But it's precisely this willingness to work in parallel, to endure some inefficiency, that often leads to a break in the case, as with the BlackBerry.
When Research in Motion engaged Lexicon, Placek and his team knew that they were fighting negative associations with PDAs: They buzz, they vibrate, they irritate us and stress us out. So he challenged the excursion team — again, unfamiliar with the actual client — to catalog things in the world that bring joy to people, that slow us down, that relax us. In other words, the antidotes to those negative PDA associations.
The list grew quickly. Camping, riding a bicycle, having a martini on Friday night. Taking a bubble bath, fly-fishing, cooking. Having a martini on Thursday night.
Later, someone added "picking strawberries" to the list. Someone else plucked out the word strawberry. But one of Lexicon's linguists said, "No, strawberry sounds slow." (Think of the similar vowels in drawl, dawdle, stall.) Soon it was crossed out and replaced with the word blackberry underneath. Hey, wait, the keys on the PDA look just like the seeds on a blackberry. Epiphany!
Actually, no. "Most clients feel that they're going to know the perfect name as soon as they see it, but it doesn't happen that way," Placek says. Even "BlackBerry" was not easy to sell. The client had been leaning toward more descriptive names such as "EasyMail." (Interestingly, the same was true of past blockbuster names: Some at Intel had wanted to call the Pentium "ProChip," and some at P&G had wanted to call the Swiffer "EZMop." And no doubt someone wanted to call Budweiser "EZGut.")
As Lexicon's success demonstrates, a great name can make a big difference. When some smart marketer renamed the Chinese gooseberry a kiwi, the fruit became a huge hit. But we shouldn't overheroicize names. After all, we live in a world where some of the most powerful brands are called Microsoft, Walmart, and General Electric. Clearly, a mediocre name isn't destiny. For every Lady Gaga, there's a Katy Perry. So maybe there's hope for you after all, Bethany Cranston.
Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.