Creative Briefs: Name That Brand

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For a man who seems to eat, breathe and sleep the English language, it can be pretty hard to figure out what wordsmith Ira Bachrach is saying. Morphemic sets? Phonetic effect? The founder of San Francisco identity firm NameLab is a former engineer who, while at IBM, enrolled in a graduate program to study the relationship between computer engineering and linguistics. He never got the degree, but in 1981 he stumbled into the business of naming. Twenty years later, his five-person identity company is known for creating brand names that have become highly familiar bits of the consumer's lexicon: Acura, Acuvue, Compaq. The company's name itself, NameLab, betrays its founder's belief that coming up with such effective titles is, in fact, real science.

Bachrach thinks in terms of meaningful word parts, or morphemes. "Basically, morphemes are the semantic kernels of words," he explains. Words can be broken down into these tiny components, each of which can resonate in a consumer's mind with a particular meaning or feeling. For example, the morpheme "van" in words like advantage connotes the idea of "top" or "front."

In constructing the name "Acura," Namelab sought to come up with a word that projected luxury and top-flight engineering. "Research revealed that German cars were thought to have a higher `engineering content,' " says Bachrach. "We made names out of morphemes derived from the component elements of `engineering' - mathematics, science, metallurgy, precision, etc. The best brand name, in terms of phonetics and other mechanical functions, was Acura - suggesting precision."

Another of Bacharach's more memorable naming experiences was for a new Pepsi soft drink. NameLab was asked to come up with a monicker that would capture the healthful, natural aspect of the new drink, a major competitor of 7Up, but containing real fruit juice. One of the meaningful morphemes NameLab found was "sli." According to Bachrach, "Sli is a morpheme that means partial." That fit in with the "part fruit juice" idea. From there, he and his colleagues got to "Slice," a word with the desired good-for-you connotations.

Of course, some names are more literal and don't rely on juggling word elements. NameLab coined the name for the Italian restaurant chain Olive Garden, for General Mills. "We named it Olive Garden because they wanted a name that suggested the real and the local - not ordinary tomato sauce dumped on pasta. Also, it was more healthful."

Bachrach claims that "Language is really not as easy to manipulate as you think ". He says that his linguistic background gives him an advantage over traditional ad agencies: "The reason why agencies aren't very good at making names is that they use writers, and writers are used to thinking with language. But when you think about names, you're thinking about that which you think with. You have to get yourself Ex Machina."

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