With Billions At Stake, Firms Play Name That Mop

May 13, 2011
Originally published on May 13, 2011 12:10 pm

Part of a series on the communications industry

The language of advertising and public relations is meant to seduce you into buying or believing something. The first step — coming up with a really cool name.

Mopping Up The Competition

David Placek was on the team that came up with the names BlackBerry and Outback for Subaru. Procter & Gamble once hired his company Lexicon to help create a name for an improved mop.

For a while, they worked with the word "mop." You can almost hear the disdain in Placek's voice when he says it. In work sessions with P&G, Placek says, "we jointly agreed, 'Let's forget this is a mop. This is a new idea.' "

So they started playing around with other obvious terms like "clean," "wipe," "sweep." Then, Placek says, they started to shape those words. They considered Swif, Swiff, Swiffee and Swiffer. "Then you debate those things," he says.

Swiffer won. Today the brand is sold in more than 15 countries and is one of Procter & Gamble's biggest sellers. "When you take the risk of developing something like Swiffer, versus something like Pro-Mop, it will travel farther and faster," Placek says.

User-Friendly Words

Plus, Swiffer is easy to pronounce in any language. That's really important for a product name, but not always true.

Diane Prange, chief linguist for the company Strategic Name Development, says those Greek yogurts on the market — Oikos, Chobani, Fage — will test the best of us. "I know they're supposed to be authentic Greek, but they're very difficult to say," Prange says. "If you can't say it, it's hard to ask for it." And if you can't ask for it, you might not buy it.

Even words that are user-friendly can run into trouble. For example, names that start out as trademarks can become so popular, they end up losing their individuality. Generic words like "granola," "jungle gym," and "moxie" all started out as brands.

Registering A Web Address

The Web address can also be a challenge in the naming process. If the word is too common, chances are it isn't available as a dot-com.

"There are over 80 million names registered under dot-com," says Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. But the organization that makes the rules on these matters is trying to fix the problem. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers may add some 200 top-level domains. "So there would be a dot-music, dot-nyc, a dot-berlin," Mueller says. "There will be names in Chinese language script that I can't even pronounce," he says.

In the naming game, the stakes are high. "Your name is a shortcut to your brand, and your brand is your promise," Prange says. But even the naming experts agree: Keeping a promise takes a lot more than a good name.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The language of advertising in public relations is meant to seduce you into buying or believing something. Step one in that process is the name. In our ongoing look at the public relations industry, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that what something is called can make a very big difference.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: A really cool name can do wonders for a product's image. Just ask David Placek. He was on the team that came up with Blackberry. Procter & Gamble once hired his company Lexicon to help create them come up with a name for an improved mop.

DAVID PLACEK: So we worked for a little bit with the word of - you know, mop. And then in work sessions with them, we sort of jointly agreed that let's forget about that this is a mop. This is really something - this is a new idea.

BLAIR: So, starting with the obvious...

PLACEK: Clean, wipe, sweep.

BLAIR: They played around, shaping those words.

PLACEK: Swif with one f, swiff with two f's, swiffee with, you know, an e, then there's Swiffer with the er. And then you debate those things.

BLAIR: And Swiffer won.

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Unidentified Woman: Swiffer gives cleaning a whole new meaning.

BLAIR: Today, the Swiffer brand is sold in more than 15 countries and is one of Procter & Gamble's biggest sellers.

PLACEK: And when you take the risk of developing something like Swiffer, versus something like, you know, Pro-Mop, it will travel farther and faster.

BLAIR: Plus, Swiffer is easy to pronounce, in any language. And that's really important, but not always true.

Diane Prange is chief linguist for the company Strategic Name Development. She says: What's up with some of those Greek yogurts on the market?

DIANE PRANGE: Oikos, Chobani, Fage.

BLAIR: Actually, I think it's Fage.

PRANGE: And I know they're supposed to be authentic Greek, but they're very difficult to say.

BLAIR: Prange says the name can have an impact on sales.

PRANGE: If you can't say it, it's hard to ask for it.

BLAIR: And if you can't ask for it, you might not buy it.

But even words that are user-friendly can run into trouble. For example, names that start out as trademarks can become so popular, they end up losing their individuality, words like granola, jungle gym, and moxie all started out as brands.

Then there's the Web address. Every product wants one. But if a name is too generic, chances are it isn't available - as a dot.com, anyway. Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, says the good parts of the Internet are all booked up.

MILTON MUELLER: There are over 80 million names registered under com.

BLAIR: But they're trying to fix that problem by adding more addresses.

MUELLER: There's supposed to be maybe 200 new top-level domains. OK. And so there will be maybe a dot.music. There will be a dot.nyc. There will be a dot.berlin. There will be names in Chinese-language script that I can't even pronounce.

BLAIR: In the naming game, the stakes are high. Diane Prange says your name is a shortcut to your brand, and your brand is your promise. But even the naming experts agree: Keeping a promise takes a lot more than a good name.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about one of the biggest names on the Web right now: Facebook. That's one company that's been massively successful in generating positive PR, but now it's in a major PR pickle.

Yesterday, it emerged that Facebook hired the big PR firm Burson-Marsteller to look for material critical of a new Google service called Social Circle, doing a little opposition research.

Facebook wished to stay anonymous when it hired the PR company, but bloggers and journalists figured out that Facebook was behind the campaign and immediately outed the company. So now we'll see how Facebook handles damage control.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.