The Brand Man, How David Placek Names Things You Want To Buy
He's coined everything from the PowerBook to Blackberry to your kitchen mop. There's a method to his magic.
TEL AVIV — When David Placek decided to call Intel’s processor “Pentium” he put a name on a new cornerstone in the way the world works. When he called a new Subaru car “Outback,” he gave life to a personal fantasy shared across the globe. And when he came up with the “Blackberry,” he aimed for a mixture of fun and power.
The man who invents names for the world's biggest brands did his best to explain to Calcalist how the magic is done, and why is it worth to pay him a $100,000 for a name alone.
One of his best-known breakthroughs happened when one of the members of the creative think-tank stood up and wrote on the board with a red marker, Strawberry. Under it he wrote “it’s healthy, colorful, "berry" is fun.” A few minutes later, another employee said Strawberry was too slow a word for such a useful product. Then, a third employee went to the board and wrote with a black marker Blackberry, and under it “Black, industrial, berry is fun."
This was when David Placek understood that his company had survived yet another challenge and found the right name for an innovative new phone that allowed the easy sending of emails. The year was 1999, and soon after the name Blackberry was a ringing phenomenon in the business world.
It is no surprise that Placek considers Blackberry one of the biggest successes of his career, which is focused on one particular aspect: inventing names. While other companies work on marketing, campaigns and industrial strategies, Lexicon Branding — the company Placek founded in 1982 — deals “only” with inventing names for companies and products.
“The name of a company, a service or a particular product is very valuable,” explains the 61-year-old branding maven during an interview to Calcalist. “It is the only thing that remains, products change, campaigns change but the name stays. When I tell this to clients it gets their attention, because people don’t necessarily think that the name is permanent and that they will probably never change it."
Placek notes that if you succeed, competitors will try to get as close as possible in functionality and design. "They can take many things, and might even have a better product or ad campaign," he notes. "But the name is the only thing they will never be able to take.”
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David Placek — Photo: The Wharton Club of Northern California
And the price of something so valuable? For Placek's services, the range is from $50,000 to $100,000, "depending on the quantity of research there is to do and the size of the aimed market.”
From Apples to mops
After starting his career in politics in Missouri as a speechwriter, Placek moved to the West Coast to work for advertising firm FCB, where he mostly handled the Levis’ account. “I worked there for six years and got to see how brands can influence the market,” he recalls.
After setting up his own company, Placek's big break came in 1991, when he was called on to help find a name for a new line of Apple laptops.
At the time, the concept of a laptop was still vague, with the early ones weighing more than 15 pounds. Though the new Apple product was modern, lighter and with a whole new design, the public was still not sold on the very concept of a laptop.
“This is how we understood that the name had to more than anything send the message that the laptop is indeed portable," he recalls. "We started looking for words that expressed its portability, while going deep into the values and the spirit of Apple. The second element we looked into was a name that would contribute to the spirit of this new empowerment.”
After many failed attempts they got to the conclusion that the word "Book" had to be part of the new product, since it is the best way to send a message of knowledge and mobility. It didn’t take long after that until the PowerBook went on the drawing board. More than 23 years later, Apple still uses the word Book for its computers. The product developed and changed, but the concept of the name remained.
Sometimes, inventing a name is a matter of differentiating a particular product from others, like for the PowerBook. Other times, the product is really new and innovative and the name’s role is to convince the consumer give it a chance.
This is what happened when Procter & Gamble (P&G) asked Placek to reinvent the meaning of mopping up. “When they came to us we thought we would see just a new kind of mop, but when they showed us the simulations of the product I realised it was modern and made of plastic not like the old kind made of wood and ropes.”
Talking to consumers, his team knew that mopping is the least likable of household chores. So, as with Blackberry, the challenge was to add some fun.
“We started with Swiping and went on to Sweeping and decided to use the letters of these words to create a new one. One of the ideas was to turn the word Swipe to Swif," Placek said. "We added an "f" but the word just ended too quickly. We tried Swiffé and got finally to Swiffer.”
Such work is not as easy as it sounds. There are months of research, and it never happens that someone comes up with a name and everybody agrees immediately. In this case, the competitor brand ReadyMop is worth $200 million today, while Swiffer is worth almost $4 billion.