San Francisco — An Acura? What's an Acura? Ask Ira Bachrach. He created the word and it cost the Honda car company around $35,000. This five-letter word with a sharp, expensive sound is the shiny name for Honda's new luxury car soon to be on the market.
And in the sophisticated and highly competitive world of seizing upon unforgettable brand names, Ira Bachrach is the premier creator.
``What we do is called constructional linguistics,'' says the ebullient founder of Namelab from his modern office in his home overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Over the last four years, Namelab (named by none other than Mr. Bachrach) has ``constructed'' names for such clients as Nissan, Chrysler, Ford, Gillette, Bank of America, Procter & Gamble, Pepsico, Federal Express, RCA, and other big companies who prefer anonymity. Over 130 companies have approached him willing to pay around $35,000 and up for names that sing a clear song in the marketplace.
Nissan's Sentra came from Namelab; so did the name Datago for a chain of computer stores in the Northeast, as well as Compaq computers.
For a new nationwide information network -- a joint venture by Bank of America, AT&T, Chemical Bank, and Time Inc. -- Bachrach created the word ``Covidea.'' ``Co'' indicates the big four behind the joint venture, and ``videa'' identifies not only the connection with ``video'' or a computer terminal but the word ``idea'' as well. Someday the word may become as well known as Jell-O, if all of Bachrach's assertions are correct.
``I'm convinced that a lot of new products fail simply because they have dull, meaningless names,'' says Bachrach. ``A good name makes a lasting impression.'' He contends that three factors contribute to a memorable brand name.
``First is meaningfulness,'' he says. ``The more meaningful a word is, the more the mind encodes it and stores it for future retrieval. Second, words which have repetition of sound, like Coca-Cola, are easy to remember. Third is a concept called `episodic encoding,' which means that certain words trigger recollections of actual emotional experiences.''
Take the Nissan Sentra, for example. ``It's the company's mainstream or central car,'' says this former advertising executive, ``and they wanted consumers to understand that it was quite safe even though it was small. The word Sentra sounds like central as well as sentry, which evokes images of safety.''
The road to a new name begins when Bachrach and his linguists meet with company executives to explore the desirable messages to express in the word (such as youth, reliability, ease, etc.), the audience they want to reach, market strategies, and how the competition is behaving. The result, he says, is a ``ranked list of messages to be expressed in the new name.''
Back at Namelab, the linguists hunch over computers and compile lexicons of semantic and symbolic word fragments known as ``morphemes.'' A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit or form in a language -- there are about 6,200 commonly used in English. The ``van'' in advantage is a morpheme; so is the ``ven'' in adventure.
The morphemes are combined with other prefixes, suffixes, and root words stored in Namelab's computers, and the results are assessed for connotative and denotative meaning. Most combinations are dismissed as misfits, but a list begins to develop. Do the words have rhythm, value, alliteration, memorability, uniqueness? the researchers ask. How many letters do they have? Does the pattern of the letters look good, and is it easily read? In all, there are 18 tests applied to the words to select
ones with appropriate images or evocative sounds.
Three or four weeks later Namelab meets with the client and provides a report with a detailed analysis of the final five or six names. The report includes any legal implications of the name plus the translations of the name into foreign languages to avoid embarrassment. A telephone system here known as ``Chat Box'' (not a Namelab client) became an absurd ``Cat Box'' in French translation. In Latin countries, a Chevrolet Nova automobile was a ``no va'' -- ``won't go.''
The client is free to accept or reject the names. ``It can be an emotional time for the company,'' says Bachrach, ``because the name is defining who they are or what may be the impact of the product.'' A very small percentage of companies have turned down the names.
In the past it was not uncommon for companies and products to carry the name of the founder. Or they were named by the founder's spouse, by executive inspiration, or through an employee contest. But consider the fact that today there are more than 750,000 brand names in use in the United States. The competition is unrelenting. Often the name, the product, and the reputation are one, but it is the name that leads the way. Finding the right name is key, and ``a lot of the really brilliant words are alrea dy being used,'' says Bachrach.
In addition to a few names created by Namelab, Bachrach rates the following names as among the best brand names ever: Band-Aid, Jell-O, Kleenex, Drano, Ivory, and Apple Computer. All passed the test of being packed with meaning, easy to remember, and easy to say. The Diehard auto battery gets his vote as the ``best adapted metaphor in the history of brand names.''
Bachrach's fascination with words springs from his college days when he tried to win the George Bernard Shaw prize for creating an English language phonetic alphabet. ``The idea was to pack more information into each character, somewhat like Chinese,'' he says. ``I didn't win.''
But he went on to get a degree in engineering from the University of Rochester, and in the 1960s started five high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. In turn, he formed an advertising agency to promote his products. He started Namelab as a diversion from semi-retirement.
``Other people would go batty doing this day after day,'' he says, ``but I love it. The English language is uniquely rich.''