Why do so many start-ups and tech products have names that begin with a “z”? There’s Zipcar, Zemcar, and Zelle, there’s Zigbee, Ziliqua, and the old Microsoft Zune.
This is not a coincidence. There’s a whole industry that focuses on naming things in ways that will set up positive associations for consumers.
I asked this question of a pioneer in the field, David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding. He told me that “z” makes a vibrant sound, the “fastest” one in English. Tech companies want to suggest that their services are both speedy and exciting, so they feature the zippiest letter.
Mr. Placek’s research has found that “v” has the “most alive” sound, explaining its prominent appearance in Viagra and Corvette. And “b” is the “most reliable” letter in English, which influenced Lexicon’s team as it named the BlackBerry.
Catchy names are extremely important for companies and their products. Would Google be one of the world’s top one or two most valuable brands if it were still called by its original moniker, BackRub? Would Theranos, a health technology company that folded last year, still be in business if its name didn’t recall Thanatos, the Greek god of death? (Probably not, as its founder was indicted for fraud. It’s still not a good name, though.)
Many companies turn to the naming industry for help in choosing designators that will stick in consumers’ minds, for the right reasons. This process can be quite complicated, involving research into how people view the product or activity in question, and how sounds can be made to reflect or change these views. When Lexicon was designing a name for a hybrid mop, they discovered that of all the house cleaning chores, people disliked mopping the most. When you do the laundry, you end up with a load of clean clothes; when you mop, you often feel that you’ve pushed some dirty water around. Placek wanted a name that conveyed playfulness and efficiency, that subtly implied cleaning the floor could be done completely and easily and was, dare I say, fun. What would you name such a mop? Lexicon called it the Swiffer.
These days, a name must often work globally. It is important to avoid situations like the one my brother-in-law Ben got into when he taught English in Japan. He told his students they could call him by his first name, but they would only titter nervously and refer to him as “teacher.” He thought perhaps the informality made them uncomfortable, but it was actually that “Ben” means “excrement” in Japanese. A name must have good associations – and not offend anyone – everywhere the product is sold.
Shakespeare said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but experts in the naming industry might disagree.