Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business , by Alex Frankel. Crown, 241 pages, $24.
The spring, Manhattan shoppers were greeted on the bustling corner of Broadway and Houston Street, with a lime-greenbillboardannouncing “Fashionable planes now departing from the runways of La Guardia and JFK” followed by the enigmatic brand name “Song” and a swooping futuristic logo reminiscent of Star Trek. The attention-grabbing billboard is part of the marketing push for Song, a hip discount airline that made its debut last April. Nowhere on the sign does it mention that Song is, in fact, owned by Delta Air Lines-and that’s exactly the way Delta executives want it. A high-style, low-frills carrier, Song is Delta’s answer to JetBlue Airways, the New York–based upstart that has posted three consecutive profitable years while its mainstream competitors have been hammered by the sputtering economy and the post–Sept. 11 travel decline. Like JetBlue, Song’s planes come with in-seat televisions, and they have upped the style ante with refined menus featuring such fare as Mediterranean vegetable wraps, drinks such as the “Song Sunrise” cocktail, and flight attendants outfitted in prim uniforms designed by the fashionista Kate Spade.
Song is all about branding, the marketing strategy Alex Frankel explores in his breezy and accessible Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business. A deft business journalist, Mr. Frankel defines “brand” as “an amalgamation of everything that one thinks about when a particular word is uttered,” and corporations today spend millions to make sure you think of a specific idea every time you see or hear their name (Starbucks: vanilla latte! Amazon: new Grisham best-seller! Wal-Mart: cheap prices!). Today, Mr. Frankel writes, our economy is entrenched in “a linguistic war waged by corporate America, where good, novel, fresh and inventive ideas substitute for ammunition.”
Amazon, Starbucks, Prozac-where do these manufactured words come from? Wordcraft is a journey into the creative minds that spawn synthetic, meaningless words and put them into the hands of corporate marketers-who turn the “little words” into powerful symbols recognized around the globe.
This is business lite. After nearly four years of dour economic news, a slumping Dow, and corporate conflagration and scandal, the business media has trained its gaze on business’ friendlier side, with recent titles such as Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style, The Origins of Brands by Al and Laura Ries, and Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column in The New York Times Magazine celebrating the creative side of capitalism. The “New Economy” may be over, but echoes of that idea-rich era remain.
To trace the process of corporate-language building, Mr. Frankel goes on “a modern voyage of etymology” from the creative offices of professional naming firms to the corporate boardrooms where executives commission new products. He analyzes five brand names-the R.I.M BlackBerry, Accenture, Viagra, the Porsche Cayenne and I.B.M.’s e-business venture. Along the way, he meets creative characters like the Marc Jacobs–wearing “futurecaster” who came up with Viagra, and the Norwegian business consultant who entered the winning name (Accenture) in a company-wide contest to rename the $23 billion Andersen Consulting in 2000.
Though Madison Avenue gets the lion’s share of credit for crafting corporate images, Mr. Frankel focuses on the small naming firms that have blossomed since the mid-1980’s. After writing an article about the naming industry for Wired in 1998, the freelance journalist launched his own naming firm and went from working for a dollar per word “to work[ing] full-time as a namer ($25,000 plus per word).” Mr. Frankel joined the ranks of many gooey-eyed entrepreneurs smitten by the Internet bubble, and his venture-like many of theirs-was unsuccessful. But Mr. Frankel came away with a thorough understanding of the corporate-language industry.
He gives, in any case, a lucid account of the branding of the RIM BlackBerry, the indispensable gadget for communication-savvy road warriors. The name BlackBerry was developed by the San Francisco naming agency Lexicon, the world’s first naming firm, founded in 1984 by David Placek, a former ad executive. After winning the contract with the Canadian-based electronics firm Research in Motion (RIM) to name their new handheld e-mail device, the staff at Lexicon culled from a series of linguistic analyses a list of potential names, based on such phonetic factors as sound symbolism, memorability and pronunciation. After viewing a final list of 23 contenders, executives from RIM chose “BlackBerry” because its name suggested that the product would catch on, and that “people could visualize a blackberry network growing on the vine.” Consumers embraced the catchy name when the product was launched in 1999; RIM executives knew immediately they had a hit on their hands. Forbes named BlackBerry one of the seven “cult brands” of 2000; RIM’s revenues exploded from $8.7 million in 1997 to $294 million by 2002; and its work force doubled from 800 in 2000 to 1,600 in 2002. BlackBerry use spread so rapidly among e-mail-addicted executives that some tech-industry watchers dubbed it the “CrackBerry.” With one word, the company had vastly improved its economic fortunes.
Mr. Frankel’s portrait of the pharmaceutical industry and the naming of the pills that now crowd Americans’ medicine cabinets is the most illuminating part of his book. One firm, Wood Worldwide, has been responsible for naming the most popular prescription drugs in history, including Prozac. In 2002, the company named six of the top 10 best-selling prescription drugs in the nearly $100 billion pharmaceutical market.
Drug companies don’t just sell pills; they sell an experience and a set of emotions, from ending depression to stifling allergies. We’ve entered the world of “lifestyle” drugs, and ever since 1997, when the F.D.A. approved a measure allowing pharmaceutical companies to market directly to consumers, the companies brand their pills with the same fervor as Gap pushing blue jeans on style-conscious teenagers.
With the cost of developing a new drug exceeding $500 million, the stakes are huge. Companies such as Merck, Pfizer and Eli Lilly have turned to Wood Worldwide to create names for their pills. These are hatched in Wood’s stylish Soho offices, where the “casually well dressed … pop culture attuned staff” work in New Economy bliss, seated in front of iMacs in their comfy, ergonomically correct Aeron chairs.
When naming Viagra, one of the main problems faced by Wood Worldwide and the drug’s maker, Pfizer, was that most men were too embarrassed by impotency to seek medical treatment or buy a pill that targeted their condition. But in a stroke of brilliance, Wood came up with a name that connotes vigor and strength. Viagra changed the entire perception of impotence-“a loaded term,” as Mr. Frankel notes, “that suggested a lack of power.” Henceforth, the condition would be known as “erectile dysfunction.” Now that impotency had a new socially acceptable name, Mr. Frankel writes, the “brand name for Pfizer’s miracle drug could gain a fertile foothold from where to spring.”
The F.D.A. approved Viagra on March 27, 1998, and Pfizer launched the pill on April 10. The marketing blitz included former Presidential candidate Bob Dole hawking the drug and the logo plastered on the side of a Winston Cup race car. Soon Viagra had jumped from the pages of The Wall Street Journal into the literary world, turning up in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), in which the protagonist, an aging college professor, owes all of his “turbulence and happiness to Viagra.”
But what happens when brands go awry? Mr. Frankel tells us about the city of Denver, which in 2001 sold off the name of the Broncos’ Mile High Stadium for $120 million-today it’s known as “Invesco Field at Mile High.” A public backlash ensued: The editor of The Denver Post lambasted the new name in an editorial and refused to allow the use of the stadium’s corporate name in his paper’s pages.
New Yorkers got a taste of this kind of aggressive marketing last year, when Snapple became the official beverage of the city’s school system. And during the depths of the city’s recent budget crisis, some free-market champions even floated the idea of licensing the city’s landmarks to corporate brands. Thankfully, the proposals flopped, but it’s not impossible to imagine an age of the Old Navy Brooklyn Bridge, the Microsoft Empire State Building or the Budweiser Statue of Liberty.
Mr. Frankel observes the “practitioners of wordcraft” with enthusiasm, enthralled by the power that the letters they string together can wield over a culture. When he was at the helm of his own naming firm, he proposed several drug names for the drug giant Glaxo, and the “abstractness of putting a name to such an intangible product was challenge enough,” he recalled, “but the huge reach that a major pharmaceutical drug would have-and the sheer amount of money involved-was awe inspiring.”
Missing from this account-save for a brief nod at the end-are the serious implications for a culture inundated by corporate messages created in the interest of higher profits, not the public good. Mr. Frankel pauses to wonder: “[A]re brands good or bad? … Are my senses dulled, is my vocabulary less rich because of the many brand names I know?” Bombarded by brand names, product promotions and advertising, we FedEx instead of mailing, we Xerox instead of photocopying, we drink Starbucks instead of coffee. Mr. Frankel may be right to wonder; corporate buzz words could indeed be diluting our vocabulary. This is an important issue that deserves more consideration than it receives in Wordcraft. But don’t worry-if we want to know more, we can always Google it.
Gabriel Sherman is a reporter for The Observer.