The name game

Welcome to the vicious world of corporate name-creation, where $75,000 buys you a suffix and competing shops slur each other over the virtues of Agilent and Avilant.

Topics: Advertising,

The name game

When Hewlett-Packard decided last year to spin off its instrumentation and measurement division into a separate company, executives at the computer hardware giant did everything they could to smooth the transition. Shareholders had to be notified. A top-flight management team hired. The trades brought on board. But such housekeeping duties were a minor matter compared to the vast existential task that loomed — a five-phase, cross-unit “identity project,” intended to unearth a suitably momentous name for the $8 billion enterprise. The name had to be a grand, monstrous, powerful thing — broad-shouldered yet luscious, tempered by oaky bass notes of maturity, courage, character — like a 1961 Cheval Blanc. “This was similar to the Lucent process,” says David Redhill, global executive director for Landor Associates, the identity firm hired last year to supervise the project. “We needed a tremendous name that really was magisterial and compelling, and had a certain amount of stature right away.”

As with Lucent, Redhill and his team approached the problem with ingenious thoroughness, devising a naming module that would eventually cost the client more than $1 million and involve up to 40 Landor executives around the globe. The first step was to interview key executives at the massive new entity, then known only by its code name of NewCo. “We wanted to know what the company needed to be; what it was aiming to be,” says Redhill. “The aim was not to manipulate them, but really to draw out of them exactly how they visualized people feeling about their brand.”

The exercise got off to an unpromising start. NewCo executives volunteered that they wanted the company to be perceived as strong, innovative, dynamic and caring. “We’ve done this process with hundreds of companies,” Redhill says wearily. “They all say, ‘We want to be perceived as strong, innovative, dynamic and caring.’” And therein, it seemed, lay the problem. Though top NewCo executives had avowed their intention to be different, to change the paradigm, to think outside the nine dots, “the qualities they were aiming to project were in fact common currency,” Redhill sighs.



Fortunately, the Landor identity crew had come prepared for exactly this possibility. “We did mood boards,” Redhill says. “We did random visual associations, attached to sequential words. And so, when they said, ‘We want to be strong’ we would show them a picture of an ocean wave breaking. And we’d ask: ‘Do you want to be strong like a force of nature?’ Then we’d show them a picture of a metal chain link fence. And we’d ask, ‘Do you want to be strong like a chain? Strong but breakable?’” The final slide was a close-up of a human face. “We said, ‘Perhaps you want to be strong like human nature — indomitable and immutable.’ And they said, ‘Yes, that’s us. That’s exactly how we imagine people feeling about our brand.’”

After four months of this sort of intensive brand therapy, the group settled upon the only name capable of conveying such protean emotions — “Agilent.” They took the name into focus groups, where, to their great delight, it was received with admiration, approval and total open-mouthed attention. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Amy Becker, who works alongside Redhill in Landor’s verbal branding and naming group. “This was a pretty rarefied crowd. We’re not talking about the mass-consumer, chips-eating sort of person. This was a very particular sort of business-to-business decision maker. A hard group to impress. And they were just delighted.” The name was also a hit among the NewCo rank and file. “It’s funny, because ‘Agilent’ isn’t even a real word,” muses Redhill. “So it’s pretty hard to get positive and negative impressions with any real basis in experience. But I’m pleased to say that when we unveiled the name last month at an all-company meeting, a thousand employees stood up and gave the name a standing ovation. And we thought, ‘We have a good thing here.’”

But did they? Among Landor’s rival name-slingers around the Bay Area, the choice of Agilent was immediately greeted with snorts of derision. “The most namby-pamby, phonetically weak, light-in-its-shoes name in the entire history of naming,” declared Rick Bragdon, president of the naming firm Idiom. “It’s like a parody of a Landor name. It’s insipid. It’s ineptly rendered … It ought to be taken out back and shot.”

Steve Manning of A Hundred Monkeys, a San Francisco naming firm, was also appalled. “What a crummy name,” he says. “It sounds like a committee name. ‘Who’s your competition?’ ‘Lucent.’ ‘Well, we want to play off Lucent — only we’re agile. I mean, if you wanted a name like that, I could come up with that kind of name in about four seconds.”

Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank in New York, tries to be more charitable in his assessment. “Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Yes, I did hear about the Agilent mess,” he says. A long sigh escapes his lips. “Perhaps it would be best if Landor just closed up shop,” he says quietly. “I don’t want to trash them too badly. It’s just that their last four, five naming projects have been total disasters.”

Landor, for its part, is quick to defend its handiwork. “To our critics, I can only say, vive la diffirence, vive the competition and vive individual entrepreneurialism,” says Redhill, in his gentle, grandfatherly voice. “We have the utmost confidence in our model.” To drive home that point, Redhill put me in touch with Darius Somary, the research director who had confirmed to an empirical certainty the allure of names like Agilent. “From a quantitative standpoint, it’s a very appealing name,” Somary told me. “On all the scalar measures of distinctiveness and appropriateness, it tested right off the charts.”

Welcome to big-league corporate naming, a Pynchonesque netherworld of dueling morphemes, identity buckets and full-scale linguistic sabotage. What was once a diverting sideline for mild-mannered grad students has become an increasingly lucrative and increasingly cutthroat profession, as blue-chip consulting firms schedule raids on college English departments and linguistics nerds scramble to shift their focus from the syntax of negation in the Anatolian languages to the murkier precincts of corporate identity.

The professional back-stabbing is a bit puzzling, given that professional naming, above all, is supposed to be fun. The literature of the namers brims with references to “joy,” “play” and to the capacity for childlike wonderment. This image of naming gurus as paragons of corporate delight would be more believable, however, if the namers didn’t spend so much time tearing each other to shreds. “You should call up Ira Bachrach of NameLab,” breathes one namer. “He doesn’t even have meetings with clients. It’s just taking a bunch of morphemes and phonemes, and crunching them through the computer. Unbelievable.” Another whispers honeyed words of ill counsel about Enterprise IG. “Their names are nothing more than a bunch of concatenized prefixes and suffixes — totally soulless,” he insinuates. “I’d love to see you blow this wide open.”

In the extreme sport that is modern corporate nomenclature, trust is in short supply, and paranoia reigns. “I used to work by writing names on individual pieces of paper and sticking them up on the wall,” says Steve Manning of A Hundred Monkeys. “I don’t do that anymore.” The reason? “People were walking around the room with cameras, taking pictures of my names,” Manning says blearily. “It got a little creepy. I mean, this is Silicon Valley. People move around a lot … If they liked one of my names, they might be drawn to register it as a URL. And that would be very bad. Because, you know, I own those names.”

What can explain this tense, sour mood? Part of the reason is increased competition. While the corporate-identity racket used to be dominated by a few big players — Landor, Interbrand, Enterprise IG — the market is now glutted with professional namers, all scrounging for the same clients. In addition to Lexicon, Idiom and Metaphor, the discriminating brand managers may now choose between NameLab, NameBase, Name/It, NameTrade, Namestormers and TrueNames. Each of the firms has its own jealously guarded methodology, a signature “naming module” that distinguishes it from its competitors. Enterprise IG has its proprietary NameMaker program, good for generating thousands of names by computer. Landor uses a double-barrelled approach; deploying both its “Brand Alignment Process” and a “BrandAsset Valuator.” Others find that their module must be described in more than a few words. “We have a wonderful approach,” says Rick Bragdon of Idiom. “We use an imaginative series of turbo-charged naming exercises, including Blind Man’s Brilliance, Imagineering, Synonym Explosion and Leap of Faith … We find that when clients are playing, literally playing creative games, they create names that come from a place of joy, a place of fun. A place that allows them to transcend the drudgery of naming, and come up with names that are fresh and different.” Bragdon’s most recent naming project? “I-Motors,” he says sheepishly.

But a cutthroat marketplace isn’t the only reason for the jaundiced mood. Among ad agencies and corporate marketing departments, and even at the naming companies themselves, there is a grim consensus that, despite all the frantic bonding and interfacing, despite the morpheme-munching computer modules, names today are worse than ever. “I tend to steer clients away from hiring naming companies,” says Marc Babej, a brand planner at Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, a New York ad agency. “As naming has become professionalized, it’s led to a certain norming standard. The names have come to sound more and more alike.” Babej explains what he means by this. “You can imagine how, at one time, Livent might have sounded new and hot,” he says. “Well, but now we have Lucent. And we have Aquent and Avilant and Agilent and Levilant and Naviant and Telegent. What’s next, Coolent? What you have here is clients being taken for a ride.”

Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank in New York, speculates that someday, historians will look back on the late ’90s as a low point in the annals of naming. “There were periods in history of terrible architecture,” he says. “But this architecture was actually presented to popes and kings and lords. And they actually went out, and lived in this type of housing! Why, then, should we be surprised that corporations are going out and spending 5, 10, 15, 20 million dollars promoting these dumb names? And then going out and changing them to names that are even dumber?”

Javed elaborates: “As I see it, there is a real malpractice issue,” he says. “If you’ve just developed a great stereo system, I can see paying $1 million for a great name — Sony. But what if you hire the same company for another naming project? And the names they come back with are Bony Cony, Dony Zony? At what point do you say, forget it, this is not worth $1 million? This is not even worth $5.”

At no point, responds Landor. “We don’t have an issue at all” with sound-alike names, Redhill tells me. “Think of the names Larry and Mary,” he says soothingly. “They have the same suffix. But the meaning is completely different!” So, too, he says, with Landor creations Livent, Lucent and Agilent.

Other top naming firms, aware that their names have come to resemble each other, have taken to attaching lagniappes of meaning to individual letters. Think of it as a couture touch, the syntactical equivalent of scalloped stitching on an inside hem. Michele Lally, global marketing director for Reuters-Dow Jones Interactive, recently renamed Factiva, is grateful to her naming company, Interbrand, for helping her stand out in a world of Factevas and Actevas. She has sought refuge in, as she puts it, “the semiotics of the letter i.” “Have you seen our letterhead?” she asks. “We do the i as a biacron. An i with a circle on top. Or ‘the bubble,’ as we call it internally.” Lally herself is bubbling over with enthusiasm for the bubble. “The brand circle denotes infinite possibilities,” she says. “We very much hope that bubble, that icon, will come to symbolize business information in airport lounges worldwide.”

Ron Kapella, head of Enterprise IG, seems to be pursuing a similar tack with Naviant, an online data-mining company. Eager to distinguish his brainchild from its sound-alike cousins Agilent and Navigent, he, too, has honed in on the letter i. “Notice that the letter i is exactly in the middle of the word,” he says. “Notice also that it has a circle over it. An i with a circle over it is the international symbol for information. It’s a visual symbol we’ve created. Consumers will come to associate it with endless inspiration, endless possibility.”

Unless, that is, they associate it with googly eyed teenage girls who dot their i’s with hearts and smiley faces. And indeed, among some companies, a backlash against the naming companies has taken hold. For some, the fact that they came up with their names all by themselves, without recourse to professional help, has become a point of pride. “I love our name,” Jeff Mallett, president and CEO of Yahoo, recently told an industry newsletter. “It’s fun, irreverent and consumer-focused. And it wasn’t conjured up by Landor, or some huge naming agency.”

It’s this sort of chutzpah that makes the namers at Landor see red. “The Internet is filled with arrogance,” says Amy Becker coldly. “You might have a provocative, fun name. But do you have the basis for a lasting brand? We still don’t know how compelling a brand Yahoo will be 10 years from now. I sense a real missed opportunity.”

“Let’s put it this way,” says Redhill. “Over the years, we have created and sustained many of the world’s most durable brands. We make a lot more hits than companies who think up their own symbols and names. I’m not suggesting that a company couldn’t get it right with a stroke of insight or genius or luck. But if it’s your own brand, how can you possibly be objective? I mean, would you name your own baby?” Redhill thinks for a minute, then backpedals. “I mean, of course you would name your own baby. But wouldn’t you ask your friends and family for suggestions and recommendations? Perhaps they would open your eyes to a name you’d never considered.”

Redhill is not alone in warning against the dangers of dilettantism in naming. Other namers are quick to deplore the proliferation of amateurs — naming arrivistes who don’t know the difference between denotative and connotative meaning, and who hilariously confuse brand equity with brand awareness. “A typical naming process costs about $75,000,” says Ron Kapella of Enterprise IG. “Now, that might sound like a lot of money. But naming is very difficult and challenging. There are rules to follow. Rules of linguistics. Rules of trademark. Rules of international corporate nomenclature … It’s not just a process of pizza and beer around the table.”

In hushed tones, Naseem Javed of ABC Namebank talks of the seamy underbelly of naming — of squalid, Dickensian naming mills operating late into the night. “I’ve heard of those outfits,” he says. “They’ve piled up thousands, zillions of names, which they’ll sell for a buck each. For $1,000, they’ll give you a thousand names. But look at the names! It’s garbage in and garbage out.” His voice lowers ominously. “Names like ‘Oasis’ ‘Advanta,’ ‘Advantia,’ ‘Advantia Plus.’ Clients don’t realize how many times those names have been recycled and recycled. Then, all of a sudden, it’s Friday afternoon, and the press release has to go out on Monday.” Apparently unaware of Redhill’s description of the arduous process, culminating in an outburst of mass euphoria, that generated the name of Hewlett-Packard’s new division, he speculates, “That’s how you end up with a name like Agilent.”

The naming pros love to trade stories of shortsighted CEOs who attempt to go it alone before finally turning to them in humble desperation. “Our system really is a quite powerful system to make new words out of English,” says Ira Bachrach of NameLab. “We comprehend how identity structure works. We’re creating natural language solutions from a morphemic core … When clients try to do it themselves, out of word fragments, they end up throwing their hands up in disgust. Luckily for us,” he adds, laughing uproariously.

Bachrach recently completed a renaming project for MacTemps, a specialized talent agency that provides print production experts who are proficient on Macintosh computers. Bachrach didn’t much care for the name. “It didn’t function well,” he says. “It didn’t suggest a brand.” Bachrach thought he could help. “What MacTemps needed,” he says, “was a name that was aggressively novel, shockingly different. A name that grabbed the perceiver by the throat and shook him.”

Bachrach and his team of constructional linguists rose to the occasion. They presented MacTemps executives with their recommendation — Aquent. Aquent? “It doesn’t mean anything,” Bachrach cheerfully explains. “But if it did mean something, it would mean, ‘Not a Follower.’”

Bachrach elaborates. “This is a company that advocates for independent professionals,” he says. “They have asequential career paths … ‘A,’ as in ‘not,’ comes from ancient Greek. ‘Quent’ comes from the Latin ‘sequor,’ meaning, ‘to follow.’ These are people who are striking out on their own, charting their own course.”

At MacTemps — Aquent — the name change went into effect last month. Befuddled employees are struggling to get with the program. “Let’s see if I’m explaining this correctly,” says Nunzio Domellici, an Aquent vice president. “The root of ‘sequential’ is ‘quent.’ ‘Quent’ itself is not a Latin word. But if it were a Latin word, it would mean, ‘follower.’ Or ‘not a follower.’ They share the same root.” Domellici pauses. “Anyway, it’s not something we stress when we pick up the phone.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that a functional, descriptive name such as MacTemps, for all its pedestrian clunkiness, might be preferable to a name like Aquent, which to the casual observer evokes something vaguely liquid, perhaps a mouthwash, and whose meaning only becomes clear, if then, when parsed by a listener who is profoundly familiar with the morphemic structure of Latin and ancient Greek. But to the new pros of nomenclature, such quibbles are irrelevant. To hear Bachrach tell it, he couldn’t care less whether company executives actually like the name he has bestowed upon them. “We’re not really interested in what the client wants,” he says. “What we do reflects what the client needs. We have our own analytic system for looking at what the structure of a name should be, and actually, tend to ignore the client’s wishes.”

Bachrach is joined in this view by many of his naming compatriots. Some go so far as to say that it’s actually better if the client doesn’t like the name. “We actually prefer that clients don’t fall in love with the name,” says Rick Bragdon of Idiom. “If they fall in love with the name, it’s a good sign there’s something wrong with the name.”

“By establishing criteria, and by developing names against those criteria, we’ve taken the arbitrariness out of the process,” says Ron Kapella of Enterprise IG. “And so, when a client says, ‘I don’t like it,’ I say, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. The question is: Does it meet the criteria?’” In addition to Naviant, Kapella’s brag book includes Navistar and Tempstar, Telegy and Telegent, Verbex and Azurex, Nortel and Meritel.

Despite all the complaints about unlicensed amateurs, the true threat to great naming may come not from the slapdash fumblings of anarchic freelancers, but from something close to the opposite. In their zeal to professionalize and standardize what used to be a goofy, freewheeling, fly-by-night enterprise, the naming conglomerates tend to produce names that are reflective not of the client’s corporate culture, but of their own. The result: a slew of names that are sterile, antiseptic, talcum-powder bland.

To find the soul of the Agilent generation, you need look no further than Darius Somary, a bright, eager research director at Landor. Somary is a firm believer in the need to subject all names to the rigors of quantitative and volumetric research. “The advantage we see in quantitative research in name testing is that it yields definite statistical results,” he tells me. “It’s easier to pick a winner.”

But language, of course, is not digital, but organic. It comes from that wet, sticky place that we call our brain. How, I ask Somary, can Landor quantify an emotional response to a word? Easy, he says. “We set up phone interviews in which the interviewer has a very clear script to follow. And she can’t really interact outside of that script. The questions are quite straightforward. She might say something like, ‘On a scale of one to 10, how strongly does the name ‘Agilent’ communicate the following attributes: ‘high quality,’ ‘very strong customer focus,’ ‘adapted to my needs,’ ‘truly cares about its customers.’

“Then we look at the results,” Somary tells me. “We chart it all out. We make name graphs. And we go back to the client, and we say, ‘Here’s our winner.’”

Lu Cordova, president of TixToGo.com, is among the CEOs who roll their eyes at this sort of hubris. “Let’s face it,” she says. “We know who’s in these big naming companies. We went to college with some of them. They say they’re experts at this and experts at that. But they’re really just our peers. They don’t have any special mystical powers.”

Cordova learned this the hard way earlier this year, when she sought out a new name for TixToGo, a popular online booking, ticketing and reservations service. After several months of probing and crunching, the naming firm she’d hired came back with a strong recommendation: YourThing.com. “The first 10 people we mentioned it to all said, ‘It sounds like your, um, thingy,” Cordova says drily. “So we said, whoops, OK, that one’s gone.”

Finished with the naming companies, TixToGo decided instead to sponsor a contest. Last month, the company picked a winner, David Nader, from over 128,000 entrants. In return for his winning submission, “Acteva,” Nader received the keys to a Porsche Boxter. The shy young software engineer was thrilled — and so was Cordova. “We love the name,” she says. “And we’re especially delighted it came from a civilian. The [naming companies] are unbelievable. I had one guy from a naming firm ask me me how I expected to get a name from a non-expert. He literally said, ‘I charge $150,000 just to sneeze.’ His whole attitude was, ‘How could you go to them when you have me?’ The snobbery, the credentialism was incredible.”

Cordova casts her decision to snub the namers in populist terms. “We bet on America, and the bet paid off,” she says. “We spread awareness. We grabbed a lot of creative names … The whole thing was tons of fun. What a vindication of the American population — to show that they could do it.”

For those corporate souls not brave enough to put their brand in the hands of the American citizenry, another option is to turn to a renegade naming firm. A Hundred Monkeys, headed by Danny Altman and Steve Manning, is leading the fight against terminal blandness in corporate naming. “We don’t do names like Agilent,” Manning tells me. “And so we have to pass on a lot of big contracts. We’d name a car for GM for free, if they’d just let us do something cool. Something with some emotional connectivity. It’d be such a fucking public service.”

“No one names a car Mustang or Thunderbird or Monte Carlo anymore,” Altman chimes in. “Instead, you have Acura. Alero. Xterra. Integra. All thoroughly researched committee decisions. All emotionally empty … By the time they’ve been laundered, and pressed and packaged there’s nothing left.”

Altman and Manning, whose clients include Nickelodeon, Apple and Matchbox toys, are contemptuous of their morpheme-crunching rivals. “It’s like using a computer program to write a song,” Manning says. “You can do it, but why? Why go there? Why do that?” They regard their names as organic, throbbing beings, deserving of courtesy and respect. “I think all the time about the names that didn’t make it,” Altman says mournfully. “I think about what those names would have been like had they lived.”

“It’s like the names are our foster children,” Altman says eagerly. “We have to give them up to someone. But we want to make sure they go to a good home. And that they’re going to be used in a good way.”

Some would say they love their names a little too much. “It’s like [the names] are these little creative pearls, and they’re casting them before us swine,” says one advertising executive who has worked with the pair. The executive puts down the phone. “Lorraine,” he yells, “what were some of those names that A Hundred Monkeys kept trying to shove down our throats? Oh yes. Jamcracker. Calabash. Wallop. Kitamba, which is apparently some kind of Hindu cloth. Totally inappropriate for our client.”

“Who told you about Jamcracker?” Manning asks. “If you printed that, there would be legal issues. No one’s taken that name yet! That name is our intellectual property.” Later, however, Manning relents and allows me to publish the name. “There’s actually been an issue with Jamcracker,” he admits.

It seems that when Altman and Manning presented the name Jamcracker to a client recently, the reception was not everything they had hoped for. “I put the name up in front of their creative people,” Manning says. “There were a couple of women sitting in. One of them got up and said, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’ Another said, ‘This is really sick.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, what are you talking about?’ They said, ‘We can’t explain it, but that name is just creeping us out. We don’t know what it is, but could you take it off the wall, please?’” Manning remains mystified by the incident. “There’s apparently some strange, uncomfortable meaning attached to it in the minds of some women,” he says. “God knows what that could be.”

But while the Monkeys’ methods aren’t universally popular, some people can’t get enough. Satisfied clients describe their experience as akin to the religious epiphany that follows an agonizing exile in the desert. “It’s not all fun and games with the Monkeys,” says Robin Bahr, marketing director for MedicaLogic, a health-care Web site. “At the end, you see the light. But early on, when the primordial soup is still being stirred, there’s a lot of contention. There’s fear and trepidation.”

“They just kept digging and digging,” says Gary Siefert, the company’s director of Internet services. “There’s a Walter Payton confidence about what they do. They were actively, if not aggressively, challenging our business model and our thinking. They were asking questions and more questions. Until they got to the essence of what we do. It was like digging into a huge watermelon on a summer day, just breaking it down, piece by piece. They kept drawing us back and back, from the playground of our inner child to the reality of our business model. It was an almost mystical experience.”

Bahr and Siefert are thrilled with their Monkey-furnished name — “98point6.” “It’s perfect,” says Bahr. “It’s just what we wanted. No Latin roots. No suffixes of any kind. I mean, these guys are good.”

The monkeys don’t come cheap. “We charge $65,000 per name,” says Altman. “But we work with you for a month. And for that month, we are basically yours. It’s actually a much lower price point than many of our competitors.”

He’s right. What’s more, at A Hundred Monkeys, $65,000 will buy you an entire word. Some rival firms charge more than that for a mere suffix.

Consider Luxon Cara’s $70,000 “identity program” for US Air. The airline “wanted to be repositioned and perceived as a major U.S. airline,” says John Hudson, Luxon Cara’s president. “And so we researched this. We checked it out globally. We basically lived with them for nine months to a year. It was one of the most exciting things we ever did.”

Tom Lagow, US Air’s executive vice president of marketing, says it was exciting for him, too. “They did an extensive amount of research,” he says. “A hundred to 150 hours of interviewing. And I’ll tell you, I was very impressed. They peeled the onion back to the point where they were able to define what business we were in. They determined that we were in the business of proficiency. And that, very unfortunately, that message of proficiency was not conveyed by the name US Air.”

What was the new name? I asked. And when would it be unveiled? I was guessing Skystar, Glident, Proficienta. “Oh, it’s already been unveiled,” Lagow explains. I was perplexed. “But isn’t US Air still US Air?” I asked. “I was just in an airport the other day, and I could have sworn …”

“No, no,” Lagow says. “It’s been changed to US Airways.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s all we needed!” he said eagerly. “What we found was that airlines that end in ‘Air’ tend to be thought of not as major. What we found is that if you stretch the name a little bit — don’t throw it out, just stretch it a little bit — you create the perception of a larger, more substantial airline. Strategically and structurally, we are now oriented toward the international.”

The renaming, which was announced in April 1997, was worth every penny, says Lagow. “We’ve heard comments from around the industry that it’s one of the best identity programs ever done,” he says.

If $70,000 seems like a hefty price for a word fragment, consider the chutzpah of Ira Bachrach. Several years ago, he charged Infiniti $75,000 for a single letter. Or, to be fair, two letters.

“We wanted to express the idea that [Infiniti] was a philosophically different kind of car,” Bachrach explains. Proclaiming E, S, Z or X to be yesterday’s news, Bachrach recommended that the company adopt different letters for its model identifiers. “I told them to use letters that weren’t conventional,” he says, “that were, in fact, aggressively unconventional.”

Bachrach decided he was sweet on “q” and “j.” “Utterly unused letters,” he says. “Aggressively novel letters which didn’t necessarily parse to luxury and performance. These were marketing guys with courage.”

One model became the Infiniti J30, another the Q45. “I know it doesn’t sound like much,” Bachrach admits. “But I’m prouder of that than anything I’ve ever done in the model business. It was a marvelously condensed way to convey something that would have taken millions of dollars in advertising to convey.” Instead, they scraped by with a mere $37,500 per letter. Lucky Infiniti.

In the end, however, attempting to quantify the benefits of a naming project may be just as small-minded as, well, attempting to quantify the benefits of a name. For the lucky client who truly clicks with his or her namer, the collateral benefits go far beyond nomenclature. There are new words to learn. Fun games to play. And, in the case of the Monkeys, unimpeachable warmth and love. “We got so much more than a name,” says Robin Bahr of 98point6. “I mean, I got a name for my daughter. One of our senior executives identified strongly with ‘Mescalanza.’ No one calls him Jim anymore. His name is Mescalanza.” Meanwhile, she says, “our senior manager for Internet development just fell in love with the name ‘Jamcracker.’ And so today, the Harvey meeting is known as the Jamcracker meeting. There are 300 people at this company who identify Jamcracker with Harvey.”

Bahr claps her hands over her mouth. “Oh my God,” she says. “I forgot. I shouldn’t be mentioning these names to a reporter. Technically, we don’t have ownership of those names. Jamcracker is still the Monkeys’ property.”

Bahr stops for a moment, as if listening to herself. Then she bursts out laughing. “Listen,” she says. “I take it back. You write whatever you want to write. If someone out there wants to name their company Jamcracker, God bless them. And good luck to them.”

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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