Famous Names

John Colapinto:

To begin the naming process, Placek and a few members of his staff interviewed commuters riding the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito, where Lexicon’s offices are situated, near the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. They wanted to know how, in those early days of the digital revolution, people felt about the prospect of being able to receive e-mail everywhere. “When you said ‘e-mail’ to someone, it wasn’t a joyous thing,” Placek said. “The way I explained it to Research in Motion was ‘Blood pressure goes up.’ ” Placek told the executives that the device needed a name that would soothe this stress response. MegaMail, with its connotations of an unstoppable avalanche of virtual messages, was definitely out.

Most projects at Lexicon start off with free-associated Mind Maps—large diagrams of words that spread out like dendrites from a central concept. A map of hundreds of words, generated at the pace of a brainstorming session, can take less than ten minutes to produce and can resemble a Cy Twombly scribble painting. The maps help to stake out linguistic territory, and to bring forth the deeper associations that a particular product evokes—“the words underneath the name,” as Placek puts it. For the Research in Motion device, he said, “we had teams working on ‘things that are natural,’ ‘things that are fresh,’ ‘things that are fun.’ At a certain point, we got into the area of ‘things that are enjoyable.’ ” On a Mind Map, someone wrote “strawberry.” Then someone wrote beside it, “Strawberry is too slow.” Placek pronounced the word—“Str-a-a-a-w-w-berry”—drawing it out. “This technology is instantaneous,” he said.

If you’re the kind of person who watches Mad Men for the ad pitches, you need to read this piece. Also, if you listen to StartUp, a podcast I wrote about recently, Lexicon is the company that Blumberg enlisted to come up with his company’s name.