The Infinite Mind - NPR

February 8, 2006

What's in a name?

The interview transcribed below is one part of an hour-long episode of the NPR radio show The Infinite Mind devoted to the topic of naming.

The Infinite Mind’s Jennifer Chu speaks with Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, the San Francisco-based naming company. Manning dissects the popular company names such as Yahoo and Virgin Airlines and explains how naming a company has become a mixture of trend forecasting and psychology. Manning also explains that since pharmaceutical companies started marketing their drugs to consumers, rather than solely to doctors, the names of products have become more evocative and influential.

Jennifer Chu: iPod, Kleenex, Viagra. According to some marketing analysts these companies aren't just successful for their product, they're successful because of their brand name. And many industries are coming around to the idea that when it comes to sales, it's all in a name.

That may explain why today there are hundreds of companies who dabble in a mixture of psychology and trend forecasting to conjure up the perfect product name.

Steve Manning is Managing Director of one such company in San Francisco with a somewhat curious name of its own, Igor. Mr. Manning, welcome to The Infinite Mind.

Steve Manning: Thank you, nice to be here.

JC: Well first off, if you wouldn't mind, we actually did a brief search on the name Igor and we got this audio clip courtesy of Mel Brooks.


Play audio:  

JC:  So Igor, Eye-gor, this is who you want to be associated with as a naming company?

SM: Absolutely. And the funny part is, on that clip you just played, from the moment Gene Wilder says, "You must be Igor," that's actually the message on my message machine for my direct line at work. On one hand, you could look at Igor and say, "OK…Igor is the ultimate assistant. Igor is the person that will help you breathe life into the dead." On the other hand, Igor is the hired assistant who messed up the project, and ultimately brought about the downfall of the person that hired him. And what we try to tell all our clients is that the most effective thing to do is to take a name that has both positive and negative meanings…grab the positive meaning, and attach that positive meaning to the metaphor of what it is you're trying to say.

JC: So it sounds like there's a bit of risk in what you do in your business.

SM: Yeah…I don't think it's risk. It's really understanding how it works, and understanding how people process this information. And it's very easy and intuitive to understand that when we look at a name like Virgin on an airline we don't say to ourselves literally, "Gee, they must be new at this. Perhaps maybe I'll fly a different airline." Or, if somebody names a car Crossfire, like Chrysler has, we don't look at that literally and say, "Sounds like I'm going to be killed in a hail of bullets, perhaps I shouldn't get in that car." And if the name works with the slice of it that you're using, in Virgin's instance, that this is an entirely new airline experience, or, with a name like Crossfire, where they're tapping into this sort of James Bond fantasy life of the people that buy the car, once you understand that people do not take these things literally, but rather as metaphors, and in context, and emotionally, then I think it frees you up to do things that you might normally be afraid to do.

JC: Why do you think emotion is so important to naming?

SM: Most of the decisions people make are emotional decisions. What you're really trying is to do something that has some stopping power and some mystery, but at the end of the day makes some sense.

I don't know if you remember when Yahoo! first launched -- this is before anybody knew what a search engine or a web portal was – and within a couple of hours, everybody in the country knew the name Yahoo!

JC: And what is it about that name, Yahoo!

SM: The name was interesting enough to become a story in and of itself. It was something that people talked about. And as far as names were concerned, had gone into territory that nobody dared venture into before.

JC: I'm noticing more and more that it seems that the pharmaceutical industry is really getting into the name game. I'm thinking of all the TV ads out there with drugs that sound less technical and more touchy-feely.

SM: Drugs used to be marketed solely to the prescribing doctor. Once drug companies started marketing to consumers, and consumers started going into doctors' offices and asking them about that little purple pill that they saw on TV, the drug companies realized that they needed names that made a connection with the consumer. Prescription drugs are not allowed to have names that imply a specific benefit. But the marketing departments of these drug companies are really pushing the envelope to see how far they can go without the FDA saying "no".

JC: And so what are some of those drugs that are pushing?

SM: Some of them, and this is all within FDA regulations, so it's all within context, you're looking at something like, Claritin. Obviously the implication is, somehow it is going to clear your allergies. I think if you're looking at Viagra versus Levitra versus Cialis, Levitra is clearly trying to play off of the implication of levitate; where Viagra is trying to imply, in a less obvious way, some power or some vigor; where, frankly, Cialis is more of an old fashioned kind of name that was marketed to a doctor and I don't think that Cialis is a very good follow-up competitive name.

JC: And I'm wondering in the whole scheme of things, how important is the psychology of a name for prescription drugs versus any other consumer product.

SM: I think it's all the same really. I mean, clearly you want what's most effective, but if you're looking for a painkiller, you want something that sounds strong and effective and powerful. If you're looking for a mood regulator, you want something that sounds peaceful. I mean, you don't want Vicodin as your mood regulator, you want Vicodin as your pain killer.

JC: So you've been finding names for companies for three and a half years, how has this new business or this new industry evolved?

SM: It's an interesting business. There's the "finding the most effective name for something" part of the business, but then there's also the group psychology. Because, if you went to a focus group and said to them, "OK, we're going to name a new airline, and we're either going to call it 'Trans Atlantic Air' or we're going to call it 'Virgin'", they will pick "Trans Atlantic Air" every time. Because it sounds like an airline to them. But, if you choose a name like that you're saying the same thing, to the same audience, in the same way as thirty other companies.

JC: Steve Manning is Managing Director of Igor a naming company based in San Francisco. Thanks for joining me on The Infinite Mind.

SM: Thank you.

Further reading: