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What Words Jump-Start the Imagination?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 6, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
What Words Jump-Start the Imagination? Ask Poets, Linguists and Marketers

O for a Muse of Fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention…
Shakespeare,  Henry V 

In the prologue to Shakespeare’s play Henry V, the Chorus urges audience members, in phrases rich with image and metaphor, to put their imaginations to work envisioning  the clash of  two mighty monarchies, the fields of France and the famine, fire, swords and blood of war on an unadorned wooden stage.  

In a recent FastCompany story "How to Pick the Perfect Brand Name,” Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe creative processes that inspire product names designed to ignite the imagination of customers by evoking the essence of some real emotion or desire. And they say successes usually don’t come in lightening-bolt moments, but in the blending of separate and diverse considerations. For instance, how cool is the BlackBerry, and what muses of invention served up that name?

When David Placek, CEO of the boutique naming firm Lexicon, took on the assignment to name the new device, the story explains, he knew PDAs have bad associations-their rings and buzzes annoy us in meeting and movies, and we’re stressed by their perpetual presence. So he wanted something that denotes joy. 

Placek has a network of 70 linguists in 50 countries who brainstorm about words, sounds, word parts, analogies and metaphors that suggest a certain idea or feel that could epitomize a product. They’re not told what the product is. Another team at Lexicon brainstorms in parallel-and they don’t know the product of client either. Sometimes Lexicon leaders create two or three teams, each pursing a different angle. In naming Levi’s Curve ID jeans, advertised to have fits for all figures, the teams explored references in surveying and engineering.  Other names, such as the Colgate Wisp, which evokes the lightness and gentleness of the small, portable formless toothbrush, emerged similarly. Read a San Francisco Chronicle story about how Lexicon arrived at Zune for the name of an IPod competitor.

The teams working blindly on joy came up with a long list that included bubble baths, fly-fishing, cooking and evening martinis. Then someone added "picking strawberries,” which could conjure up leisurely visits to idyllic gardens. But the linguists thought the "aw” in strawberry sounded slow, like stall and dawdle. So someone wrote blackberry. And as the brothers Heath write, "Hey, wait, the keys on the PDA look just like the seeds in a blackberry.” Epiphany! 

Initially, they write, the client had expected something more descriptive, like EasyMail. But now the BlackBerry website extols tasty aps and experiences that get sweeter all the time. Listen to Mike Lazaridis  CEO of Research in Motion waxing enthusiastic about the new BlackBerry Playbook.    

Brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, who have long studied imagination, decision making, entrepreneurship  and the durability of ideas, are the authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

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