You name it

But good luck getting your colleagues to buy it.

Today, we visit the wonderful world of product naming, an exercise that can make Sisyphus’ job seem like something he could do with his left hand.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine on this subject brought back memories of standing before a whiteboard, trying to impose rigor on conference room cacophony, as opinions flew and attendees sought the perfect five-letter word with six different meanings.

With so many experts in the room, this should be easy, right? Wrong. As smart as the usual suspects in a product naming meeting are in their own fields, what is often heard are uninformed ideas, shibboleths, and wishful thinking.

Believe it or not, there is some rigor involved. The NYT article described how product naming at at high level (of expense, at least) gets done. Believe me, in the Big Leagues it’s more than two hours of free-associating in a conference room, after which the highest ranking person chooses the winner because it reminds him of his favorite car.

In a former life as a marketing services manager in a manufacturing company large enough to need this sort of thing, I was often dragooned into such meetings, and my experience in them led me to develop, as a defense, some guidelines that would take participants past the my-idea-is-just-as-good-as-yours level of debate. What the party needed was rules, and God bless ‘em, what engineers and technical people do really well is follow rules. Holding up a piece of paper and pointing out that “…it says here…” was often effective at bad-idea control.

As the article pointed out, a big challenge is just finding a word that can be used as a trademark. The rate of name consumption worldwide makes product namers wish for an alphabet with about twenty more letters, but the challenge is making do with what you have.

Nearly every useful word in the dictionary has been used. I’ve preached to many groups (and as confirmed by the Times article) that made-up words are the surest path to success.

That’s all I’ll say about what to do—hey, we’re talking about my IP here—but I’ll let on about some things not to do. These are things that pop up in every naming meeting I’ve conducted or attended.

Top of the list: acronyms. In technology companies, people have a fetish for them. It’s a form of clever that people enjoy practicing, and it can be easy. The problem is, when the word formed is translated, the acronym blows up. Let’s say my product is a big ugly machine. One acronym could be “BUM,” which seems somehow descriptive. But when BUM is translated to Portuguese or something, what the resulting letters stand for and the meaning they carry disappear. That’s another reason made-up words are useful—besides being available, they are untranslatable.

Another magnet for bad ideas is pop culture. References with leg-slapping cleverness in the United States, even in the Internet age of information ubiquity, can come across in another part of the world as baffling or worse. There’s a reason Exxon was named Exxon—the perfectly inoffensive name had no meaning to anyone, anywhere, in any age.

This may be the worst approach: holding a naming contest among your employees. It’s guaranteed to irritate all but one of them—the winner. If there is one, that is; a lot of their ideas will contain the first two do-nots guaranteed, along with other submissions unacceptable for various reasons. But don’t get me wrong; I don’t discount serendipity. It’s just that the odds are low. So… if you’re thinking about a name, get some professional help.

An associated problem is what to name. Some companies like to trademark everything in sight, but you may want to consider the advantages of fewer but more powerful and recognizable brand names versus a zillion trademarks that nobody inside or outside the company can keep straight.

I was pleased to note in the article that my methodology differed from best practices of the product naming big boys mostly in degree, and by the resources available to throw at the problem. These people will gin up a thousand choices at the start of the winnowing process; I never had that luxury. But at both my level and theirs, there’s one thing in common: fear of client whim. This X-factor can undermine all of your most brilliant ideas, but so it goes in selling the intangible. There’s not much job satisfaction in such a case if you’re the namer. All you can do is congratulate yourself for at least leading them to the point where a decision was actually made.

For the companies that will have to live with it, making a decision on a name is like deciding whether or not to marry somebody you think you love now, but there’s that weird little thing they do, and well, you’re not sure if it’ll last…

While naming is often difficult, the effort can can pay off with the satisfaction of creating something of potentially great value, using only a whiteboard, marker, and a lot of creative thinking. In this sense, it relates to fields like literature and art, whose magic is almost alchemic—creating something from nothing. Doing that is my idea of job satisfaction.

It’s about jobs. Or is it?

Always the first justification for enterprises that might otherwise seem of questionable benefit to the country (or world) at large is this: [Name goes here] will create [number goes here] jobs. Just listen to advocates in two current cases before the court of public opinion: Keystone XL pipeline in particular and the plastic bag industry in general.

Frankly, if job creation trumps any other effect, then perhaps prostitution or heroin should be legalized. Surely, a spike in employment would result, especially among those not equipped or motivated to seek more conventional careers.

Their true value to the general public is grist for another mill, but pipelines and plastic bags seem to be meager permanent job creators, with large and not so desirable side effects. After all, in a nation of 250 million people, how many could possibly be directly employed in the manufacture of plastic bags. How many—once the digging and welding are done—could possibly be needed to make a pipeline function?

The American Progressive Bag Alliance is concerned, they say, about the negative impact a proposed law in California would have on the nearly 2,000 workers in the California bag manufacturing industry. And, Keystone supporters make their claim (on keystone-xl.com): “During construction, the project is expected to create over seven million hours of labor and over 13,000 new jobs for American workers.”

In these two instances, the concern of corporations and governments at various levels for the employment of 15,000 people is touching, but it makes me wonder: A single oilfield services company recently announced that it intended to terminate 9,000 of its employees worldwide—about 70 percent of the number of jobs in the cases cited above—in one whack. Where are the apoplectic lobbyists and crusaders of worker well-being here?

By the way, you may be asking what happens to the 13,000 pipeline construction jobs after pipeline construction is finished. They go away, to be replaced by a much smaller set—you may be sure the operator desires as small a set as humanly and technologically possible—on a longer term basis. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of jobs after all, then you’re missing the Canadian Energy Research Institute’s prediction that “…Keystone XL will add $172 billion to America’s gross domestic product by 2035 and will create an additional 1.8 million person-years of employment in the United States over the next 22 years.”

The “1.8 million person-years” stat is an almost comical attempt to mislead. It seems intended solely to add a very large number to the plus side of the argument, without adding a thing to the discussion in terms normal people use.

These are stupendous numbers for what may seem, in the case of a pipeline, like a small screw in the world economic engine. (The plastic bag industry has its own claims of outsized benefits.) But such is the magic of calculations of “indirect” benefit. Your pipeline worker buys my hamburger, I then buy that other guy’s car, ad infinitum. This process seems open to manipulation and hard to conclusively prove. Actually, it seems like the ultimate lobbyist card trick and sets off my baloney warning light.

Job numbers can be debated but economic benefits certainly will be generated by our two examples. The question is, to whom do these benefits accrue? And, is the gaining of these benefits worth the costs, which seem to be more widely distributed than the benefits, to the rest of us? Environmental destruction enabled by the Keystone pipeline and the introduction of a new invasive species—urban tumbleweeds—in the case of plastic bags do not seem worth the very small number of direct jobs they purport to create. In any event, one could make the case that neither are needed for for the purposes they are intended to serve. Oil and gas are plentiful, and many ways exist to transport your six-pack from store to home.

There is a much better way than these two cases to create jobs, and it can spread benefits across a wide swath of the population. And, it is proven to work. In fact, it is arguably the most wildly successful jobs creation program in our nation’s history. No need to grab my lapels and shake the answer out of me—I’ll tell you: it’s the Works Progress Administration.

According to pbs.org, “Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. Roosevelt’s vision of a work-relief program employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, WPA employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports.

“The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, while not changing American culture as much as their adherents had hoped, did bring more art to more Americans than ever before or since. The WPA program in the arts led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

You may never see the Keystone pipeline or derive any directly traceable benefit from it, but WPA, Public Works Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps projects are ubiquitous, even now. Ironically, if the CCC existed today, it would almost certainly be put to use cleaning up the vast amount of litter generated by those job-creating plastic bags. The pipeline may be invisible to most, but plastic bag detritus seems inescapable.

I’m an unabashed fan of the WPA. Some argue against its value, but 8.5 million employed in dire economic circumstances, as part of a much smaller population, with such enduring benefits to the nation, speaks for itself. Of this I am sure: the current state of our politics and economics has nothing to do with the former existence of the WPA. If it’s really about jobs, then perhaps the WPA should exist again.