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With Billions At Stake, Firms Play Name That Mop

A branding firm came up with the name Swiffer by playing with words like "clean,"  "wipe" and "sweep." It's now one of Procter & Gamble's biggest sellers.
Procter & Gamble
A branding firm came up with the name Swiffer by playing with words like "clean," "wipe" and "sweep." It's now one of Procter & Gamble's biggest sellers.

Part of a series on the communications industry

The language of advertising and public relations is meant to seduce you into buying or believing something. The first step — coming up with a really cool name.

Mopping Up The Competition

David Placek was on the team that came up with the names BlackBerry and Outback for Subaru. Procter & Gamble once hired his company Lexicon to help create a name for an improved mop.

For a while, they worked with the word "mop." You can almost hear the disdain in Placek's voice when he says it. In work sessions with P&G, Placek says, "we jointly agreed, 'Let's forget this is a mop. This is a new idea.' "

So they started playing around with other obvious terms like "clean," "wipe," "sweep." Then, Placek says, they started to shape those words. They considered Swif, Swiff, Swiffee and Swiffer. "Then you debate those things," he says.

Swiffer won. Today the brand is sold in more than 15 countries and is one of Procter & Gamble's biggest sellers. "When you take the risk of developing something like Swiffer, versus something like Pro-Mop, it will travel farther and faster," Placek says.

User-Friendly Words

Plus, Swiffer is easy to pronounce in any language. That's really important for a product name, but not always true.

Diane Prange, chief linguist for the company Strategic Name Development, says those Greek yogurts on the market — Oikos, Chobani, Fage — will test the best of us. "I know they're supposed to be authentic Greek, but they're very difficult to say," Prange says. "If you can't say it, it's hard to ask for it." And if you can't ask for it, you might not buy it.

Even words that are user-friendly can run into trouble. For example, names that start out as trademarks can become so popular, they end up losing their individuality. Generic words like "granola," "jungle gym," and "moxie" all started out as brands.

Registering A Web Address

The Web address can also be a challenge in the naming process. If the word is too common, chances are it isn't available as a dot-com.

"There are over 80 million names registered under dot-com," says Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. But the organization that makes the rules on these matters is trying to fix the problem. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers may add some 200 top-level domains. "So there would be a dot-music, dot-nyc, a dot-berlin," Mueller says. "There will be names in Chinese language script that I can't even pronounce," he says.

In the naming game, the stakes are high. "Your name is a shortcut to your brand, and your brand is your promise," Prange says. But even the naming experts agree: Keeping a promise takes a lot more than a good name.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.