Nancy Faber
March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

When it comes to naming new products, Ira N. Bachrach, 47, president of NameLab Inc. in San Francisco, has something approaching a hammer-lock. In just six years he has made a small fortune creating memorable monikers, producing 226 names for 131 companies. Among his clients are such corporate biggies as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Coors, Chrysler and PepsiCo. It was NameLab, for instance, that devised the zingy “Zap-mail” for Federal Express’ electronic same-day mail service. When Nissan wanted the right name for a fuel-saving compact in the early 1980s, Bachrach came up with Sentra. “They wanted to say mainstream and substantial, since the car was small to American eyes. Sentra said both central and sentry,” he explains. The car went on to become a nationwide best-seller.

In 1982 Gateway Technology was set to introduce its new portable computer, called “Gateway,” when major investors insisted that NameLab be consulted. Bachrach came up with “Compac,” which, he notes, suggests “small integral object. Then we jiggered and put a ‘q’ on the end because it’s more visible. Your brain stops when you read Compaq and you go ‘Huh?’ ” The company, now a $500-million-plus corporation renamed Compaq Computer Corp., sold $111 million worth of computers in its first 12 months.

“Other companies have inspirational, brilliant people sitting around thinking up names,” says Bachrach. “Nothing wrong with that, but we do it by constructing new words. We’ll never come up with conventional names—we try to step over the edge.” Hollywood has tapped into NameLab, although Bachrach doesn’t always pull out a winner. The producers of White Nights rejected his alternate suggestion, but ABC Motion Pictures accepted his title Foxtails (instead of The Making of Emma) for an as yet unreleased film.

Bachrach’s naming system is based on “what was to have been my graduate thesis in linguistics,” he says. “I thought I’d make lists of all the morphemes [the smallest part of a word that means anything] plus suffixes and prefixes, and that would allow us to make new words.” With clients, Bachrach begins with a three-hour session to determine what messages they want to get across to the public. Then morphemes that bear on the client’s concept are extracted. Bachrach utilizes 26 dictionaries in his search and often turns to newly minted words. “Valley Girl-speak is a legitimate source—it has a more emotional tone.” A computer is used to combine the different morphemes to make words. Bachrach presents a final list of a half-dozen or so to the client.

The son of an engineer, Bachrach graduated from City College of New York in 1960 with a degree in electrical engineering and started graduate work in linguistics at the University of Rochester. He went to California’s Silicon Valley to work as an engineer, then founded a technical advertising agency, which he sold in 1976 at a fat profit. He happily loafed until his second wife, Linda, “suggested rather forcefully” that he go back to work.

The result was NameLab, which now charges from $40,000 to $50,000 per job, plus a fee when a name is accepted. Bachrach can afford to be picky. He won’t take on cigarettes (he forbids smoking at home). “We turn down half the jobs offered to us,” he says happily. “We only do the ones we know we are good at.”

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