Saturday, May 30, 2009

Verbing Up

With the announcement of Microsoft's new search tool Bing, CEO Steve Ballmer coined an interesting phrase related to naming and branding. In response to a question from the audience at the D7 conference about his thoughts on the qualities in a good name, he said:

“I am not what you would call the creative side of life. Short matters. Being able to verb up can be helpful.”

Being able to verb up.

I suppose his response verbed up the word verb. Although the best names just verb; they don't verb up.

As in "I googled that guy and turns out he's the VP of biz dev at Nanodyne."

The general principle for naming and branding is that an organization wishing to inject its brand into popular use benefits from the ease and utility of adopting the brand as an element in everyday language. If people find the brand useful and if the brand is easy to incorporate into language, then it will be mentioned more frequently, thus enhancing brand awareness.

What makes a brand useful in language?
  • Efficiently describes an emerging activity or thing like Twittering (or, close enough, tweeting).
  • Provides a useful brand association for the communicator. By saying I googled someone, I am gently branding myself a googler.
What makes a brand easy to incorporate into language?
  • Requires few syllables, like eBay not Commission Junction.
  • Rolls off of tongue, like Apple not Prilosec.
  • Is fun to say, like Snapple not Fruitopia.
Some good names don't verb up. You don't blackberry someone, do you? (Too long, right?) And you don't eBay an item ("ebay" evokes a place not an action, right?) But, if a name that otherwise works well can also verb up, that's a good thing. (Incidentally, nouning up is much more common-- Where did I put my blackberry?)

Will Bing verb up? I doubt it. It does not really describe an emerging activity. I do not believe it will be cool enough to provide brand benefits to the user of the term. It is easy to incorporate into language, but that's probably not enough.

Some brands that have verbed up:

Did you tivo Grey's Anatomy?
I googled him.
Billy fedexed the contract.
Skype me at 3.

Finally, while verbing up is a start-up's dream, it can in rare cases be a behemoth's nightmare. If in the very unlikely event you are so successful verbing up your brand that it veers towards becoming a generic term (Kleenex, Xerox, Hoover, Bandaid, Aspirin, Nylon), you risk the loss of trademark. You'll be long dead before that happens, so I wouldn't worry about it.

1 comment:

  1. I think what Ballmer was trying to say was that he isn't well equipped to apply language to solving a problem. For him, "to verb up" is like girding the loins for battle — bringing the limited vocabulary he has within easy reach.

    Great post. I really like the idea that brand association is important for the person using the brand in a conversation. I hadn't considered how often
    I define myself by the brands I refer to but of course I do — we all do.