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September 14, 2023

What You Make Of It

The Think Sign from Spaceship Earth at EPCOT Center

IBM's building at 1133 Westchester in White Plains, New York, was a massive, concrete structure that, if rumors were true, had been designed during the cold war as a bomb shelter. I reported to work there early in 1997, long after the immediate threat of World War IIII had subsided, at least for a time.

1133 Westchester is no longer an IBM facility. It's a hospital.

On my first day, I began sharing an office with another IBMer. It was an old-school arrangement: each wall was lined from end to end with a desktop and drawers, with a computer planted in the middle. (Mine was a 386; ancient even for the time.) The two chairs were arranged so the workers sat back to back. The door was solid and windowless. By custom or company policy, the last one out locked the office door before leaving work each day.

Welcome to IBM.

Two years later, I watched as the interior walls were torn down to create open spaces in which cubicle warrens were constructed to create more inclusive, teamwork-inspiring workspaces. I remember walking down the long rows. The facial expressions of career-long IBMers, enduring cubicle living for the first time, were confused and hopeless. Each morning in cubicleville from 8:30 to 9:00 was a cacophony of recorded voices as arriving IBMers, by long habit, listened to their voicemail messages on speakerphones.

Through some stroke of good fortune, my office mate in 1997 was an older, mild mannered gentleman named Chris (his real name, but I’ll not share his last). And Chris was a 37-year IBMer who knew everything. Every trick to every system. Every backdoor to every rule. Every rock and every shoal. And – a gracious man – he was happy to share his IBM survival skills with his optimistic but often confused new officemate.

Chris and I worked in Marketing, but in different roles for different lines of management. I had joined initially to unpuzzle the maze of sales promotion for the division, IBM Global Industries. Chris also worked for Global Industries as one of only two “namers” in the company. Chris named products, projects, everything that needed naming. It was the capstone role to a long career that had included product management, product marketing, project management, and a stint in Paris.

Let’s zoom out for a moment. IBM, long a behemoth of the business world, had entered hard times in the 1980s. Its then-CEO decided that breaking the company into more manageable pieces was the way to survive. Portions of the company were being offered for sale. Others were levered into joint ventures. (One such was the joining of IBM and Sears Roebuck into a venture called Advantis. In my first year with IBM, it bought Sears out of the venture and restored the company’s data network offering to its IBM brand.)

While Gerstner was not a "warm fuzzy" person, IBMers overall respected his leadership.

When Lou Gerstner joined the company as CEO in 1993, he wrote in his autobiography Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance that he believed IBM’s only asset was its sheer size. He halted the breaking up of the company and began restoring much of it – earning the respect of IBMers around the world.

Zooming back into my shared office with Chris, I began an education in the methods and secrets of naming – not because it was relevant to my role at IBM, but because it was very relevant to my curious mind.

Ask many marketers their most feared job in the Marketing pantheon. Naming would be my answer, and likely that of many others.

Naming, Chris explained, is 5% creative and 95% administration. The challenge is, everyone will instantly form opinions about the 5%, growing remarkably passionate about them -- but no one has patience or respect for the 95%.

To name a product, trademark clearances must be investigated through legal resources. For a global company like IBM, this means investigating trademarks around the world, with each entity having its own body of trademarks and related laws and custom. To do this work, the company would engage counsel in many different countries. Additionally, web properties must be available for US and non-US domains. Even though IBM policy was to add product names as “folders” under the parent domain of (e.g.,, a unique web domain for a product (e.g., wouldn’t be permitted to exist outside the company’s sphere of ownership, as it could be acquired by a competitor or cybersquatter, undermining the value of the brand or even being used against the company’s interests.

All of this investigation consumed large amounts of time and budget. And, as Chris emphasized, it also resulted in a dramatic narrowing of the field of potential names.

The creative process – the “easy” 5% – would generate prospective names. These would go into a legal funnel and, at best, just 10% to 20% would emerge as still-viable names. (Note, this was in 1997 when the Internet was still in its early childhood.)

The real challenge was getting a name through creative, through legal review, and through the management team that was to approve the name. Most often, product executives would wax rhapsodic over potential candidates from the creative process, only to see their favorites vaporize in the funnel as legal scrutiny began.

But everyone in the project – and Chris emphasized everyone – would exercise free and manifold opinions about each prospective name, rarely with mutual agreement.

And, as Chris shared with me, none of it truly mattered.

For months, Chris shared, he had labored with one particularly fractious product team to provide a name for their high-profile product. Name after name had been created, the majority of them failing to pass muster. Finally, with time and money near exhaustion, Chris met with the product leader alone.

The bad news is, he told him, you’re out of money and you’re out of time. The good news, you’ve got three names to choose from, all of which are cleared. You need to pick one now, and then we go forward.

“I don’t like any of those three names.”

You’re out of money and you’re out of time. These are your three choices.

With his back to the wall, the executive gave a heavy sigh and picked….

ThinkPad, the name for IBM’s family of laptop computers, rapidly became a defining sub-brand for a new IBM that was intent on appealing to younger buyers without abandoning its brand heritage. (“Think” was an enduring slogan for IBM, first used by Tom Watson in 1911. ThinkPad’s name and products have since been sold to Lenovo.)

The real reason for the power of the name ThinkPad: IBM would invest huge money into the product brand for an extended period of time. Chris’s point was simple:

What a name sounds like and looks like is incidental. Names become what you invest in them.

This is not to suggest that the creative process is unnecessary. It is essential for generating name candidates that accurately suggest the attributes of the master brand and are suitable within the guardrails of the brand as well as to the buyer audience.

What’s unnecessary are endless arguments and personal opinions about which name is subjectively "better."

I still avoid naming projects whenever possible.


Chris and I were still sharing an office as he retired in 1998. I was there as he browsed a print catalog with retirement gifts and chose the gold Rolex, a suitable gift available in those days for someone of his tenure. His retirement celebration was on a Tuesday. He returned to work the following Monday as a consultant. On a reduced work schedule. For more money. We remained officemates until the walls came down and cubicleville was constructed.

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