WHAT'S IN A NAME? PLENTY OF RISK

WHAT'S IN A NAME? PLENTY OF RISK

Mitsubishi's sport utility vehicle, the Montero, is marketed in Asian countries under the name Pajero. But in Spanish-speaking countries the automaker calls the same car the Shogun, aware that in Spanish, ''pajero'' means masturbator.

General Motors' Chevy Nova never sold well in Spanish-speaking countries. One reason may have been that ''no va'' means ''it does not go'' in Spanish.At the 11th hour, Estee Lauder changed the name of its makeup line in Germany from Country Mist to Country Moist after managers pointed out that in their language ''mist'' is slang for ''manure.''

The naming field is a minefield to the careless. Fueled by the strong economy, 85 percent of U.S. companies created a new name for a product, service, company or division during the last two years.

That doesn't even count all the Internet startups and other emerging companies, says Steve Rivkin, president of the Glen Rock, N.J.-based Rivkin & Associates Inc. and publisher of the Naming Newsletter.

Rivlin says it's the single most important marketing decision you can make. ''A lazy name is the kiss of death. A new name has to hit the trifecta: It has to be distinctive and meaningful and memorable.'' Too few do.

Some get it wrong because they think size doesn't matter. Rivkin insists that it does. ''Long names are awkward, tend to be abbreviated and are prone to nicknames not always of your choosing. Shorter names like Aim, Ban, Jif, Off, Raid, Tide and Visa are better for everything from memorability to packaging.'' It can also be a cost-saver.

When FedEx changed its name from Federal Express, it eliminated a big purple color field and saved up to $1,000 in labor and materials on the paint job for each of its 10,000 tractor trailers.

Rivkin says 74 percent of companies use internal task forces to come up with a new name and that only 40 percent test the names before launch, significantly fewer than in prior years.

Others blunder by thinking initials make good names. ''Names such as AIB, BZW, DSC or EG&G (all real companies) are the corporate equivalent of a disguise,'' said Rivkin, noting one study found real or invented words are 40 percent easier to remember than all-initial names.

Rivkin says many good names use plosives - sounds that pop out of the mouth and draws attention to themselves, like the letters B, C, D, K, P and T. Brand names like Bic, Coca-Cola and Kellogg's that begin with plosives have higher recall scores than non-plosive names, he says.

And Rivkin notes dictionaries have yet to be mined out. ''A hefty one such as Webster's Third Edition still has a ton of words waiting to be turned into names, but not if you only scratch the surface of a typical speaking vocabulary of 25,000 words,'' he says.

Lucent, for example, came from the dictionary, meaning glowing with light or marked by clarity.

What if your wonderful word is taken? Rather than moving on when you discover the name is owned by somebody else, Rivkin suggests trying to buy or lease it, like real estate.

When National Airlines relaunched last year, the new owners paid $175,000 to buy the name at a bankruptcy sale from the defunct airline Pan Am that acquired National in 1980.

Coors licensed the name of its upscale beer Irish Red from a long-defunct brewery, and Yves St. Laurent bought the name of its Opium fragrance from two elderly perfumers for a mere $200. A sweet-smelling deal, indeed.