How tough is it to stand out in today’s consumer marketplace? Consider that in 1982, when David Placek founded his brand-naming firm, Lexicon, there were some 75,000 U.S. trademarks in the “electrical and scientific apparatus” (i.e., technology) category. Today, there are 800,000. It’s crowded.

Placek graduated from UCLA in 1975 with a B.A. in political science. “I loved it,” he says of his Westwood years. “The experience has been a major influence on my life — I consider myself very fortunate to have been accepted. While I didn’t realize it at the time, the political courses really helped give me a perspective for what I do today.”

Courtesy of Lexicon Branding
Placek has named hundreds of products. The key? Be surprising, but surprisingly familiar.

After UCLA, he went to Washington to work on the ’76 Senate campaign of former Missouri Governor Warren Hearnes. Turns out that selling a politician — even if ultimately unsuccessful — was good training for later selling denim and laptops. Placek moved to San Francisco in late 1976 and landed a job at venerable ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding, focusing primarily on its Levi Strauss account. “I got interested in team creativity, how small teams outperform large teams,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in the [big] agency business a long time.”

In 1982 he founded Lexicon — whose name, fittingly, nods at “sound symbolism,” which describes how words and letters hit the ear either enticingly or with a clang and suggest concepts and meanings. Placek’s mission was to find out a client’s story, then invent the perfect product name. Among Lexicon’s big successes: BlackBerry, Febreze, Swiffer, Pentium and PowerBook. Placek’s all-time favorite is Sonos, a mellifluous palindrome that reads the same upside down. (He leaves logos to others; Lexicon has no in-house design crew.)

Sonos — sound, that is — is everything. “The brain is lazy,” Placek says. “It likes the familiar.” Lexicon’s 18 full-time staffers aim to be “surprising, but surprisingly familiar” with the words they generate. That can pose a challenge in a global marketplace where one person’s clever moniker is another’s unforgivable slur. Lexicon retains a team of linguists around the world who examine every permutation of a proposed brand name in every nation in which the client operates.

It works: Over 41 years, Lexicon has devised some 3,800 brands across 23 countries. Next time you rent an Outback or Turo or devour an Impossible burger washed down with Dasani, give a nod to David Placek. He named them all. 

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2024 issue.