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Friday, February 21, 2014

Company with a punny name earns big payday


     ‘He that would pun, would pick a pocket,” Alexander Pope wrote nearly 300 years ago, and the taint of the disreputable clings to wordplay as strongly now as it did then.
     Particularly when it comes to business. Double entendres are the realm of hot dog stands (“The Wiener’s Circle”) hair salons (“Curl Up and Dye”) and dog groomers (“Pet-a-Cure”). There is inevitably a sense of tinyness, of someone’s flicker of a dream puffed into momentary life. Bad enough to pour your life savings and hard work into a yarn shop, but to name it “Ewe and Me Fiber Studio,” well, the heart breaks.
     You would never expect a major company to name itself after a pun. “The U.S. government today placed an order for 22 of the new stealth fighters manufactured by Fly By Night Industries...” Even automobile companies — car names are a blizzard of numbers and letters and animal names and geographic terms, so many they seem to risk draining the dictionary of nouns — draw the line at puns. There is no Chevy Rollon, no Ford Runwell. Nobody would buy a Honda Mushroom van. (Get it, “much room.” No? You’re a tough audience ...)
     Thus an extra unsettling dimension was added to the news that not only is everybody’s favorite way to show off lunch and brag about grandkids — Facebook — spending $19 billion on a text messaging application, but the company behind the application is called WhatsApp.
     WhatsApp? Not much, whatsapp with you?
     My immediate reaction - "That's billion? With a B?"— underplays the sense of dislocation the news brought. Like you, I had never even heard of WhatsApp, nevermind used it. While there is no question a sense of playfulness in the whole computer world — Apple Computer got its name because Steve Jobs was on a fruit cleanse and had just visited an orchard — the fact is, people are spending an unfathomable amount of money on a company with a name that sounds like an Abbott & Costello comedy bit.
     WhatsApp was founded in 2009 in Mountain View, Calif., by two former Yahoo executives, Jan Koun and Brian Acton. ("Yahoo" isn't exactly "International Business Machine" either, but at least it isn't a pun). It has 55 employees, which means Facebook is spending a third of a billion dollars per WhatsApp employee, the idea being by absorbing this service, which is like Twitter, it'll better hang onto its 1.2 billion users.
     Facebook would be smarter to send each user 10 bucks, as thanks for spending the time we do pouring our data into Facebook and keeping each other entertained. The Chicago Sun-Times pays me good money to air my thoughts and parse my likes on its website and in print. Facebook gets it for free in the increasingly strained and dubious notion that having a big hive of Facebook pals somehow reflects value back onto the newspaper. Obviously Facebook thinks WhatsApp brings something that makes up for its lack of that necessary apostrophe.
     Yes. During cataclysms, it's easier to focus on something small, manageable — the company name, the apostrophe — and not that Facebook, for its gizmo, just paid 76 times what Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post. The Smithsonian used to have a Hall of Journalism that made my profession seem like a Tom Clancy novel. Last time I visited, the Hall was gone, and what few artifacts didn't go into storage had been folded into a data processing exhibit. It was like going to the National Gallery and finding the John Singer Sargent portraits moved to an exhibit about the history of paint.
     Give them credit. A pun is its own marketing campaign. "It gives people the idea that we're lighthearted," said Krysten Fane, manager at the Barking Lot, which has two locations, in Chicago and Deerfield. "They hear it and they giggle. It helps us sit in their brain a little bit. It's great for advertising and repeat customers. It says, 'We take our job seriously but we love the dogs and know this is about letting dogs have fun.' "
     So the Barking Lot is a kennel? I asked.
     "Day care, grooming, training, all-natural products," she said. "All Your Dog Needs Under one Woof." Didn't see that coming.
     Actually, "Apple Computers" was, if not quite a pun, then a bit of a word puzzle.
     "It doesn't quite make sense," said Mike Markkula, Apple's first chairman. "So it forces your brain to dwell on it. Apples and computers, that doesn't go together! So it helped us grow brand awareness."
     In addition, Steve Jobs once said, it put Apple ahead of Atari in the phone book.
     So maybe WhatsApp has a future. And if smartphones come with a port to facilitate its use, they can call it the WhatsApp Dock.


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