Shorthand product names designed to woo instant-messaging generation
By Jenn Abelson, Boston Globe Staff
BOSTON - Vwls R so ystrdy.
From Motorola's SLVR phone to Levi's DLX jeans, merchants are unveiling new products with compact names that feature as few A, E, I, O, U's as possible. Vowel free, apparently, connotes cool and modern, and the race to capture that Zeitgeist, marketers say, has spawned Flickrs and Delivrs and even a Broadway show, ''Bklyn: The Musical."
It's a phenomenon that stems from the growing acceptance of shorthand in text-messaging and instant messaging, communication that encourages users to get as much said in as little time and space possible.
''We're in a hurry, so who needs the vowels?" said James Gleick, author of ''Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything." (The title on the paperback version of his book is ''FSTR.")
Merchants have long allowed A, E, I, O, and U to go MIA for simple abbreviations: Witness Kentucky Fried Chicken's switch to KFC. But these days, marketers are opting to shorten names in order to convey the sleek technology that goes into their brands. The tiny SLVR (short for Sliver) phone weighs just 85 grams, about two Hershey's chocolate bars. Levi's RedWire DLX (short for Deluxe) jeans feature a special pocket to hold an iPod and a joystick to control the music player.
''It seems more fanciful, modern, and fun, and brands want to identify themselves as sharing those qualities," said Andrew Lynch, a cultural anthropologist at Arnold Worldwide, a Boston advertising agency.
One of the first pioneers of the vowel-free brand name was Reebok, which began promoting itself several years ago as Rbk as a way to create a hipper, urban image for the company once known for white aerobic sneakers. But besides the cool factor, there's also the practical matter with losing the vowels because it's difficult to come up with new brand names that aren't already used somewhere in the world or on the Internet.
''Pity the poor marketers when they have a new sexy phone and need a good name that has probably been taken by someone else," Gleick said.
So dropping one letter can make all the difference. That's how Flickr, a popular photo-sharing service, lost its ''e." The company was originally planning to call itself Flicker, but the domain name for the website was already taken.
''We thought about some alternatives and then decided to just drop the e," said Stewart Butterfield, Flickr's chief executive. ''It's a little more distinctive than a generic name."
Flickr, which launched in 2004, spurred a series of online vowel droppers, including Delivr, where users can create digital postcards; Frappr, a group mapping tool; and e-mail search tool Stalkr. Recently, however, Stalkr renamed itself flickrfriends.tinnedfruit.com, explaining in a note on its website that any references to stalking is a ''bit creepy."
At cellphone company Motorola, dropping vowels has become a common practice. New products include PEBL, RAZR, ROKR, and SLVR. PEBL (short for Pebble) is a round, smooth metal phone that allows users to operate and open it with one hand. RAZR (short for Razor) is thin like a blade, and ROKR (short for Rocker) is a mobile phone that plays iTunes.
During development, RAZR was known inside the company as ''razor." But one day, while sitting around a conference room, the chief marketing officer wrote the name RAZR on the board. It was an instant hit.
''We all said, 'that's fantastic. Why call it the V3 when you can just say RAZR and it says everything about the product?"' said Leslie Dance, a Motorola spokeswoman. ''We have these really wickedly cool products, and they deserve wickedly cool names."
Motorola, like other vowel-droppers, says it has nothing against vowels. All languages have fewer vowels than consonants, putting vowels first on the chopping block when people want to shorten words.
''If you want to get away with not writing vowels or consonants, you pick the vowels because there's less of them and it's easier to guess what's missing," explained Andrew Nevins, an assistant professor of linguistics at Harvard University.
But for some, the use of vowel-reduced products has created some confusion over what these names really mean.
''I just want something that's clear that I can understand," said Joe Johnson, 45, of Roxbury, who purchased a RAZR cellphone last month. ''Everything is getting abbreviated, and these companies just assume that we get it. But a lot of people don't."
Indeed, Motorola's Dance said she's received questions about whether SLVR stood for SLIVER (yes) or SILVER (no). And in French, RAZR could be read as ''rasoir," which means ''razor," but also can mean ''a very boring person" -- not exactly the image Motorola is trying to convey.