Sumo? Diablo? Itsy Bitsy Monza Spider? If you thought naming your kid was tough, try naming a golf club

Thursday March 25th, 2010
Nike SasQuatch Sumo Driver.
Nike Golf

Browse the racks at your local golf store and you'll find clubs with names like Sumo, Rapture, and Diablo. They're colorful monikers, I suppose, but it's not entirely obvious what they're trying to convey. When I hear "Sumo," I picture a fat guy in a G-string. "Rapture" brings to mind thunder and lightning and a large sandled foot emerging from the clouds. And "Diablo?" My first thought is Antonio Banderas with a pitchfork.

What's going on here? What ever happened to classic, no-nonsense names like the Beast, the Thumper, and the Air Hammer? There was no doubting what those clubs were built to do. Are manufacturers getting too cute or profound for their own good? Or is club christening simply a tougher racket than it would seem? Depends on whom you ask.

"Everybody that's been here for the longest time, from our CEO on down, says that the hardest part of our job is coming up with a name," says Mark Christensen, business unit leader for woods for Cleveland Golf, purveyor of the HiBore, a driver designed to produce a ball flight that is, you guessed it, high and boring. "It seems so arbitrary and not so difficult, but the process is painstaking for a litany of reasons."

The biggest hurdle is finding a handle that's available. If another major manufacturer hasn't already claimed it, there's a good chance a small-potatoes garage tinkerer has. "On your short list of five prospective names, you'll typically only have two that are available—and typically they're not one of your top 3," Christensen says. "It's a trademark minefield out there."

That's what happens in a crowded market. Heck, drivers alone have swiped names from plants (the Black Cactus), spiders (the Black Widow), and swine (the Hog); dinosaurs (the Titanhawk), dictators (the Czar), and degrees (the PHD); mythology (the Sasquatch), oceanology (the Killer Whale), and gerontology (the Granddaddy).

Some club names are downright counterintuitive. With its Craz-E putter, Ping employed a term most manufacturers wouldn't want within a par-5 of their brand. Yet for Ping's unconventional three-pronged mallet, it worked. "Since it was such a radical departure in terms of design for us, someone suggested it was 'crazy,' " explains Pete Samuel, Ping's director of communications. "The name stuck and we changed the spelling to Craz-E because at address the putter had an 'E' shape that made it easy to align." That the putter sold crazy well didn't hurt the name's appeal either, certainly not at Ping headquarters.

Military allusions have proven especially difficult for club manufacturers to resist. Tommy Armour had its Tommy Gun driver. There's a shaft company called Rifle. And Callaway's Big Bertha, named after the high-powered cannons the Germans used during World War I, is one of the best-selling drivers of all time. All of which makes you wonder at which point equipment makers deem it politically and morally acceptable to name a club after a killing machine. Nobody bats an eye at Tour Edge's "Bazooka," yet surely a manufacturer would be lambasted for bringing to market, say, a "Scud Missile" or an "I.E.D. 460."

Even Titleist, known for its conservative, alphanumeric names (the 909D driver; AP1 irons), sold a "Howitzer" driver in the '80s. "That was more of a one-off and came at a time when our club strategy was not anchored," Chris McGinley, Titleist's vice president of marketing, wrote in an e-mail. "Never say never but I don't think you will see us doing something [again] with a catchy name trying to appeal to the larger population."

Titliest isn't alone. Many companies go the alphanumeric route, a strategy that not only removes the stress from the naming process but also can make clubs sound like high-end sports cars: the Titleist 200 series wedges, the Mizuno MX-700, the TaylorMade R9. "There's a lot of drafting off the car industry in terms of what's popular in branding," says Cindy Herington, vice president of marketing for Adams Golf. "Cars are a big hunk of metal and plastic, and that's what golf clubs are."

How exactly manufacturers conceive more adventurous model names varies by company. Some solicit suggestions from across the firm, others consult outside agencies, and others will huddle a few bright minds in a room for an old-fashioned brainstorm. "We'll have the product on the table so that people can look at it and then we'll just start throwing names on the board," Cleveland's Christensen says. "It's actually a pretty fun process." Once a handful of finalists have been agreed upon, that list is sent to company lawyers for dreaded trademark vetting.

"It is very challenging trying to be original and finding names that haven't been taken," says Herington, the Adams marketer.

That hasn't stopped manufacturers from trying, and while there's no foolproof formula for conceiving a nifty name, experts say there are some guidelines. "The best names are short, memorable and evoke some emotion," says Diane Prange, chief linguistics officer at Strategic Name Development, a brand naming company in Minneapolis that counts Kellogg's, Samsung and GE among its clients.

Prange says the most effective monikers often speak to a product's benefits rather than its features. A good example is TaylorMade's "Rescue" club, which was such a hit after its 1999 release — and so smartly named — that it has become to utility clubs what Kleenex is to tissues. Big Bertha is also a winner, Prange says, because it employs alliteration and plosive consonants (i.e., hard letters like "b" or "p" that are followed by a burst of air), which evoke strength and reliability. "And it's fun to say," she adds.

On the flip side, Prange warns against descriptive or feature-inspired names (for example, the Cobra S9-1 Senior M Speed driver) because they are generic, forgettable and can be difficult to trademark. "It's amazing how many golf brands continue to use descriptive names to the extent that they do," she says.

Which isn't to say original or offbeat handles will always appeal to consumers either. Of recent club names, Prange is less than impressed by Nike's Sasquatch (the "chunky consonant clusters" are difficult to pronounce, she says); Adams's Idea and Insight ("neither gives you a visual"); and Ping's Rapture (its Christian overtones could "drive away consumers.") "However," she notes of the Rapture, "in sports you can often get away with those kinds of names. You can be a little bit more irreverent."

Or not, because frankly if a club looks nice, is priced right and works, it's name may not matter all that much after all. "The important question is, 'Are we going to get more sales because of its name?' " Christensen says. "And typically the answer is 'no.' "

"If you have a club called the Turd, but it performs unbelievably," he says, "people will buy still buy the Turd."

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