ADVERTISEMENT

Corin and Brian Mullins have seen annual sales grow to $5.5 million in four years after changing their nonallergenic, high-fiber breakfast cereal’s name from Hapi Food to Holy Crap.

Kim Stallknecht • New York Times,

Risqué names reap rewards for some companies

  • Article by: JOHN GROSSMAN
  • New York Times
  • April 24, 2014 - 8:15 PM

Corin and Brian Mullins thought they had a good name for their debut product, a nonallergenic, high-fiber breakfast cereal, until a supremely satisfied customer called to praise the product’s effectiveness.

“Holy crap,” the customer began.

After Corin Mullins hung up, she and her husband enjoyed a good laugh. Mullins, a retired Canada Air flight attendant, quickly got back to making the next batch of Hapi Food cereal — the name evoking the Egyptian god of annual Nile flooding — that she planned to sell at a farmers market near their home on the British Columbia coast north of Vancouver.

But Brian Mullins, whose career had been spent in marketing communications, allowed his thoughts to wander mischievously. Heavy on chia and hemp seeds, the cereal he and his wife had first concocted in 2009 was extremely high in fiber. Why not just call it Holy Crap?

At first, Corin Mullins demurred. But when the couple shared the notion with members of the business class they were taking as fledgling entrepreneurs, everybody loved it. So they made up some new labels with the bold name and planned a test. Their first day at the farmers market, Corin Mullins had sold 10 bags of cereal under the old name; two weeks later, when she set up again with the new name, she sold 100 bags. The couple, both in their early 60s, have worked to keep up with demand ever since.

Not long ago, a cereal called Holy Crap might have been the punch line of a joke. Or it might have been banned. Few would have expected annual sales to grow to $5.5 million in four years.

Consider this recollection from an entrepreneur looking to name his initial venture, a record store, in 1969: “It smacked of new and fresh and at the time the word was still slightly risqué, so, thinking it would be an attention-grabber, we went with it.” That is Richard Branson on naming his company Virgin.

Nowadays, the bar for grabbing attention has moved much higher — or lower. You can now sip wines called Sassy Bitch and Fat Bastard, bite into a Kickass Cupcake, and order a breakfast sandwich at a Los Angeles restaurant called Eggslut.

Have we gotten to the point where pretty much anything goes? And are provocative, cheeky, even crude company and product names good for business?

“If you’re selling church songbooks or your customers are in the Bible Belt, it’s probably not a good idea,” said Eli Altman, creative director at a branding company called A Hundred Monkeys and author of “Don’t Call It That,” a guide to the naming process. But, Altman added, “with today’s seven-second site visits and 2 percent click-through rates, I think it’s significantly more risky to have a boring name than to have a risqué one.”

Naama Bloom, 41, left a small software company to start a business in New York selling tampons by subscription online. Recalling a common euphemism of her childhood, among girls and women, Bloom named her 2013 start-up HelloFlo. She knew the name was cheeky, she said, “but my background is in marketing.”

While she was planning her venture, two similar businesses popped up with names that were more feminine but also more vague: Le Parcel and Juniper. That left Bloom even happier with her decision. “Juniper and Le Parcel are lovely services,” she said, “but you wouldn’t know what they were without knowing what they were. Whereas, our name, while it’s bold, speaks to a very specific audience: women who say, ‘My Aunt Flo is in town.’ ”

When Carey Smith began making industrial fans, he called his company HVLS Fan Co. — HVLS being shorthand for high volume, low speed. Soon, he started getting calls asking about his oversize, “big ass fans.” Eventually, Smith, now 61, changed the name of the company to Big Ass Fans. The change played well with clients and potential customers, but not in the company’s conservative, churchgoing hometown, Lexington, Ky.

For a time, the City Council considered forcing the company to remove its name from the side of its building. And a nearby postmaster refused to deliver a batch of its promotional postcards. That, Smith said, led to a “great story” in the local newspaper. Asked if somebody at the company had tipped off the reporter, he answered suggestively: “Maaaaaaybe.”

© 2014 Star Tribune