From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1953
Choosing a brand name is one of the most frustrating and quixotic of all marketing decisions. Whoever it was who said that brand names are like double glazing because both are sold and not bought had probably discovered it the hard way.
In giving a new product a name, a battle has raged between those who prefer descriptive ones versus those who gravitate to a neutral or perhaps an apparently vacuous combination of characters. In 1953, when we first became familiar with QEII, and Crick and Watson cracked the formula of DNA, the Pocket Chemical Company of Chula Vista introduced the world to its new wonder product, WD-40.
With a name that made it sound more like a beleaguered Arctic convoy, the essence of WD-40 had, in fact, been carefully encoded. WD stood for water displacing, and the number 40 was used because it was the 40th formulation the Pocket Chemical Company had tried in their search for an effective water-displacing spray – or so the foundation story tells it. The boffins in California were on the lookout for a wonder spray that would also lubricate and penetrate.
Whether it was Iver Norman Lawson or Norman B Larsen who actually came up with the final formulation of smart hydrocarbons remains unclear. Still, the Brand Historian remains eternally grateful to Pocket Chemicals because WD-40 became the essential glovebox emergency rescue spray in his first-ever car. This was a rather old and ramshackle Mark 2 Ford Escort with a particularly dodgy carburettor. Bilston, as we called it, didn’t like cold, damp mornings, and like some injured footballer, it seemed to appreciate a spray or two of WD to get him ready to attempt the journey from Ealing to client meetings in Esher.
But whilst WD-40 may have had an opaque name, it sports a distinctive brand identity. It’s a rugged, metallic can dressed in French blue, yellow and red overalls, complete with a cheap and cheerful nanotube for precision spraying that is un-fussily taped to it and thus ever ready for action.
Like with many successful versatile super-products, consumers tend to find their own killer applications. In my case, WD was the roadside emergency service in a can. But over the last fifty years people all over the world have found a wide variety of other uses, such as removing lipstick stains, deterring pigeons on balconies, removing wax graffiti and even dealing with recalcitrant tomato stains on clothing. Today WD’s boffins encourage us to share our favourite uses at www.wd40.co.uk/lifehacks
In the highly subjective field of brand naming, WD-40 is a marvellous example of how sometimes you just need to have a leap of faith when giving your new baby a name. At a time when marketing processes are becoming ever more dense and complicated, we should watch the tendency to overthink things and just give that impenetrable jargon a decent spray with WD-40.
1953 Top of the Pops:
I Believe Frankie Laine