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 risque, so, thinking it would be an attention-grabber, we went with it." That is Richard Branson on naming his company Virgin. And back when the Yellow Pages was one of the most-thumbed books in the land, sly company founders named their businesses A-1 this or AAA that to appear atop the category listings.
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 song books 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 risque one."
Naama Bloom, 41, left a small software company to start a business in Manhattan selling tampons by subscription online. Recalling a common euphemism of her childhood, among girls and women, Bloom named her 2013 startup 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 Lexington City Council considered forcing the company to remove its name from the side of its building. And the postmaster in Louisville 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 newspaper, he answered: "Maaaaaaybe," drawing out the word suggestively.
In the years since, Big Ass Fans has grown dramatically, but it continues to capitalize on the controversy stirred by its name, which Smith characterized as a whole lot of sanctimonious braying about a farm animal common in his home state. The company's mascot, Fanny, which appears on its logo and as a promotional squeeze toy, is a big-eared ass, most often depicted from the rear looking back toward its tail.
The company, which now makes smaller residential fans as well, gives away so many promotional items sporting the logo -- baseball caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs -- that it has a department just to handle the items. "For everyone who thinks we're the Antichrist, there are a hundred who think this is the funniest thing ever," Smith said.
Funny is a tried-and-true sales lubricant.
"Everybody likes a little tongue in cheek," said Kellie Peterson, chief strategy officer at DNC Holdings, a web name registration company. Peterson said she saw salacious names all the time driving around Tampa where her company has an office -- including a nearby shop called Master Bait & Tackle. The "potential downside of a profane name," she said, "is that it's in your URL and part of your email address."
The dangers include having outgoing emails blocked by spam filters. That happened to Big Ass Fans a few years ago but not much anymore. What has changed, said Tom Sather, senior director of email research at Return Path, a company specializing in email analytics, is that most big email providers now use sophisticated reputation-based filtering and rely less on simply flagging offensive words.
In 1999, when David Hall, was running a construction company bearing his name in Aurora, Ontario, he decided to concentrate on home renovations and leave the scaffolding portion of his business behind. With one last scaffolding job to complete, he thought he would make it fun for his workers.
The job was a 10-story hotel by one of the busiest highways in the metropolitan Toronto area. From his scaffolding, Hall draped a huge banner that would soon become his company's name: Mammoth Erection. Heads turned. Smiles cracked. And the image of a hairy, tusked creature was added to the company logo. Most important, Hall said, "People started calling and calling. We never did another home renovation after the one we were working on."
The humor may be sophomoric but Hall credits the name with doubling his revenue in the first few years. "Surprisingly, there haven't been many people upset with our name," he said. "We do a lot of work for churches. Even the priests usually have a nice little chuckle."
Still, companies traveling this route may need to consider accommodating certain clients. Corin and Brian Mullins, for example, package their cereal for Boy Scout fundraisers with the original name, Hapi Food. And they may do likewise when they export to the Middle East. "In the Muslim world," Corin Mullins said, "you have to be sensitive to the word holy."