Without John Murphy the Metro would be the Mini Mate and HobNobs would be called Oat Crunchies. But can his brand of magic work for his own beer and Plymouth Gin? Interview by Neil Mackwood. Photograph by Ben Murphy
What do you call a tyre which stays inflated while punctured? The technology was no problem but a name proved elusive. It was a problem Dunlop seemed unable to solve - on the eve of its launch to the world's press, the tyre still had a blank insert in the rubber, where the missing name was to be stamped.

As aide to the company chairman, the job fell to John Murphy, who at once canvassed the company's foreign outposts for ideas. He was avalanched by suggestions - but Japan's "May the Bluebird of Happiness Hover over Your Factory" was no more appropriate than America's "Jack the Gripper".

In those days - the early Seventies - no one had much idea about branding, but Murphy, after lots of thumbing of dictionaries, came up with the name "Denovo" (Latin for renew). During a board meeting, at which Dunlop's merger with Pirelli was nodded through, the directors spent two hours debating his suggestion before giving it their approval.

Denovo, although spectacular for its ultimate lack of success, gave John Murphy the idea for his company, Interbrand. He had realised there was a gap in the market for someone who would sit down and simply think up brand names.

"I was on the point of emigrating, but my wife is a doctor and was newly qualified, so I stayed here," he says. "Most people, even if they had a problem, didn't know they had a problem. I had to persuade people to take brand names seriously."

Naming names may not be as easy as it seems. "It is not a random process," says Murphy. "One third of the process is strategy, one third creative and the final third a legal process of running legal searches to ensure the name is available."

Mistakes can be made. Sweden's Krapp toilet paper is unexportable; our Fairy Liquid or Braine's Faggot's are unlikely to be much more than cult brands in certain minority communities in San Francisco. The Rolls-Royce Silver Mist didn't go down well in Germany, where "mist" means dung.

Supported by his doctor wife's salary, John Murphy was saved by a call from British Leyland, who were unable to come up with a name for their new Mini. "It seemed all of Britain's hopes rested on that car," he says. "It had a sort of national significance that's almost unthinkable now, almost 20 years later. A huge government investment had been made with the factory at Longbridge, and here they were making pre-production models but had no name. I was handed 20,000 names by the marketing director and had to come up with something."

The Greek Gods had already been used, and all the animals were taken, so Murphy came up with the ostensibly pedestrian system of naming the cars with an M - starting with Metro.

The massive publicity enabled Murphy to open offices in New York, Tokyo, Sydney. It was on a trip to the latter that he stumbled across a hostile takeover battle for Rank Hovis McDougal by the Australian company Goodman Fielding Wattie.

He rang Hovis from Sydney and suggested that what they needed was an evaluation of their brands to help fight the bid. They accepted and, with the help of two colleagues - one a corporate financier, the other an accountant - came up with the astonishing figure of pounds 625 million.

The humble brown loaf has its worth, it seemed, beyond providing daily roughage. The valuation was accepted by the City; the hostile bid failed and Murphy was made.

The formula worked, and Murphy sold out in 1994 to the communications giant Omnicom - trousering pounds 8 million. But rather than taking to the cruise- liner life, he has decided to put his marketing skills to the test. He recently bought a faded brand, Plymouth Gin, and has established the St Peter's Brewery in a 13th-century Suffolk manor house.

In the cocktail shaker of commercial life, Plymouth Gin doesn't appear to have much going for it. Excellent though it may be, it is one of many in an overcrowded market. Its brand awareness has sunk below other, more illustrious, names such as Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire or Gordons. But John Murphy has gone to work:

"The gin sector is huge but desperately dull," he says. "Nothing has happened. There is a need for innovation and excitement." He talks about Plymouth's naval associations, and how the Pilgrim's Fathers spent their last night in the distillery building - leaving Blighty, no doubt, with sore heads as well as sore hearts.

"Plymouth gin is the only gin that has to be distilled in Plymouth," he points out. "London gin can come from anywhere. We believe there is lots of affection for this light, palatable gin which mixes supremely well." The test will be whether the company can shift the 25,000 cases a year that are needed to break even.

The beer, too, is receiving the Murphy morphing treatment. At the moment, Guinness is probably the only British beer to have an international branding standard - but Murphy is intent on putting the various ales of the St Peter's Brewery on the international map.

He bottles the brews in a 500ml copy of a 1770 American ale bottle he bought at an antiques fair. He had to have the bottle made in Lithuania, but so what? - it is unique and beginning to be seen on supermarket shelves.

A jovial man who never took the name game very seriously, Murphy will discover soon if his brand of magic still holds good.

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The Metro The sticking point with the city runabout was little Sir Michael Edwards, the British Leyland chairman, who decided to hold a family naming competition on the plane back from South Africa. He pulled Murphy off the case and told him the new name would be the Mini Mate.

"He rang back a few days later when he had found that, in his dictionary, mate was a form of tea made from the bark of a South American tree. I told him that in my dictionary it meant 'to copulate'. Edwards dropped the phone on me, but put me back on the case."

Then Prince Charles made a speech attacking British industrial management in front of Edwards. "He pulled himself up to his 5ft 3in and said that criticism could not be levelled at him because he was consulting his workforce on the name of the new car!" In the end, Murphy won the day. But the workforce's suggestion - the Match - was later sold to Renault at a great profit.

Brevia Murphy had never had to name a panty shield before, but the American company Kimberley Clark wanted a pan-European name for their new product which, back home, was called Light Days. "This woman at the meeting kept talking about digital tampons and you know how it is - it came too late for me to actually ask what a digital tampon was. Much later, I asked someone else and realised that it was one inserted by finger!" Brevia was so called because it was small, unobtrusive and slim.

Kaliber Guinness (Ireland) wanted a name for their low-alcohol lager. Murphy realised that lager is a blokish thing and did not want people who drink Kaliber to be thought of as wimps. The word Kaliber suggests the calibre of a gun - and high- calibre. K is a stronger letter than C, so Kaliber it was. "It implies strength and distinction," says Murphy, "and something which is drunk in a beer environment."

Zeneca When ICI was faced with a hostile bid by Lord Hanson, it became inevitable that the company would have to split in two - the extremely profitable pharmaceutical side and the chemical side. Murphy was given less than four months to find a name for the drugs part of the company.

ICI wanted the name Mond, which was an old division of ICI. "Zeneca is a purely abstract name like Xenon or Kodak. It had to be short and pronounceable, with strong letters. We drew up a list of many prefixes and started constructing names." A list of 300 was whittled down and then, after legal screening in 60 countries, it came down to 80, then 24.

Zeneca did not mean anything in Swahili or Swedish, and Murphy managed to persuade directors Sir Richard Greenbury and Sir Jeremy Morse that the name was the one. He then niftily came up with a logo - a crossed Z - which in chemical notation means "Problem solved".

HobNobs The biscuit company wanted a more mundane name - something like McVitie's Oat Crunchies - but Murphy pointed out that the name was unprotectable. Consumer groups had raved about the new biscuit and Murphy told the company it was onto a winner, but had to have a catchy name. HobNobs has a nice neighbourly, chatty feel to it and Murphy gave them a brand name which is now stronger than the competition.

Sainsbury's Homebase What seems like a straightforward name in fact had to be fought for. Murphy and his team faced considerable opposition from the company, who wanted something like "Super Saver". "I thought that was jolly awful," he says. "We were told that Sainsbury's DIY stores would never sell own-label stuff. They now do, and you have Homebase paint, Homebase barbecues and so on".