–Dan Kelly, Attorney

In reading news of the passing of Fred Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee

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®, I was surprised to learn that the Frisbee wasn’t always called “Frisbee.”  Morrison sold his rights to Wham-O in 1957 (“sold” being used loosely — he apparently earned more than $2M in royalties).  Morrison had dubbed earlier prototypes of the flying disc with the following names:  the Pluto Platter, the Whirlo-Way, and Flyin-Saucer.  Morrison’s reaction to Wham-O’s name of Frisbee?  “I thought the name was a horror.”  He later recanted.   According to CNN, Wham-O’s inspiration for the Frisbee name was the Frisbie Pie Company, whose pie tins were apparently used by college students as early flying discs.

So, let the speculation begin:  how much is the success of the Frisbee due to the name, and how much is due to everything else (design, functionality, enjoyment, etc.)?  Although it is probably impossible to ever know the answer, I submit that a good name is probably worth at least 10% of sales.  (The above reports peg sales at 200 million units.)  Is there a rule of thumb in the marketing industry for this, or is anyone aware of any studies that have attempted to quantify this?  I also note that Frisbee is a solid, almost staccato two-syllable word, like iPod, Apple, Sony, Honda, Nike, Kindle, and many other popular brands that seem to have staying power.

By the way, you want horror?  How about the horror of this:  point your browser to frisbee.com.  Go ahead, try it.  As of this writing, it redirects to this page–a big pay-per-click page of flying disc ads, none of which mention “Frisbee.”  The page is titled, FLYINGDISCS.ORG, with the subtitle, “Ashes fly back into the face of him who throws them.”  Sounds like there may be some bad blood there!

I should also point out the “horror” of the name “Frisbee Golf,” both from a trademark standpoint and as an avid player in the game of disc golf.  While I am generally a fan of Wham-O products, I think Wham-O was a little late to the modern incarnation of disc golf and the specialized discs used in the sport, which are substantially smaller and flatter than a traditional Frisbee disc (think Ultimate Frisbee) with a heavy, hard rim.  I daresay Wham-O would not take kindly to the Professional Disc Golf Association changing its name to the Professional Frisbee Golf Association.  (FYI, two of the more popular brands in the disc golf biz are Innova and Discraft.)

And the real geeks can see Morrison’s original design patent here, and the later utility patent for the distinctive grooves that appear on the shoulder of Frisbee discs here.  (Distinctive?  Yes.  Trademarkable?  No, because the grooves are functional.  I’ll spare you the calculus that explains the aerodynamics . . . for now.)

  • Randall Hull

    My dog really enjoyed this article. I knew he liked playing Frisbee but didn’t realize he’d taken to Intellectual Property. I always suspected he was smarter than me…
    Seriously though, great posting and a nice way to remember Morrison’s creation. It proves that simplicity can have substantial play value.

  • The bad blood you note is probably not there. A lot of parking/click-through sites just pull a random aphorism from the internet somewhere when they build the page (sometimes related to the domain name), to make it seem more human-built.

  • Hon. Col. Manos

    two syllables seems to have a thing with brands.
    that’s why the iPad wasn’t named the iTablet. iBook, iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, MacBook, iWork, iLife, Pages, Keynote, Numbers… Oddly, MacBook Pro. But not as odd, Apple TV.
    Famous brands, too. Xerox, Nike, Google
    what’s strange is that such a scheme doesn’t really work in inflected languages, but in English, particularly in the U.S.
    For instance, in Poland, Cracowia, Agrosik, Polonex, Solidarnosc.
    Oddly, as Poland has been taken over more by Wall Street through NATO, the new brands are closer to two syllables. Perhaps more appealing to the Wall Street underwriters. Melex, Orlen, etc…