Lexicon® Blog

Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

Explaining Stuff

In Branding, Business, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on October 21, 2010 at 4:54 pm

As one of the linguists at Lexicon, I have a lot of explaining to do – often it’s to clients, about why Name X won’t work in Language Y for Product Z (in compiling our GeoLinguistic Evaluations); or to clients with even greater curiosity, about the meanings of seemingly scary words like ‘obstruent’ and ‘sonorant’ and how they’re important when it comes to sound symbolism. The majority of my explaining, though, happens as part of our proprietary creative and evaluative processes: explaining the various ways a candidate name can be parsed (or broken down and interpreted); effective metaphors for conveying product attributes; the semantic networks for potential name candidates and their components; etc.

Another exciting aspect of my job is keeping up with all of the latest linguistic news. Take, for instance, linguists’ recent discovery of a previously undocumented language called Koro (Explorers in India find something almost unheard of: a new language). Having been involved in documentation work myself (on an endangered variety of the Zapotec languages spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico), this is especially exciting for me. And while we won’t likely be adding a native Koro speaker to our network of linguists and native speakers around the world, we value the discovery as it adds to the growing body of documented linguistic diversity.

Along the same lines, my favorite linguistics blog is Language Log, which every now and again will have a post particularly apropos to the naming and branding industry. For example, Puke is about products from other countries whose names mean extremely inappropriate things in English, including a brand of snack chips called ‘Only Puke’.

Pocari Sweat

We can laugh at the products featured in this post, but because of their names alone, many English speakers won’t even try them – it’s a shame, too, because I can attest that Pocari Sweat is actually quite delicious! When you’re dealing with markets in a wide variety of languages, you need to verify how your brand name will be received in each and every one. A product’s name is its first impression, after all, and part of our job is to make sure it won’t mean ‘puke’ in any of our clients’ markets.

Even within the United States, various languages are at play. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests politicians should be aware of the influence of Spanish-language media in the US, especially in this election season. But marketers should be aware of this, too: Latinos aren’t just key constituents, they’re a large chunk of consumers as well.

At any rate, we’re happy when it’s us that have to do the explaining – that way our clients won’t run into a situation where they’re the ones having to explain why in the world they tried marketing Product Z in Language Y with the Name X.

Greg Alger, Linguist

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26 Reasons Brands Work…Or Sometimes Don’t

In Branding, Business, Naming, Trademarks on October 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm

If branding people had a wish list to make their jobs easier — with easier meaning to quickly create a new and memorable name — high up on that list would be new letters to add to our alphabet. You’d think that combining and recombining the usual 26 letters, A to Z, would be enough to keep people busy. And yet, those 26 symbols may not be enough.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Consider: The 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, regarded as the authority when it comes to words that are in fairly common usage, has full entries for 171,476 words. That’s not to mention the more than 47 thousand words listed that the editors consider obsolete. Virtually all those words have been scooped up and used — many for trademarks. Even more for URL designations on the Internet.

Common words get snapped up and used again and again. Fling (and forms of the word), for example, appears more than 120 times in the trademark registry of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A word can be used multiple times as long as the products are dissimilar (people are unlikely to confuse the Fling bar and grill with Flings greeting cards.) Eventually, however, the words do get used up.

That’s where sound symbolism can come to the rescue. Every letter in the alphabet is associated with one or more sounds that it can make — that’s sound symbolism. Often, a word’s semantic meaning far overshadows its sound symbolism…as long as the person encountering it knows what the word means. If the word is foreign, strangely spelled, or completely invented, our brains fall back on what the word sounds like and whether we find that appealing or not.

This is sound linguistic theory, by the way, and not just something we made up to sell names. In fact, Lexicon Branding has laid out several hundred thousand dollars over the years to have master linguists take a look at this principle and how it applies to brands the world over. (You can take a look at some of our thinking in brief here.)

When it comes right down to it, branding is a letters game. A z can add speed and agility to a name, where a d can slow a name down but add an air of dependability. Dependability? From a single letter? That’s what our research indicates.

Sound symbolism can save the day even in cases where the brands are simple English words, generally understood by everyone in the marketplace. In the ongoing war of e-readers, for instance, is Amazon’s Kindle a “better” word than Nook, the offering from Barnes & Noble? Features of the devices aside, the names themselves speak volumes.

Kindle VS Nook

As we said in a recent report about these names, the sounds in Kindle work together to convey a feeling that is thin, light, and agile. Kindle also rhymes with spindle. Together these factors suggest a tool that is lightweight, easy to hold, and easy to manipulate. On the other hand, the brand Nook also looks and sounds like “book”, which helps anchor the product in a consumer’s mind.  Additionally, Barnes & Noble can counter by exploiting Nook’s relative sturdiness from a phonetic standpoint. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Nook rated more durable based on phonetics alone.

People don’t buy technology based on the brand name alone — they compare things like ease-of-use, does it meet their needs, and a variety of other factors. But it’s interesting to see, if the name were the only factor upon which you had to base your decision, which of these devices would you buy?

In a world where information is coming at us faster and faster, people are tending to make ever-quickening decisions. To the point where someday we might start depending on how something sounds as a main driver to making a buying choice. So choose your sounds wisely.

— David Placek

Do You Want to Drive a Leaf? (Part 2)

In Branding, Business, Cars, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on October 15, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Fusion Vs. Leaf Vs. Volt Vs. Prius

 

Ford Fusion

Ford Fusion

 

Ford Fusion

The gasoline-powered Fusion first appeared in the 2006 model year, but for 2010 Ford added the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a gasoline-electric hybrid with EPA ratings of 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. It placed at the top of Kelley Blue Book’s 2009 list of “green cars.”

As a car name, Fusion blends a scientific notion, atomic fusion, with the mixing of world cultures associated with fusion in the food business. In this way, the high energy associated with atomic fusion is combined with, but not at all lessened by, the sophistication of cultural fusion. This double life wouldn’t sit well with a smaller car, but it’s a reasonable reach for a mid-sized one like the Fusion. It would be nice if the name also conveyed human charm, but that’s really not the case.

 

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

 

Nissan Leaf

Nissan’s Leaf, scheduled to begin appearing in December 2010, is a compact 5-door hatchback electric. Its all-electric city driving range is estimated at 100 miles, as compared with an estimated 700 miles for the Fusion.

As a car name, Leaf exudes attributes like “green,” “natural,” “good for the environment.” In a daring break with tradition, the name doesn’t say power or luxury. As a name, Leaf may strike consumers as overly delicate, but something about leaves — their beautiful contours, the grace with which they fall from trees — helps us think “comfort” when we see Leaf on a car.

Most important of all, thanks to its uniqueness among the luxurious, muscle-bound, and sports-centric car names of yore, the quiet name Leaf furthers the aim (announced by Nissan America’s Vice-President of Marketing) to make this car the “poster child of innovation” for the company.

 

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

 

Volt

Chevrolet’s Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, anticipated in November 2010. Its batteries will power the Volt up to 40 miles, after which a small gasoline-powered engine will kick in, extending the Volt’s range to over 300 miles.

The name Volt would have had appeal even in an earlier era when gasoline-powered engines were practically the only choice. In those days, Volt would have scored high for expressing power and highly-charged performance. In today’s changing marketplace, Volt will of course also draw attention to the electric side of this hybrid.

What’s especially nice is that the name’s pronunciation is not far off from bold and jolt — a possibly advantageous contrast with the mellow associations of Nissan’s Leaf.

 

Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius

 

Prius

Since its U.S. debut in 2000, this car has done more than any other to popularize hybrid vehicles as a practical choice for the mass market.

The car’s perceived advantages were enough, with some help from government rebates, to outweigh a price premium of several thousand dollars over similar-sized conventional models and a wait of up to six months for delivery. Two symbols of the car’s stand-out qualities were its unique shape, with the roof forming a near-perfect arc, and its distinctive name Prius.

The name Prius joins a new root pri with the ending -us first used in Toyota’s Lexus. The root pri begins with the same three sounds as the root prem of premium and premier. The three letters Pri also begin the prim of prime and primary. Both prem and prim go back to the same Latin root, meaning “first.” With this name, Toyota chose to express Prius’ stand-out quality without focusing specifically on its green appeal.

That choice now seems prescient, as the marketplace readies itself for many new models and technologies designed to appeal to consumer (and government) desires for greener autos. With each successive introduction, Prius’ green appeal becomes a less distinctive selling point.

•          •          •

By now most manufacturers are offering a hybrid model. Chevy’s plug-in hybrid Volt is due to appear shortly. Buick’s plug-in hybrid SUV is coming in 2012. New plug-in hybrids are also expected between now and 2011 from Ford, Volkswagen, and Volvo. But Prius remains the first commercially successful hybrid, as its name will always remind us.

Today’s car names reflect ongoing changes in auto technologies and in global marketing. Thankfully, rather than everyone jumping on the same naming bandwagon, the newest crop of names reflect a variety of creative guesses about what values will count most to the consumer. Of course the nuts and bolts of the cars themselves will have the most to say about which new models succeed or fail. But, as in the gasoline-only era, the names themselves are sure to play a key role in which models attract the most attention, and for how long.

— Will Leben, Director of Linguistics

Do You Want to Drive a Leaf?

In Branding, Business, Cars, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on October 13, 2010 at 1:18 pm

U.S. car culture never stands still. We’re used to a rapid succession of styling changes–fins, racing stripes, pin stripes, hatchbacks, SUV’s, crossovers. Just as constant are the shifting patterns of car names — luxurious place names (Riviera, Malibu), names about racing (Torino, Grand Prix), energetic animal names (Mustang, Bronco), weird names (Elantra, Amanti).

The naming landscape is changing…less muscle, more tone…

Nowadays some of the loudest buzz in the auto industry goes to quiet electric and hybrid brands like Leaf. Who ever thought a major auto manufacturer would put out a Leaf?

 

Nissan's all-electric Leaf

 

If nothing else, this name choice for a highly anticipated new car model suggests that the auto industry has turned a page. So much attention has shifted to low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicles that anyone not acquainted with Dodge’s muscular, gas-guzzling Charger might be forgiven for thinking it was an electric-powered car.

The world weighs in…

Another big factor in the newest car names is the global shift in production and marketing. Car names are becoming more uniform around the world.

For several years Buick marketed its LaCrosse brand in Canada as the Allure in order to avoid associations with la crosse, Québecois slang for ‘masturbate’ and ‘swindle.’ GM had also planned to market the Allure brand in China. But in 2009 the Allure brand was dropped and LaCrosse was adopted across the board, even in Canada and China. That worked well for GM in China, where the beloved, hot-selling LaCrosse was named Car of the Year for 2009.

New Technologies, Old and New Brands

Thanks to growing global exposure to once-local brands, car names exhibit more linguistic diversity than ever before.

Among today’s prominent electrics and hybrids are China’s F3DM, first marketed in 2008. India’s REVAi, the world’s best selling battery-powered electric to date, is being sold in a number of countries in Europe and Asia. Tata, also in India, has plans to add a hybrid version of its super-economical Nano. Chery, one of China’s best-selling cars, added a plug-in electric model in 2009, the same year that China became the world’s biggest market for autos.

Electrics and hybrids have been gaining steam for several years, and they’ve become the surprise new focus of the auto industry. The excitement is everywhere. England’s Daily Telegraph even reported on a study suggesting that preference for hybrid cars is genetic. Little wonder that we’re seeing so many new brands marking a break with the gasoline-only past. First in line was Toyota’s Prius a decade ago, followed recently by contenders with new technological twists.

Let’s see how three of the newest brands — Fusion, Leaf, and Volt — communicate their new competitive advantages alongside the well-established Prius.

To Be Continued…Click back on Friday for our overview!

— Will Leben, Director of Linguistics

Throwing The Market A Curve

In Branding, Business, Naming, San Francisco, Trademarks, Uncategorized on October 8, 2010 at 3:57 am

Some of the brand name development efforts that happen at Lexicon® Branding remain in the shadows. It may be a name for a select segment of software engineers. Or a major brand’s soft drink that gets test marketed in Topeka, Kansas, and never gets any closer to a rollout. But every so often we get a chance to be part of something big, bold, and uniquely different.

Types of CurvesIn the case of Levi’s Curve ID® fit system, the brand behind several new lines of womens jeans from San Francisco-based Levi-Strauss, it’s not so much that we helped them create a name for jeans specifically built for a variety of female body shapes and sizes. Instead, it’s the excitement of being part of their audacious, in-your-face advertising campaign that’s bringing awareness to the new jeans.

Bus stop posters proclaiming, “Not All Asses Were Created Equal”. Giant billboards declaring, “For Prima Donnas and Girls Named Donna”. A newly debuted “Levi’s Girl” (Meghan Ellie Smith, @thelevisgirl) who is tweeting and posting on Facebook about her adventure as the first to be so dubbed, moving from New York City to San Francisco.

All Asses Were Not Created Equal

One of Levi's Curve ID billboards

Some brand names get a slow start, seeming more to escape from their corporate headquarters than to blast their way onto the scene. In this case, with our head office being in Sausalito, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from “The City”, everyone who works here is seeing Curve ID no matter which route they take to work, whether they travel by public or personal transportation.

For Prima Donnas and Girls Named Donna

We’ve often wondered why most clients wait until the very end of a new product’s development before they even start thinking about a name. To our way of looking at the process, the sooner that name creation can be involved, the easiest it becomes to conceptualize the final brand and the strategy that needs to go into launching and supporting it. In that regard, the system in most industries seems to be a bit broken, which is why we applaud our friends at Levi Strauss for choosing to get Lexicon in the mix during the early stages of developing the brand that became Curve ID.

For a brand that’s meant to open people’s eyes to a new way of buying, trying and wearing womens jeans, Curve ID as an exciting new brand has been presented in some new and eye-opening ways itself.

— David Placek

Big Brands Urged to Set Sail in San Francisco

In America's Cup, Branding, Business, Naming, Sailing, San Francisco, Trademarks on October 4, 2010 at 10:22 pm

There’s a very good chance that when the next edition of the America’s Cup race is run, the boats will be sailing in San Francisco Bay. And Bay Area-based brands may be a large part of the reason why.


The BMW Oracle boat in the second race of this year's America Cup

Last February, during the most famous race to sail the high seas, the winner was BMW Oracle Racing. The team, backed by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, not only won the namesake trophy but also the right to choose where the next race is to take place. That won’t be until 2013, which gives the lead contending cities — Valencia, Spain; a site in Italy; and San Francisco, California — a fighting chance to make themselves pretty before a choice is made. And “fighting” is the operative word.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, “San Francisco is facing tough competition from the other locations, which are offering major public subsidies that could potentially be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a memo from the Mayor’s Office. The competition to host the prestigious event is stiff because the regatta is expected to produce more than a billion dollars in revenue for the host.”

In these tough economic times, that’s not money to sneeze at. And so it is that the America’s cup is being given very serious consideration. On Tuesday, Mayor Gavin Newsome discussed a framework of a financial and land agreement between the City By The Bay and the BMW Oracle Team. San Francisco would hand over three properties on the southeastern waterfront — Piers 30-32, 50, and seawall lot 330 for free. The America’s Cup team would also enjoy long-term rights to develop the properties.

The team, however would shell out $150 million in immediate structural improvements, seismic refitting, and whatever else is necessary to bring the area back to commercial viability.

Here’s where the local businesses, industries, and their attendant brands really stand to gain some international exposure. The city promised the America’s Cup team that they would beat the drum to raise in the neighborhood of $270 million in corporate sponsorships. And, as if to demonstrate the true power of a brand, state Democrats and Republicans are putting aside their differences in order to work together to bring the America’s Cup to the San Francisco shore. What’s good for the city is good for the state, it seems.

And in order for the city’s good name to win the day — and the running of the next America’s Cup — it’s going to take the hard work and a lot of money of the companies behind some of the Bay Area’s best known brands. From high tech to biotech, from sports marks to bike works, everyone’s going to be on the hook to help bring the America’s Cup back home.

Ultimately, the question may come down to the power of America’s brands. The other venues will be pulling equally hard for the honor of hosting the next race, and it stands to reason their home team brands will be out there, strutting their stuff. Until the boats involved are actually in competition, it’s likely to be all about “may the best brands win!”

— David Placek