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Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

How iPad is Naming the Game

In Branding, Business, High Technology, Naming, Trademarks on January 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Lots of pundits took their potshots at the iPad as it was first coming to market in early last year, with even video sketches on YouTube mocking the name as some kind of hightech version of a feminine hygiene product. Now, a year later, with Apple reportedly having sold 15 million of the devices, no one’s laughing — at either the product or the name. The high technology industry as a whole, instead, is realizing that Apple’s not just changing the game of what was perceived as pretty much a niche market, but they’re in the process of renaming the game.

For the past few years, since tech companies have been R&D’ing the future of the computer, there’s been a lot of focus on tablets. Microsoft’s been yapping about one for years. As has HP, Samsung, Dell and anyone else with a dog in the fight. Everyone’s been gearing up but — as is often the case with emerging technologies — none of the big leaguers wanted to be the first to go all in. But one thing was “for sure”: The new form factor was going to be called, generically, a tablet.

Then came Apple.

And they were not just making a leap in technology, but one in category as well.

They’d already established a readily i-dentified beachhead, brandwise, with the iMac, iPod and iPhone lines. These device brands traded on a couple of equities. The first was Apple’s successful transmogrification of the baseline devices — PCs became Macs (by way of Macintosh), MP3 players were now pods, and the cellular telephone smartened into simply phones. The second, subtler point was the practice of tagging that initial — and lower case — i to the front end of a single syllable word.

It doesn’t take an experienced branding person to figure out that the hypothetical iTablet name that was floating around pre-announcement would not be the name of the new device. Given Apple’s naming heritage, they would either pioneer something new — as they did with pod — or else co-opt something relevant yet unexpected. The only thing keeping anyone brand-savvy from laying down even odds on pad being the way they were going to go was not its association to menstrual pads but its similarity to their already popular iPod line.

Confusion in the marketplace is what you want to avoid, and that one was clear to see. On the other hand, while certainly humorous, no one was going to confuse a product from the tech category with a generic descriptor for feminine hygiene products relegated to a very specific aisle at the supermarket or drug store.

From a head-to-head standpoint, as it turns out, pad has it all over tablet in terms of public usage. According to Google’s (relatively) new Ngram Viewer, the usage frequency of “tablet” has been somewhat stable over the past 200 years (with a surge from roughly 1870 to 1930), whereas “pad” has been on a more or less steady rise since around 1840. “Pad” overtook “tablet” in the late 1930s. (Of course, since “pad” and “tablet” each have a variety of meanings, it’s difficult to determine exactly which meanings were used more frequently when.)

Google’s Ngram shows “pad” vs “tablet” frequency of usage

Then there’s always Apple casual vs. Microsoft formal. Calling the products in question “pads” conveys a much more casual, friendly, and even playful tone. A “tablet”, on the other hand, comes across as a bit more formal, technical, or more refined.

The war of words isn’t over yet, with most major high-tech heavyweights still gearing up to come to what is obviously a much more robust market than anticipated. (In a recent TechCrunch article it was revealed that even Apple fanboy bloggers undershot the mark by at least half when it came to predicting iPad sales.) “Tablet”, though unlikely, may yet win the day. Even if it does, usage will surely affect the reactions we have to the word — “tablet” may soon sound just as casual and friendly as does “pad”.

— Lexicon Branding

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Telling Details

In Branding, Business, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on January 6, 2011 at 3:47 pm

In creating new brand names we often look for images related to a product that bring out its essence. Images that may seem quite extraneous at first sometimes turn out to be the most effective when it comes to conveying the essence of an idea. Ordinary English has many examples although, in many cases, the terms have become so commonplace that we often don’t think of them in the context of a picture.

Office on Cornerphoto © 2007 David Sawyer | more info (via: Wylio)
Corner Bank. A recent newspaper article about big vs. small banks used the term corner bank to refer to the small ones. What an evocative image — even though being located on the corner of a block has nothing inherently to do with a bank’s size. Still, embedded in our imagination is an old-time bank that was small enough to fit on a city block along with other businesses, and corner bank helps us to visualize this image.

Soccer Mom. Think about the structure of this expression: two nouns next to each other, no syntactic or morphological links connecting them. Yet the semantic connection is obvious to anyone who participates in our culture. The expression captures the essence of a mom who, despites loads of equally or more important duties, makes time to get the kids to their soccer practices and soccer games. Due to the cultural information it calls on, this expression captures the fact that Mom is not only devoted but also well organized.

Lounge Lizard. The term lounge here refers to a cocktail lounge. The use of lizard to denote an unattractive older guy who hangs out in bars looking for women is probably restricted to this one phrase. No one talks about dirty old lizards, or nighttime lizards, when referring to these nightclub-prowling characters.

The lizard’s wrinkly skin captures the age of the guy, and the slithery nature of lizards captures the mild creepiness of the character’s behavior. Since we’re more likely to refer to any lizard we glimpse as “he” rather than “she,” the expression even correctly captures the denizen’s sex.

Strip Mall. This is one of the most graphic expressions in English, and it illustrates a wonder of our language since, as with all the examples above, there is no need for any grammatical connectors between the first noun and the second. Cultural context supplies all the connection we need. A strip mall is not really a mall at all, and the word strip has many meanings and functions — nominal and verbal. Yet the two together instantly convey not only a message but even a mood — the sadness of these shopping places that are highly convenient but devoid of imagination.

The above are common terms in American English. So it should be no surprise that some of the greatest brands also fit this analysis.

Facebook is two nouns joined together with no connectors other than the suppression of the space between them. Facebook entries contain faces but those are hardly the essence of the phenomenon. One might regard book as a credible metaphor for a collection of Web entries, yet the Web—and the world—are full of collections, yet most of them wouldn’t be called books. Google gives us a collection of links and their names and descriptions on a set of pages, but neither the page nor the collection of pages is a book. To understand the magic of the name Facebook, we need to go deeper. What makes Facebook a valid kind of book is that it has some permanence or stability; like a diary, it can be added onto, and it can of course be modified, but it’s not a transitory thing like a Google page. And that is why the Google page, or a whole collection of them, isn’t regarded as a book.

It is the word face that makes Facebook seem ironic, since Facebook the Web phenomenon is probably more responsible than most modern institutions for making it unnecessary for people to come face to face! But the face captures an essence by expressing the Facebook’s promise of being as good as, almost better than, seeing someone’s face.

All but the first of the examples above are standard compound nouns, stressed on the first word. The first one, corner bank, is a noun phrase, stressed on the second word, and the first word modifies the second. The portfolio of brands created at Lexicon Branding contains many examples of these two effective dynamics, dating back to HP’s popular DeskJet printers and including such brands as NatureBridge, Silverlight, and Weather Edge.

Let’s break down another popular Lexicon-created brand to see how the formula works. Blue Nile —besides being a successful online purveyor of fine jewelry — is an expression with blue functioning as a modifier. This is another striking example of the ability of two juxtaposed words to capture an essence, even if those words seem to have little to do with a product. The Blue Nile runs through two countries—Ethiopia and Sudan, hardly the first countries one thinks of in relation to jewelry and gemstones. But the African continent is certainly one of the key places in the world we associate with gems—maybe due mostly to South African diamonds. And the coldness of the color blue again captures an essential property of the gems, the cool gleam they give off. Nile contributes a complemetary association,  the sparkle from the flowing water of a river whose ancient history gives it dignity, a dignity easily associated with gems, whose history (even with modern gems) also dates back to ancient times.

The old saying goes that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” While that may well be true, by finding just the right way to evoke images in the minds of consumers, the value of words can be increased so that it takes just two to make a perfect picture.

— David Placek

Honda Loses Market Share (How surprised were we supposed to be?)

In Branding, Business, Cars, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on January 3, 2011 at 11:56 am

From a naming standpoint, we weren’t surprised at all. The December 30, 2010 Financial Times reports that Honda’s market share dropped by over 5% in the U.S. and by more than 25% in Europe in 2010. Probably there are dozens of technical and business reasons for this. But as a branding company one of the major lessons coming out of this unfortunate news is that bad names affect car sales.

2011 Honda InsightHonda’s new Insight is a sleek hybrid with a beginning price under $20,000 in the U.S., and mileage in the 40 mpg range. It drew raves from Car and Driver magazine. Yet the Financial Times reports that sales have been “well below the company’s expectations.”

How could this be?

One reason is that Insight brand isn’t doing this car any favors. Many consumers attuned to hybrids still remember Honda’s original 2000 Insight, a clunky two-seater with low power and not much interior space. Back then the name may have appealed on an intellectual plane with some hopeful early adopters. But given that car’s shortcomings and its failure to catch on in the marketplace, why carry that baggage over to an attractive new car whose main link with the 2000 model is its hybrid status?

Honda’s new sporty hybrid, the CR-Z, also had disappointing sales last year. While to our eye it has less going for it than the Insight in the looks department, it also has a naming problem.

The name CR-Z borrows its name structure from Honda’s popular CR-X from the 1980’s. (The Z will strike some fans of economy sport hatchbacks as having been borrowed from Nissan’s enduring line of Z cars.) But the CR-X brand disappeared in 1992. Hoping that brand equity will survive a hiatus of double-digit years is highly risky, as Ford found when it re-introduced the Thunderbird brand in 2002 and dropped it after 2005.

Interestingly, GM has just introduced a brand with the same consonants as Honda’s CR-Z in the same order, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze. What a difference those vowels make. While Honda associates its cars with discontinued past models, Chevy uses Cruze to proclaim a fresh start. The link with cruising brings thoughts of fun, carefree operation, and driving as a social experience. The consonant and vowel sounds that make the name Cruze for the most part imply smoothness and comfort.

As the many positive reviews note, Honda has much to be proud of with its new hybrids. But the names it has chosen totally fail to communicate that simple fact.

Will Leben, Director of Linguistics