Lexicon® Blog

Archive for the ‘High Technology’ Category

The Unbearable Lightness of Meaning

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming, Trademark Research, Trademarks on January 3, 2013 at 3:00 am

When developing a brand name, how important is the meaning of the name? It depends. Sometimes a descriptive or highly suggestive name is appropriate. In those instances, finding a name with the right meaning can be critical to success. However, when establishing a brand that is intended to be a platform for a host of offerings or one that introduces a new idea to the marketplace, a word’s meaning may matter less than its connotations.

gazelle

Gazelle

Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word; connotation refers to the set of associations a word carries with it. Take the example gazelle. The denotation, or definition, of gazelle is “any of many antelope species in the genus Gazella”; people’s specific associations with the word will vary, but for most it will connote something swift and graceful.

Denotation is accessed via the left-brain, connotation via the right-brain. The difference is important. Just as music has more impact and immediacy than words, so too do the connotations of words in the right-brain have more enduring resonance than the definitions of the left-brain*.

Another example: the word silly meant “holy” hundreds of years ago. Now, it means “foolish.” But these are dictionary meanings. Over time, as contexts changed, the original denotation changed as well. But consider silly and holy: one strong connotation both words share is “innocent.”

While we can’t know with certainty what connotations silly had six hundred years ago, one of them was likely “innocent” and that connotation remains, despite the change in meaning.

But what does this all mean for brand names?

Two things.

First, when considering a brand name candidate, it makes sense to focus more on connotations and less on definitions. The fusion of a brand name to a product or service creates a new context for the word, and in this crucible connotations will stick. Definitions won’t. If you are considering Gazelle as a brand name, it pays to focus less on that particular animal and more on whether you want consumers to associate your product or service with something graceful and swift.

What’s more, sub-parts of words also have enduring connotations. When Lexicon developed Pentium for Intel, our research showed that pent connoted strength and power (think Pentagon), and the -ium ending connoted something scientific. It was a completely made-up word at the time, but it already had inherent connotations that would (and did) resonate in the market.

Second, we are learning more and more that we aren’t as rational as we would like to think and that our decisions are guided as much by our unconscious mind as they are by our rational mind†.

These right-brain connotations have more resonance with the unconscious than literal meanings. It’s a tough exercise: when confronted with a word, we immediately reference its literal meaning. You see it sometimes when a new brand is announced. When the iPad came out, everyone said it sounded like a women’s hygiene product.

Two years later, all that remains is the elegant simplicity of the name.

— Alan Clark, Director of Trademark, and The Lexicon Team

* Richard F. Taflinger, Taking Advantage: Consumer Psychology and Advertising (Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2011)

† University of Rochester. “Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible.” Science Daily, 29 Dec. 2008. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Advertisements

Understanding The “X” Factor

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Cars, corporate naming, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming on September 26, 2011 at 3:00 am

Not long ago Brand X was just a way to dismiss a brand as generic. (Or to diss competitors by not acknowledging them by name in commercials.) Then suddenly X acquired panache and power, as in Microsoft’s Xbox, Nissan’s XTerra, and The X Games from ESPN. What happened? The reasons go back to developments in the culture at large.

Logos for X Games, X Terra and XBoxSince the 17th century, x has served as an algebraic variable along with y and z, all chosen for their out-of-the-way position at the end of the alphabet. Scientific discoveries around the turn of the 20th century added uses of x that extended the algebraic meaning slightly:

  • x-ray, a term chosen by inventor Roentgen in 1896 for brevity’s sake.
  • X and Y chromosomes, named around the same time as the x-ray and again probably chosen for their out-of-the-way place in the alphabet.

The use of x for an unknown quantity crossed into a new cultural context around 1952, when Malcolm Little became the public figure Malcolm X, explaining that he replaced his slave surname with X to represent the unknown name of his ancestors.

Around the same time, x began to shift its meaning toward “restricted” and “special.” An early example is the x-rated movie. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this use to a 1950 British document suggesting a category of movie that children were to be excluded from. At the time, British ratings were set as U for “universal”, meaning anyone was welcome; A for “adult”, suggesting that children be accompanied by a grown-up; and H for “horror,” which meant only people over 16 could watch. Then nudity began to enter the picture, and in 1951 X replaced H to signify exclusion.

Next, X began making its mark on U.S. industry in a big way when, suddenly, the brand Xerox changed the game.

The Haloid Photographic Company, founded in 1906, changed its name to Haloid Xerox in 1958 and then to Xerox in 1961. Like the name Haloid, whose root halo meaning “salt” comes from Ancient Greek, the name Xerox was built on the Greek root xero meaning “dry,” creating a new term for a new printing technology: xerography – a novel technique of dry photocopying.

For a company to alter its name is a pretty big deal, involving major changes in advertising and loss in equity from the old brand. Fifty years ago, it was nothing short of heroic. But what an attractive name Xerox was, with an x on either flank. The changeover not only succeeded, it also gave x a new, futuristic connotation. Thus it was no accident that in 1972 the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey changed its name to Exxon, its double X signifying a radical break from the past.

By the 1970’s, the emergence of Xerox and Exxon had established a clearer trajectory for x: from merely expressing anonymity to symbolizing drama, power, and performance. To understand these developments better, Lexicon’s linguists analyzed X in a large sample of American English texts from 1990 up to today. We looked at X in three contexts:

  • As the second part of a two-part word (e.g., Gen X)
  • As the first part of a two-part word (e.g., X Factor)
  • As the first letter of a single word (e.g., Xena)

Categorizing the most frequent uses of X and examining patterns in their relative frequencies make it clear how X is changing in use and in meaning.

Here are the main trends:

  • Use of X across pop culture categories has been steadily increasing since 1990
  • Service/humanitarian usage of X has grown significantly
  • Use of X in technology is heaviest and continues to grow

Surprisingly, as X has become more common in the technology sector, its use has waned in the realm of science fiction, both in books and in graphic novels. This may be due to the reality of rapidly advancing technologies — where X was once seen as signaling the future, that future is now. Or maybe Marvel Comics’ X-men became so popular they essentially usurped the science fiction category for themselves.

Looking toward the new future, X in a new brand name will likely be viewed as entertainment-focused, or perhaps “tech-forward.” X may even come to express the bigger picture of a constantly interacting technology and humanity, the X Prize being a prime example.*

The evolution of x in brand names is not over. China’s role in global commerce has been expanding dramatically, and x appears in Roman transcriptions of many Chinese names. Examples include provinces like Xinjiang, Guangxi, and Jiangxi; large cities such as Xi’an, Xiamen, Wuxi, and Xiangtan; and surnames such as Xue.

This adds not just a new source of x words and potential new meanings to x. It also adds a new pronunciation. We’re used to pronouncing the xx in Exxon as the consonant sequence ks; the same for the final x in Xerox. Words that start with x we normally pronounce with a z sound — as in the words xylophone or the gas xenon. But the pronunciation of x in the Chinese examples above is different, often described as similar to the sh of sheep.

As our exposure to other world cultures expands, the meaning and pronunciation of X will no doubt keep shifting. With enough marketing clout to spread the message of a new pronunciation of x, the shame of being known as Brand X may well be a thing of the past.

Dr. Will Leben, Lexicon Director of Linguistics

*To understand these developments better, Lexicon’s linguists analyzed X in a large sample of American English texts from 1990 up to today. Corpus of Contemporary American English

How Far Will Your Brand Stretch?

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on July 14, 2011 at 5:05 am

Four simple rules to make sure your trademark is limber enough to play in the big leagues.

Clients looking for a new brand name often warn that it must be easy to spell (among a host of other concerns) when, in reality, that’s a consideration that can have little bearing on a brand’s ability to be embraced. Many brands these days are primarily encountered visually – be it on the web or through advertising – and when all a potential customer has to do is click a link to find out more, they don’t need to know how something is spelled. They just need to know how to get to the brand…wherever it may exist.

That said, not just any word will do.  There’s no substitute for thinking through the creation of your trademark, the strategy behind its launch and maintenance, and the many places where it might (and should) appear.

Getting In The Game

There are Four Simple Rules to follow that can help assure that your trademark can at least get in the game. (Caveat: Just because the Rules are simple to understand doesn’t make them easy to execute.)

Rule #1: The brand name must be distinctive.

Clearly, in today’s crowded marketplace, a new trademark has to have the power to be noticed. The only way to be effective is to gain the attention of consumers who are being avalanched in a glut of information. Whether it’s a real word seen in a new context, an invented brand name with no inherent meaning, or a word that’s been misspelled on purpose, distinctiveness in your category is key.

Rule #2: The brand name must be easy to search.

Once again, how important is spelling? Even when we’re saying that a trademark has to be easily searchable, you’ve got some latitude. Internet search engines such as as Google and Bing will return searches on misspelled words even while asking if you didn’t mean to look for the correct spelled version. Take out a letter here (such as in flickr) or substitute one letter for another (as with birst), and the world can still beat a path to your brand’s door.

Rule #3: The brand name must work across multiple media and web platforms.

Today you need to be reasonably certain that the name you’re creating will have to fit just as comfortably on the edge of a new handheld device as it would rolling up the side of the Goodyear blimp. One place today’s brands are likely to appear is on an app on an iPhone, Droid or other smartphone device. Keep in mind that the average “acreage” of an app button, for instance, measures 57×57 pixels.

That’s about the size of your pinky fingernail. What message can you get across on a billboard that size?

Coca-Cola is the best-selling soft drink in the world but the app that carries its name has little to do with the beverage. Instead, it’s the electronic equivalent of the old Magic 8 Ball – answering questions with a randomized selection of smug answers. One wonders why the company didn’t use their much shorter yet equally well-recognized brand name: Coke. By comparison, Vree is an app specifically designed for diabetes management by Merck pharmaceuticals. Created by Lexicon Branding, the Vree name is short and quick, while supporting the idea of being free from worry and free in general (the app doesn’t cost anything). The size of the name alone allows Merck to place it in advertising and other merchandising very easily, where it can begin to tell its own story.

Rule #4: The brand name must work well across many languages.

This may be the trickiest rule in the bunch. If you’re marketing on the internet — even if your product or service is locally-based — you are now reaching an international marketplace. And if the name for your offering means something offensive or even off-putting in another language, you could end up not only icing yourself out of that market, but others as well if the offensive translation becomes widely known.

Names that share familiar common roots, such as Latin, Greek or Sanskrit, tend to work well in many parts of the world. Even if the word isn’t clearly understood, there can be enough of the meaning coming through that the audience “gets” what your brand is about.

Where semantics (the meanings of words) falls down, other factors such as sound symbolism (a principle discussed previously in this blog) can help invented solutions such as Pentium, Febreze or Venza gain acceptance and take on the unique meaning that is your product or service no matter what country or web page in which it is encountered.

Can following the Four Simple Rules guaranteed success for your brand name? Of course not. There are many factors involved in bringing a successful new trademark to market, starting with whether the product or service you’re offering is something that people want to buy. But without a name that’s been built to be strong and flexible enough to deliver your message by means of whatever avenues are available, you’ll never get off the ground.

Lexicon Branding

Spelling Matters

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, High Technology, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on March 22, 2011 at 3:00 am

Lexicon’s latest study reveals the effects of spelling on a brand name’s character

Does how you spell a word really matter? English is rife with spelling rules and idiosyncrasies – for example, there’s the old mnemonic “i before e, except after c.” But what about weird? And then there are the many ways that the string ough can be pronounced: cough, tough, though and through are the usual examples. It’s also the case that a single phonetic form can have a variety of spellings: take the first syllable in cyclone, cider, silo, and psychology.

The many ways English has of visually depicting sounds can also be used expressively. Consider innovations such as dogg and dawg. Being already entrenched in modern pop culture, these specific variations carry meaning beyond a simple canine referent. Apart from well-known examples such as these, though, do simple variations in spelling mean anything? At Lexicon, we’ve just discovered the answer: an emphatic Yes.

For over 15 years, Lexicon Branding has been conducting research and continually gathering data about how various features of words impact people’s perceptions, mostly in the field of sound symbolism. Our research in this field covers languages from across the globe and has led to the creation of successful brands like Dasani, Swiffer, and Febreze. In this new study, we investigated ways that spelling rather than sound contributes to a brand name’s character.

Google logoA couple things triggered our interest in spelling variation: One factor was the popular informal use of respelling in words like boyz, dawg, and kewl. Another was the intuition that Google looks a lot friendlier than Gugle.

Gugle logoWhat makes Google such a friendly-looking, fun-sounding name? Sounding like funny words such as giggle, wiggle, oodles, goo, and ogle certainly helps. Another endearing thing about the name Google is its spelling. The company’s founders report that they based the name on googol, a term used by mathematicians for a very large number. The founders add that they misspelled it.

Googol logoSince both Larry Page and Sergey Brin have Ph.D.’s from Stanford, we assume they’re kidding about the misspelling. But we in branding can learn a lesson from their wisdom: spelling matters.

Googol looks imposing and foreign. Google looks approachable—lovable, even. Around 60 English words end in gle (the exact number varies depending on which dictionary you consult). Almost none end in gol (some dictionaries list only googol). No wonder Google seemed more familiar even the very first time we saw it.

There’s more. Compare Google with the hypothetical name Gugle. Googling the latter actually turns up quite a few results, but the search engine’s creators actually had a choice between the two spellings Google and Gugle, and chose the first. Why, given that the two spellings have the same pronunciation? The oo – innocently repetitive, looking like an interjection, appearing in very common words – looks like fun, while u simply doesn’t.

Bearing in mind simple insights such as these, we designed a study to test several hypotheses about spelling. After surveying over 500 English speakers in the US on their views about a variety of coined names, we discovered that some spelling variations consistently and reliably communicate specific attributes.

The survey elicited respondents’ reactions to several pairs of fictitious brand names, each pair differing in one aspect of spelling – for example, a single vs. a double t somewhere in the name. The answers showed reliably that, among other things, products whose names had double letters were significantly more apt to be judged as having more features and capabilities. This means that people are likely to believe that a new smartphone called Zepp will have a more robust set of features than one called Zep.

It’s nice to see how these findings corroborate our intuitions about past Lexicon credentials, too. Take Dasani. Since it’s a made-up name, it could just as easily have been spelled Dassani or Dasanni and have the same pronunciation. In this case, though, a more robust set of features was not something we wanted to communicate with the brand name. In fact, either alternate spelling would have marred the name’s simplicity – and the simplicity and purity it projects onto the product.

Another hypothesis the study clearly supported was that the letter i is seen as more innovative than the letter y. For pairs of imagined brand names, such as a new laptop called Novix or Novyx, people tended to believe that the version with i would be more innovative. Marketers of real world brands Pixar, Audi, Nvidia and Nivea should be happy to hear this result.

We’re excited about the study’s success because it shows, for the first time, that spelling variations can actually be used to express differences systematically. The findings are important for marketers and other people responsible for brand naming because they provide a new tool for predicting what a brand name will communicate, and suggest simple ways to achieve maximum visibility and attention from consumers.

— Will Leben and Greg Alger, Lexicon Linguistics

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