Lexicon® Blog

Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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