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Posts Tagged ‘26 letters’

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

The Corporate Name: What Goes Into It and Why Is It So Important?

In Branding, Business, Naming, Trademarks on December 14, 2010 at 3:00 am

I was recently asked those two questions by a reporter for Forbes. The answers are so key that it’s worth restating them here. Let’s start with the question regarding the importance of a corporate name (or any brand name for that matter.)

A corporate name or a product name is important because it represents an opportunity to introduce an idea about the company — what it stands for and, if possible, how it will act in the marketplace.  Apple, Google, and Starbucks are all interesting corporate names.  They each, in their own way, helped their company to communicate that they were going to be different than the other guys — a different computer, a different search experience, a different coffee house.

In my opinion they all helped to suggest this:  “Look at us! We have a new idea!”

The reality is names don’t have to be clever or creative but, to be strategic, they must help to tell the company’s story.

Eight Important Guidelines

Based largely on experience — peppered with insights from consumer research conducted over the years — Lexicon Branding has put together eight guidelines for both corporate and product names:

1. Focus
Just a few letters combined to create a distinctive impression.

2. Purposeful
It has a clear role. It does something really well.

3. Enthusiastic
It is never boring or dull.

4. Simple
It is not a speech, a statement or a position.

5. Relevant But Unexpected
This is an important one.  Somehow, when linked to a message, the idea becomes relevant but unexpected.  Amazon is an example: “The world’s largest bookstore” was how they began.

6. Competitive
It is precisely what every other competitor is not.

7. Long Lasting
It is the one element that should not change and it is the one thing that competitors cannot take away.

8. Un-frivolous
In the words of David Ogilvy, “people don’t buy from clowns.”

Five Important Points

There are several points to be made about the importance of corporate and product names, today versus yesterday.

Brand names have always been important and helpful in the marketing of a product or service.  A brand name is the maker’s mark, a guarantee of a certain experience and a level of quality or performance.

Each stands for a level of quality or performance

But until the 1990’s marketing was, more or less, two-dimensional.  Print and broadcast.  Both were limited to a few hundred publications and channels.  Consumer access to information, reviews, etc was also limited and usually required work on the consumer’s part.

1. The digital world of today is three-dimensional.  Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and YouTube have greatly accelerated the places that a name needs to work and the consumers access to information about a product or service.

2. Like it or not, when a new brand is launched it is, instantly, global.  This creates the need to understand both basic language issues and the deeper, often more complex, cultural issues.

3. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that trademark registrars around the world began to surge with new applications and new trademarks.

For example, in 1982, when Lexicon was founded, there were only 15,000 trademarks in International Class 9 (scientific and electrical apparatus) in the USA.  Today, Lexicon faces a gauntlet of over 500,000 trademarks in class 9.  Yet, we still have just 26 letters in the English alphabet.

4. It has only been recently that brands have moved from a single focus — Comet, Tide detergent, Cheer, Olay — to serve as “brand platforms” that carry a range of products.  This is an important change and a trend that makes brand names not simply more important but strategically important.  Names that offer the flexibility and the strength to carry multiple products and appeal to a range of consumers generate a very high ROI and represent high value IP.

Compare The Clorox Company’s ReadyMop, to P&G’s SwifferSwiffer is a two billion dollar brand.

5. If you compare the marketing challenges of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to today’s challenges, you will inevitably conclude that in the post WWII era marketers faced less competition, and more obvious gaps in the marketplace.  Imagine how easy it must have been to position and name Nyquil. There was simply no other nighttime cold remedy at the time.

In conclusion today’s marketers are faced with the following:

More competition

More consumer choices

More potential TM conflicts

Geolinguistic and GeoCultural issues

Brands as platforms not as just products

And still, just 26 letters.

— David Placek

Post a comment to let us know what your favorite product, company or service brand name is and why it appeals to you!

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