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Myths Of Branding Pt. 3: Strong Corporate Names Don’t Need Other Brands

In Brand Naming on August 27, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Over the last 30 years, we’ve developed brand names that innovate and inspire for products ranging from cars to corporations. For the next two months, we’ll be releasing weekly posts dealing with branding myths we’ve frequently heard, in an effort to debunk and demystify much of the mystery that surrounds both the process and the strategies of branding.

Myth # 3: If a company has a strong corporate name, it doesn’t need any other brands.

        

Two weeks ago, Google announced its new umbrella company. This unexpected move – placing Google inside the cocoon of the freshly minted Alphabet – says a lot about the power of strategically creating distinct brands.

Google was originally founded for a fairly specific purpose, but within the past few years, the fiercely innovative tech behemoth has expanded its interests with a range of endeavors. With the creation of this holding company, Google can continue to pursue its core competencies, while new Alphabet sub-brands can explore the other territories into which Google had begun to tiptoe. This allows individual brands to develop focus and create memorable identities, and having the Alphabet backing gives these nascent projects the Google credibility endorsement without diluting the Google brand. There’s also the practical consideration of creating separate brands, from an investor standpoint; it allows stakeholders to see where money is going and to see who is under-performing and who is exceeding expectations.

This synergy of powerful master brands working in conjunction with powerful sub-brands is not a novel concept. Even well-established corporations have allowed themselves to be defined by their products, using their name to bolster brands and then allowing those brands, in return, to support the corporate promise.

The prolific 3M is a great example of a company that leverages its corporate identity to enforce new brands, while using the strength of long-established brands, such as Scotchgard and Scotch Tape, to reinforce the 3M corporate promise.

“I know that other companies have tried to consolidate and have one corporate brand,” says Dean Adams, Director of Corporate Branding at 3M, “but we have a different view. The corporate brand takes on the role of authority and credibility, but consumers want to look underneath the brand,” explains Adams.

For example, Scotchgard makes a special promise about making things look new longer, and the brand’s strength works as tangible evidence, proving 3M brand’s corporate promise. Conversely, one of the company’s newer brands, Command (a removable adhesive strip used to attach items to walls) doesn’t have the same credibility as some of their more established brands.

“We really leverage the 3M brand, using its strength to build the brand Command,” says Adams.


Interestingly, one of 3M’s most recognized and successful brands, Post-it notes, began life much like Command, with a number of names plastered on its packaging. When the product was launched 25 years ago, it carried trademarks for Scotch, 3M, Post-it, Plaid and a few others. But according to Adams, once 3M saw what it had, the other brands were dropped pretty quickly, and the ubiquitous Post-it was born.

It’s natural to strive for one, strong corporate identity. Brand stacking can be tiring for a consumer and branding is often a calculated risk. Branding, however, can empower the corporate identity. Allowing products to stand on their own with unique brand identities can be more digestible for consumers, and their success will inevitably climb back up to the company level, reinforcing a corporate promise and potentially carrying the company to new heights.

Fact: Companies miss many opportunities to create strong corporate assets when they rely on a narrow corporate brand policy.

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

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

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