Lexicon® Blog

Posts Tagged ‘brand development’

The ABCs of Media

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, Naming on June 10, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Freeform_FrontPage_HiResIntent on upending the notion that their offerings were strictly family-friendly fare, ABC approached Lexicon to establish a new identity for their network – one that better reflected its fluid audience. The jump from such a descriptive name to a much more imaginative moniker – Freeform – certainly opened the door for the brand to stand for so much more. But it also represents a larger shift in the branding of new media; we are now in an era of entertainment where disruptive freshmen like Netflix and Amazon, which have a keen sense of brand, are seriously repositioning the incumbents. But let’s take a step back.

Readers of a certain age will recall a time when there were only four television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. These initialisms – or acronyms – stood for descriptive names, American Broadcast Corporation, Columbia Broadcast System, National Broadcast Corporation, and Public Broadcast Service, respectively. These three-letter names were a comfortable choice for these networks: they reflected the established practice of call letters for radio and television stations. They were also developed at a time when such limited choice on the airwaves did not drive the need for differentiation.

Then, as more content and offerings started to emerge, a little personality started to emerge in the space, as well. In fact, it was in this world of acronym entertainment that Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network came to life, with one of its properties being CBN Satellite Service – the channel that would one day become Freeform. During this epoch, other channels in the developing cable world started to present distinct personalities, too: TMC (The Movie Channel), HBO (Home Box Office), and Showtime.

All the previous initialisms to date – ABC, CBS, etc. – had corporate-sounding names as the basis of their abbreviations. But CBN, TMC, and HBO were different: the names of the networks were descriptive of the content itself. This then became the standard in the emerging world of cable networks, and necessarily so; in a world of four channels, it is easier for one of those channels to distinguish itself via its content alone. In a world of tens or hundreds of channels, more communicative names become a necessity to distinguish a network for both viewers and advertisers. Previously, the names only had to identify the source, but in the crowded landscape, they needed to capture the experience, as well – an experience that felt fresh and different.

But HBO and CBN were still familiar initialisms; Showtime wasn’t. Showtime was a suggestive name, evoking the excitement of going to the movies. And it wasn’t reduced to three initials. Its success would help contribute to the dominant approach to naming new (and rebranded) networks. Some of these new network brands would incorporate initialisms (MTV, VH-1, A&E, and HGTV, for example) but many wouldn’t (the History Channel, Bravo, the Discovery Channel, and the Disney Channel). CBN was no different, rebranding itself first as The CBN Family Channel, then later simply The Family Channel. Subsequent acquisitions brought us Fox Family Channel and then ABC Family.

Thus, this new distribution platform (cable television) that allowed a great proliferation of networks changed the naming conventions and the way media outlets thought about establishing a distinctive brand. It then comes as no surprise that this would happen again with the advent of video streaming and ubiquitous access to content via web and mobile. Soon new network brands would begin to eschew descriptive and suggestive names for more arbitrary or coined names.

The break began just before the 21st century with the launch of the TiVo digital video recorder. This new technology offering was not a television network, but it was the first shot fired in the television revolution that continues to this day. The disruptive technology was paired with a disruptive name, one that heralds the current craze for short, fun names. Networks began expanding into arbitrary or coined names, like Oxygen and Palladia. Soon the floodgates were opened and now we watch content on YouTube, Amazon, Roku, Hulu, and Freeform. Far from identifying the source or describing the content, these names evoke a brand experience.

As brands continue to compete for consumer share of mind, whether in entertainment, consumer electronics, or even food and beverage, the need for a powerful brand has become increasingly important. We are no longer in a four-brand marketplace, and the stakes are higher. Newer, more distinctive brands are needed to compete in a marketplace that includes digital streaming, the cable set-top box, and every app on your phone. ABC Family saw this need for newness and this need set the table for creating a bigger, more meaningful brand experience. Stay tuned.

-Alan Clark, Director of Trademark

How to Survive A Panda “Attack”

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, Naming, Naming Research on August 14, 2014 at 10:42 am

Create a distinctive and memorable strategic marketing tool…
your brand name

Pandas, penguins and hummingbirds typically evoke warm, feel – good thoughts. That is unless your company misses out on valuable web traffic after changes to search engine algorithms impact where your company ranks on search engine results pages – or if it shows up at all.

When released by search engines, these types of algorithmic changes while called cute animals like pandas, penguins and hummingbirds, can cause your brand to get lost amongst vague descriptions unless consumers are searching for it by name. According to Glenn Gabe’s recent post on Search Engine Watch, “…I unfortunately saw many companies get pummelled…losing more than 60% of Google organic traffic overnight.” One of the best defenses against pesky “pandas” – invest in creating a strategic, marketing tool – a distinctive and memorable brand – that consumers easily recall when researching or buying your product.

It’s clear to us at Lexicon Branding why brand names matter and how a thoughtful approach to this key asset can help companies rise to the top of search engine results pages on the “wild” worldwide web:

• The most successful marketers use both scientific research and creativity to create distinctive and memorable brand names. It is more than simple word play to create a brand that sticks in the mind. Memorable brands endure and resonate by combining a minimum of three facets – semantics or meaning, sound and letter structure.

• Brands need to stand out and work across the globe in multiple languages and various multi-media formats. This is becoming harder to do given trademark registrations continue to increase. For example, global class 9 trademark applications more than doubled from approximately 259,000 in 1984 to exceeding 530,000 by 2013. Lexicon predicts globally by 2017 there will be 55 million trademark applications across the existing classes.

• A distinctive brand name is perennial, not perishable or easily forgotten. Thus, algorithms can change and the organic traffic generated by your brand survives because it was built to last.

How can your name successfully navigate the 2 million web searches conducted every minute?

The right brand name is a fundamental element of strategic marketing that creates value by being distinctive and memorable as well as elevating the conversation. It evokes feelings typically followed by action. The best guard against changes you can’t control is to invest in your brand so that consumers will ask for it by name – whether they’re shopping in a traditional bricks-and-mortar store or typing it into the search bar.

— David Placek, President, Lexicon Branding

Big Brother Brands

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Consumer Goods, Food & Beverage, Naming on July 14, 2014 at 8:48 am

George Orwell pegged 1984 as the year that an authoritarian superstate – personified in a political candidate known only as “Big Brother” – would come to power in his fictional work about a dystopian future. The book was first conceived 40 years before the title year (although published five years later, in 1949.)

Now, 30 years after the events of Nineteen Eighty-Four, could it be that Big Brother is finally manifesting? Not as a political entity designed to control the populace, but as a commercial confederation that owns and controls the majority of brands – and the influence that goes with them.

Holding companies with a fleet of products under their ownership are nothing new. Various bits of legislation have cropped up over the years in attempt to control just how much sway one company might wield over a market. (Energy companies have often been the culprits in such attempts – so early on that in 1935 the U.S. passed the Public Utility Holding Company Act to force companies to divest their interests. In 20 years, the number of holding companies declined, from 216 to just 18 entities.)

Such companies exist in every industry, from electronics to financial institutions, high tech to home improvement, and any other business you can imagine. But what factors – besides their seeming unquenchable desire to acquire other companies – make us think that they are exhibiting Big Brother-ish behavior?

We looked at a graphic that had been made available on the Sploid blog, which is part of Gizmodo.com. As they put it, when it came to the inside of the grocery store, “as you can see (these 10 companies) own everything.”

The ten companies mentioned are Mondelez, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsico, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Unilever. And each of those companies has controlling interest in anywhere between two dozen to almost a hundred other companies in the case of Nestlé.

Do you choose Nestlés’ Dreyer’s ice cream or Breyer’s from Unilever? General Mills’ Chex cereal or Crispix from Kellogg’s? Many such products are at parity when it comes to such things as taste and quality, meaning it often boils down to how the brands make consumers feel at decision-making time.

Frankly, the more interesting story is not about when these giants go head-to-head in the grocery store. Instead, imagine being a smaller cereal manufacturer getting caught up in the marketing and shelf placement elements that come into play with products like these.

It’s a daunting task: Where do the marketing dollars come from to start to build awareness when the playing field is already dominated by gargantuan powerhouse brands?

Lest you think we’re dissing the Big Brother Brands, far from it. We have worked to create brand names with a large number of holding companies, as well as many of the companies within their portfolios. Their naming choices can tend to seem more on the conservative side versus those made by start-ups and smaller companies but when you’re in business around the world, it often pays to play it safe.

Start A Revolution

Fortunately, there are ways to be a nimble David when competing against one or more of these Goliaths in the supermarket aisle. (And the same rule generally holds true in other industries as well.)

• Be different. The Big Brother companies have vast resources but can be slow to innovate – why create something new when something old is still selling like hotcakes? If whatever you’re making or doing is different from what’s gone before – and you can make it known – you’re bound to be noticed.

• Say something different. Starting with a brand name that stakes out some new territory in the landscape, and on through your brand promise and the story of what your product is about, you’ve got to be the brand that gets attention as opposed to the legions that get ignored.

• Reposition the competition. When competing against brands that are well-established in the marketplace, find a hook that’s different yet welcome. Force those other guys to figure out that you’ve changed the game and now they’re the ones playing catch up.

• Take the high road. Sure, they’re the competition and you’re the hero, but keep the conversation about how good your product is and stay away from comparing yourself to your predecessors. No sense tripping over someone else’s goodwill.

Big Brother Is Watching

Ironically, the more successful a smaller company is with their brand, the more attention they’re likely to get from a Big Brother brand. Those bigger companies typically used to work to create their own similar product, often with disappointing results. More often than not nowadays, they’ll use their resources more wisely — and just buy what they like. Innovative beverages like Odwalla, Vitamin Water, and Fuze were all gobbled up by Coca-Cola. Nestlé has bought up chip, candy and even restaurant brands like they’re going out of style.

Sometimes, however, success is its own reward. For every Odwalla that gets snapped up, an Jones Soda remains cheerfully independent. Three Twins ice cream keeps it simple rather than follow the example of Dreyer’s, which became part of the Nestlé family in 2002.

A compelling brand name is a way to start a conversation with consumers that is effective, regardless of whether the product is owned by a multinational corporation, a hot company on the rise, or a struggling startup. That winning name is also the intellectual property that could be the most coveted weapon in your marketing arsenal.

— Lexicon Branding

Defy Description

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, Food & Beverage, Naming, Trademark Law, Trademarks on March 10, 2014 at 3:05 am

Your brand name should be the one thing competitors can’t take away from you. That’s not the case if your name is too descriptive. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the crime and punishment division of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), doled out an important lesson last month.

Two lessons, really.

pretzel_crispsThe first was that, even though you may have a trademark for a number of years, as in the case of Pretzel Crisps, a brand of “flat pretzel cracker”, introduced in 2008 by the Snack Factory of New Jersey – you can still end up losing it, regardless of how well business is doing.

The second, and more important lesson, is that being too descriptive with your trademark can set you up for trouble…which is why Warren and Sara Wilson, the inventors of Pretzel Crisps are now likely scrambling to figure out what to do where the name of their popular snack is concerned.

The Pretzel Crisps name had already been relegated to the Secondary Register, which is a kind of trademark purgatory reserved for brand names deemed descriptive enough that only minimal protection can be offered. In this case, both the words Pretzel and Crisps are widely regarded as being generic and only the instance of the two words appearing together is considered to constitute a trademark.

But then snack food giant Frito-Lay, owned by Pepsico, decided to oppose the mark, arguing that Pretzel Crisps cannot be registered as a trademark because the phrase itself constitutes a generic term. “Like ‘milk chocolate bar’, the combination of ‘pretzel’ and ‘crisp’ gains no meaning as a phrase over and above the generic meaning of its constituent terms”, the company wrote in a motion to the USPTO back in 2010.

According to the New York Times, Princeton Vanguard, the LLC that owns Pretzel Crisp and Snack Factory, and filed for the trademark, has spent $1 million in legal fees. Not much, considering Pretzel Crisps has grown quickly, with over $100 million in sales in 2011. But it was a million bucks spent to find out that they no longer hold a trademark on their own name.

What the makers of Pretzel Crisps do next is anyone’s guess, but an expensive name change is one likely scenario. A scenario that could have been avoided by considering names that could have effectively supported the snack chips’ attributes and taste profiles, while steering clear of simply describing what they are.

— Lexicon Branding

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.

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

Getting the Name You Want: Dealing with Trademark Obstacles

In Branding, Business, Naming, Trademark Research, Trademarks on February 17, 2011 at 3:00 am

I wish there were a marketplace for trademarks.

There’s nothing more disheartening than spending time and money developing a short list of potential brand names for your latest entry into the marketplace, only to find the one that works the best, that hits your communication objectives, that everyone on your team is fired up about and ready to support…is unavailable due to a trademark conflict.

Unfortunately, it is all too familiar and likely to stay that way.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently reported the active trademark registrations for fiscal year 2010: a record-breaking 1,614,121.  This is for the US alone.  In an increasingly global marketplace, the trademark clutter is harder and harder to cut through, especially in software or consumer electronics, where your phone is a camera and a computer and by the end of this piece, it may even be a cappuccino machine.

Recently Racebrook, a private equity firm and auction specialist, put over 150 retail brands up for auction, many with long histories and fine pedigrees, offering firms an opportunity to avoid worrying about the trademark clutter and leverage existing brand equities. This also represents an opportunity for the market, as valuable intellectual property goes to those who are willing to utilize it.  This was a one-time affair, but in the increasingly cluttered world of brands and marks, it may become commonplace.  Naturally, it only provides a solution if one of the brands up for auction conveys the brand equities you are looking for.  What to do if you have already identified a name that works for your project, but potential trademark conflicts are furrowing brows in your legal department?

It’s important to remember that a potential trademark conflict is just that – a conflict, not a dead end.  And, as the old saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat.  Abandoning your team’s favored name is one option.  Using the name anyway and hoping you don’t get caught is another, but I wouldn’t recommend it. (Remember: If a registered trademark owner can show willful infringement, they can get treble damages!)

A better option might be to look deeper into the potential conflict to see whether the owner of the potentially conflicting trademark is open to a sale or licensing agreement.  It’s important to remember, and often forgotten, that Pepsi could use the mark COCA-COLA if Coca-Cola agreed to it, and vice-versa.

At Lexicon, we constantly look beyond the obstacle for the opportunity, whether that obstacle is strategic, legal, or linguistic.  Treating potential trademark conflicts as obstacles rather than as dead ends allows us to find solutions for clients, integrating our knowledge and experience with their needs and concerns.

Some conflicts, like Pepsi trying to use COCA-COLA, or naming your software company MICROSWIFT, are not likely to be resolved except by giving up or getting sued.  But if your project is an email app you want to call BLUEBOTTLE, and there is an existing registration for BOTTLEDBLUE for networking software, isn’t it worth looking into?

A licensing agreement can be a win-win for both parties.  A big firm releasing their latest mobile phone OS could bundle an existing trademark owner’s app in exchange for a right to use an otherwise infringing brand name; the phone maker gets the name they want and the app maker gets increased market share.

There are obstacles to these kinds of deals.  The biggest is uncertainty, hence my proposal of a marketplace for trademarks.  Call it TradeMarket.  It may be a pipe dream, but an open, public trademark clearinghouse could represent an opportunity to increase efficiency in the realm of trademarks.  It would have to be large, and it would have to cost nothing to trademark owners to list their trademarks and whether they are amenable to a licensing agreement (or even to sell their mark, in the extreme).  Then, if a firm is considering a name for their next big brand and they see a potential trademark conflict, a quick perusal of the TradeMarket could provide a path to a win-win scenario.  This could spawn a peripheral niche industry for third-party neutral valuation of a brand name’s worth.

Certainly many brand owners will eschew any such offers in order to protect their brands, but that could be part of the listing as well, providing certainty to others that they should look elsewhere in their brand name development.  Others could list the goods/services for which they would consider a license, and those they would consider off-limits.  More certainty leads to better information, and better information leads to better decisions, creating business solutions to legal problems.

TradeMarket might be that solution.  But I better check the name first…

— Alan Clark, Director of Trademark Research at Lexicon Branding

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