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Posts Tagged ‘branding’

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

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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

Brands Just Want To Be Friends

In Branding, Business, Naming, Trademarks on February 7, 2011 at 3:00 am

Creating your new brand for an expansive experience as opposed to a particular product will inevitably serve you well.

There used to be a time that most brands had a first and last name. Pepsi Cola. Kodak Film. Eveready Batteries. It wasn’t that the last name was always a part of the registered trademark — like Coca-Cola — it was just that the descriptor had to be there to distinguish the mark and tell people what they were getting. Then consumers would take the descriptor along for the ride so that they have less of a chance of having to explain the name to someone unfamiliar to it.

As society continues to move swiftly forward and peoples’ attention spans grow ever shorter, so do their consideration of trademarks. Thanks to the Internet, we’re getting used to being on a first name basis with brands like Google, Amazon and Facebook. These types of brands are not products, services, or even companies as much as they are experiences. And most experiences, by their very nature, defy being described by a single word or even phrase.

Amazon started out being billed as “the world’s largest bookstore.” While they still hold comfortably to that claim, they now also offer everything from automotive merchandise to watches. Simply by telling someone “Look for it on Amazon,” it’s an indication that the name itself literally says it all.

To illustrate further how the experience of the brand continues to shift, Lexicon created the BlackBerry name for Research In Motion back when the initial product was a two-way pager. Over time, with a robust line of smartphones and now a tablet coming online, BlackBerry stretches to cover a lot of tech and without having to say more about itself — the products speak for themselves. In the first world, certainly, if you tell someone you’ve got a BlackBerry in your pocket, they’re unlikely to think you’re speaking of the fruit.

The tendency in our society is take something short and shrink it even more. That’s why we like nicknames. It’s why we can’t help turning longer names like Theodore into Ted, Maddie becomes short for Madeline and even the two-syllable Joseph turns into Joe.

In the branding world, a classic case-in-point of this same phenomenon is FedEx, which began as Federal Express back in 1973 but, in 2000, the company decided to go with the flow and change their brand over to the shorter nickname. (Linguistically speaking, FedEx is a syllabic abbreviation of the original name.) It doesn’t seem to have been a capricious choice. By using Google’s Ngram Viewer to chart the occurrences of Federal Express versus FedEx in printed material, one can actually see the use of the longer name start to dip as the FedEx nickname continues to rise — a trend that sharpened once the name change became official.

Contrast of the use of the terms “Federal Express” vs. “FedEx”

This move toward informality will likely continue. In a social media world of tweets, where you have to get your message across in just 140 characters, brevity is becoming the soul of marketing. FedEx was a shorthand that everyone was using, so it came pretty naturally. Conversely, like a kid trying to foist a self-created nickname on people, it comes off as a little sad when a company tries to force the issue and create a shortened version of their brand on their own. Last fall, FedEx competitor United Parcel Service finally abandoned their ad campaign to try to become known as “Brown”. Makes sense — why would people adopt a longer name instead of the already short and familiar UPS?

The strategy can work, if the company is willing to make the commitment. An example is Eveready, which changed its moniker, in 2000, to Energizer, represented by that ridiculous drum-beating pink bunny.

The more that consumers interact with your offering — the friendlier they get with it — the more they come to feel a sense of ownership of it as well. As that happens, they’ll begin find new ways to use it. So, rather than your nascent brand being a product, service, or company, think of it, instead, as an unfolding experience. One of vast scope and limitless potential. With that in mind, it’s good business to consider just how expansive your brand may become, and to do so before you even hit the market.

For any company to be a good steward of their brand requires that they manage this business of shifting perception. Fighting too hard against consumers’ desire to cut your name short might result in a backlash. But pandering to it rarely pays off as well. Just as protecting one’s good brand name requires attention, companies need to also be aware of how their name is being used and recognize when it may be time to get a little friendlier.

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

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

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!

Can the Right Brand Name Actually Create a New Category?

In Branding, Business, Naming, Sports, Trademarks on November 29, 2010 at 11:12 am

Can the right brand name actually create a new category? Consider the case of Callaway’s Big Bertha® driver.

By the late ’80s, the golf club industry was drifting towards a commodity-like industry. Most companies offered similar products and new introductions concentrated on minor improvements and relatively minor claims.

Big Bertha driver

The driver that changed the game

In 1991, Callaway introduced the largest driver ever made — Big Bertha — a stand-out name with attitude. Big Bertha was about hope and power (mostly hope). Within three years, Callaway’s profits had increased five-fold to $250 million.

There is no question that the name made the launch of the line far more efficient and dramatic than if it had been called Callaway Big or Callaway Large or Callaway Pro.

Big Bertha put Callaway in a whole other league. As an avid golfer, I had to have one and so did just about everyone else out on the links.

Oversized clubs are now a major category in the golf world and you can’t argue with the club’s promise of performance and its dramatic style. Big Bertha got golfers’ attention, generated excitement, and let Callaway deliver the message.

Next time someone tells you that brand names aren’t strategic marketing tools, tell them the Big Bertha story.

— David Placek

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