Lexicon® Blog

Posts Tagged ‘names’

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

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Taking New Car Names for a Spin

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Cars, Naming, Trademarks on March 24, 2014 at 3:00 am

The 2014 Geneva Motor Show recently wrapped up in Switzerland, having rolled out a spectacle of both new car models and speculative concept cars as well. One of the more interesting features that ride shotgun with the unveiling of new car ideas is the fleet of new car names to go along with them.

How Important are Concept Names?

Often times, those names – which can tend to be quite exotic, unusual, or just plain bad – stand about the same chance as getting into the hands of consumers as the cars themselves. One thing that most concept names provide for the vehicles they appear on is signal to the industry and car-curious public that there is something different going on.

We thought looking at a few of the categories of new vehicles would be illuminating from the perspective of automobile brand names.

Sports Cars/Performance Cars

Slide1Names for cars in these categories are expected to have the kind of names that evoke power and performance, a responsibility shared by the parent brand as well. Lamborghini, for example, unveiled their new Huracan (the transparently Spanish equivalent of hurricane). Ferrari brought out the California T, conjuring images of cruising down the Pacific Coast, while McLaren offered the 650S Spider. Throwing even more intrigue in the mix is Infiniti with their concept car Eau Rouge (“red water” in French). Lexus sticks to their tried and true brand architecture with the RC 350F, while Maserati introduced their concept car Alfieri which, in Italian, can mean “bishop”, “ensign” or, most likely the case here, “standard bearer” — almost as if this new idea could become the flagship model for Maserati.

Crossovers/SUVs

Slide2These bigger passenger vehicles continue to get more streamlined as the years pass, with the concept vehicles showing off sportier and sleeker lines and details. The concept names are tending to match the styling cues, with Subaru’s fascinating Viziv and the Intrado from Hyundai bearing names with no inherent meaning (although the Hyundai comes close to the Spanish word entrada, meaning “entrance”). The Volvo Estate, on the other hand, is a concept car name loaded with meaning and brings an almost regal tone to the proceedings. Jeep’s Renegade is a very expected name in this category. While most car names these days tend to be short, alá Citroen’s rugged Cactus entry, one big – and we do mean big – exception is the Range Rover Autobiography, a name so long it would only fit on a larger vehicle.

Compacts/Subcompacts

Slide3Two of the concept models are competing not just in the category but in the name department as well: Volkswagen reveals their T-Roc idea while the Opel Adam Rocks small crossover concept also rolled out on the floor. Hazumi is an intriguing-sounding word to go along with Mazda’s new little car, regardless of whether you speak Japanese (where the meanings range from “bound” and “rebound” to “inertia” and “momentum”). Finally, clinging to their traditional naming strategy, Jaguar brought out their tight little roadster, the XE, to go along with the XF, XJ, and XK. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

At Lexicon we think concept names in the auto industry are as important as the final name. Names like Cactus, Autobiography, and Adams Rocks fall far short of sparking our imagination or stimulating interest. Instead, the ideal concept names should strive to do three things: Communicate direction (to both internal designers and engineers as well as to consumers), provoke interest, and begin to tell the story of a new vehicle.

Burning Candy

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, High Technology, Naming, Trademark Law, Trademarks on February 20, 2014 at 3:00 am

A little over a month ago, the Skittles hit the fan when the Internet discovered that King.com Limited had trademarked the word CANDY. Reaction ranged from “all other games with candy in their titles were in trouble” to “no one on Earth could ever utter the word candy again.”

candy-crush-logoThis action was to protect the game developer’s white-hot title Candy Crush Saga, a game downloaded by more than 500 million people since its release in 2012.

One of the first to break the news was inc.com, in a short piece by Jeremy Quittner, on January 15th – the very day that King won trademark approval from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “You already know how ridiculously litigious the entire area around intellectual property rights is right now, but this brings things to a whole new level. And small business owners should be wary, as the potential to run up against a law suit seems all-too-likely these days,” wrote Quittner.

The fuse was lit…and the news soon exploded all over Twitter, the sounding board where people often display more passion than knowledge. @feliciaday, actress and creator of the popular web series The Guild tweeted: “I’m confused, how is it legal to trademark ENGLISH WORDS and then harass small game companies about it?!” And @BasicallyIDoWrk followed with “Who is the idiot that let Candy Crush trademark the word candy?!”

To address Ms. Day’s point, most registered trademarks in the USPTO are made up of English words or are names created by putting one or more English words together to form a new word (like PowerBook or OnStar, two names developed by Lexicon and subsequently registered for trademarks by our clients). As for the second comment, the idiot in question is the aforementioned USPTO, the governmental body tasked with issuing patents and trademarks dating back to 1871.

On its surface, the registration makes all kinds of sense, particularly to protect King’s intellectual property from infringement by the legion of me-too type games that have sprung up in the wake of the success of Candy Crush, trading on either its name, its play style, or both – such as Candy Crash and Super Candy Cruncher.

Fortunately, for those who are outraged at the gumption shown by King in registering CANDY, there are checks and balances in place in an effort to keep things fair and equitable.

Upon issuance, trademarks are published for opposition in the USPTO’s Official Gazette. Anyone opposing a trademark in the belief that they may be damaged by its issuance has 30 days to either file an opposition to the mark or a request to extend the time to oppose.

And there is, potentially, a lot to oppose in the case of King’s trademark application since they’ve tried to more than cover their bases. Not only have they registered CANDY in three of the 44 international classes of trademarks, but what the name covers – the Goods and Services – within those three classes seems overly extensive. Ranging from blank usb flash drives and exposed photographic film to beach shoes and baby monitors, this is an application just begging to be opposed by those with trademarks that use the word candy and that pre-date King’s registration.

That’s not to say that opponents won’t have a pitched battle on their hands.

One recent example shows that King is playing for keeps.

CandySwipe is a game developed by Albert Ransom in 2010, two years before King’s Candy Crush hit the scene. Ransom trademarked his CandySwipe name and, when he saw elements of similarity between the two games, he opposed King’s initial trademark application of Candy Crush Saga. Ransom was trumped when King subsequently purchased a trademark for CandyCrusher that had been issued for game software and mobile apps way back in 2004 and used it, in turn, to counter-oppose the CandySwipe trademark.

Ransom just recently published an open letter online to King, sarcastically congratulating the company on successfully crushing any chance he had of making CandySwipe a success (the Internet is full of people ignorantly calling Ransom’s game a “ripoff” of Candy Crush), as well as now cease-and-desisting him from being able to use the CandySwipe name.

Protecting oneself against trademark infringement is one thing. Intellectual property is often the most valuable asset a company has in its coffers. More difficult to defend are the actions of an entity that follows the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. One could argue that King’s actions might be construed as a restraint of trade for other game developers. And who knows — what would happen if Hasbro, Inc., which took over Milton Bradley’s Candy Land trademark first issued in 1951, were to step forward and argue that King’s trademark is precluding them from issuing an electronic version of the popular board game?

The outrage against King continues, with opponents asking folks to delete the game from their devices, and tweets continuing to be posted about the trademark filing. (From @jgasteiz: “If only I had the guts to uninstall an app every time its company is evil. I’ll do it this time. Bye bye #candycrush”)

Undaunted, King continues to attempt to crush both opposition and competition. And on February 18th, they filed for an Initial Public Offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Reportedly, they are attempting to raise $500 million.

That’s a lot of candy.

— Lexicon Branding

The Brief In Brief

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, Naming on April 15, 2013 at 3:00 am

Developing An Effective Creative Brief

Every year for the past thirty years Lexicon has received dozens of creative briefs usually prepared by a client, sometimes by the advertising agency. Most recently, “brand strategists” either inside or outside the client have been preparing them. No matter the source, they are usually not very good. What is most striking is that they all sound and look alike even across distinctly different categories. You have to wonder “Why?”

This piece is not a “how to” article. It has just a few observations that may help to improve the process.

Most clients have a standardized approach to writing the brief. These briefs have sections. “Brand vision”, “tone”, and “brand voice” are phrases we often see. Because they are so formulaic we often find these documents way too logical and static.

True, some look and sound impressive. The various sections are often filled with popular but generally meaningless expressions like “empowering”, “enabling” and most recently, “curating”. If you are on the creative side of this, it’s not very helpful. In fact, it is usually constraining. A brief should be a launch pad for discussion and thinking and investigation, and not a prescription.

So why are so many briefs prescriptive in nature?

It stems from an assumption that the creative process and creative people must be managed. You can’t really manage a creative process. You can lead it, encourage it, push it, even cajole it. Design your briefs with those ideas in mind and you’ll be ahead of the game. Expecting a brief to manage a process is both wishful and naïve.

Since it’s called a “creative brief”, why not involve creative people to help write it? Start with a blank sheet of paper and just start talking. Forget about filling out a form. Write it as a story. Together. Keep it open. Let it evolve.

Not only will the end product be better – much better – but an essential ingredient of innovation and breakthrough creativity will be created. That ingredient is trust. Trust engaging your creative resources rather than taking sole responsibility for creating the brief next time.

Chances are you’ll be delighted – and rewarded – with the results.

– J. David Placek, President & Founder

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

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