This just in: The New York Times reports that employees at General Motors’ headquarters in Detroit are being encouraged to use the brand name “Chevrolet” instead of the long-popular nickname “Chevy.”
Oh, GM. Or should I say “General Motors”?
The switch to the more formal moniker brings to mind an analogous experience in my own career. In the days leading up to the dotcom bust, I was working for a very large Web consultancy that began encouraging employees to adopt more formal attire. “In these more sober economic times…” was how the memo read, referring to the fact that the company was bleeding money at an astronomical rate. Employees were told that collarless shirts were no longer acceptable, and jeans should be worn with discretion. Rather than instilling professionalism and pride in employees, the wardrobe recommendations made us feel even more disconnected from a brand we knew was struggling.
I imagine this is the case with Chevrolet’s employees.
The soul of a brand has little to do with dress codes or names. It resides with the employees who are the brand’s daily caretakers. Legislating formality does not elevate brand perception in the eyes of employees or the public. In fact, it can underscore management’s disconnection from their own brand reality. It also runs the risk of casting the brand as inauthentic. And no brand wants to be inauthentic.
I doubt the American public will ever abandon the name Chevy. My parents drove a Chevy Impala convertible in the early '70s. That car will always be a Chevy Impala convertible. If Chevrolet wants to revitalize its brand, taking its popular nickname away from the American people is probably not the best approach.
Your name has been your name for as long as you’ve known you. At least that’s the case for most of us. Sometime between the ages of four and seven months, the neurons involved in name recognition kicked in, and you learned to recognize your own name. And so you learned the word or words that represent you.
What does this have to do with branding? Flash forward to adulthood, and “Jim” and “Karen” and “Mark” and “Hildegard” are not just random syllables. They’re signifiers of personhood and personality. Or as we say in branding, identity.
And that brings us to the brand naming conundrum: Does the name create the identity, or does the identity give meaning to the name? The answer: yes.
A name is a relatively small verbal unit. It can only convey so much. And contrary to the most earnest client aspirations, it can never tell the full story about a brand or product or service. It can suggest that story, but the experience of the brand (or product or service) is what invests the name with meaning.
On the flipside, a brand name is like shorthand. It’s a verbal label, an emblem. It stands for everything the brand represents, just like your name represents everything that makes you “you.”
Let’s go back to people names. If I described my friend “Fred” to you in detail, some of that explanation might stick. But chances are you would need to meet Fred in person to form an opinion of him, which you would then retroactively associate with his name. Your experience of my friend Fred is what gives unique meaning to his name. You might even know other Freds. But your specific knowledge of my friend gives the name Fred specific meaning in his case. It’s a contextual thing.
To take it a step further, think of an expression like “That’s so Fred.” That’s a person’s name acting as a brand in everyday speech. We’re able to take the attributes that make Fred “Fred” and apply them to someone or something else, just by using his name. This is something celebrities are fully aware of—and why they often legally protect their names.
That naming conundrum I mentioned? It’s not easily solved. And maybe it’s not supposed to be. But here’s what I know: People tend to learn more easily through experience than being told. Which is why the better you get to know someone, the more likely you are to remember his or her name.
Does this mean all names are just blank slates? No. Even coined names, which have no dictionary definition, cause our synapses to fire. The challenge is to make sure you’re activating synapses—as opposed to not activating them—with a brand name. Ultimately, how people perceive your brand is how they will understand its name. And somewhere in there, the name will come to represent the brand.
Political correctness—and the scrutiny of language it spawned—might not be the cultural neurosis it was in the early 90’s, but we’re still sensitive to it. Except when it comes to certain brand names. These names, like all brand names, are able to acquire their own meaning and associations over time. But taken out of their fuzzy, protective brand context, they have unintended—and often unfortunate—associations.
Without further ado, here is a short list of brand names whose questionable derivations many of us tend to forget or ignore.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary provides the following definition: “a small dependent country usually of the tropics; especially: one run despotically.” A pejorative expression, “banana republic” connotes human and environmental rights violations, foreign exploitation, and dictatorships. We think merino V-neck sweaters and sheath dresses.
The name as we use it is a Scottish shortening of "allhallow-even" ("even" meaning "evening") and dates from 1745.
"Allhallow-even" was itself a variation of "All Hallows’ eve," which dates from the mid-16th century and marked the last night of the year in the old Celtic calendar. The Irish, being a superstitious people, claimed "Old Year's Night," as it was also known on the calendar, was a time for witches. In addition, the ancient Gaels of Ireland believed that on the night of October 31 (the end of the annual harvest), the boundary between the living and the dead was dissolved. The dead would rise from their graves to damage crops, spread illness, and wreak havoc.
Irish and Scottish immigrants brought versions of their Halloween traditions to the US in the nineteenth century. These included jack-o'-lanterns, which originated in Europe and were first carved not from pumpkins, but turnips and rutabagas. The Celts believed the head was the most powerful part of the body, and so created "heads" out of root vegetables to ward off evil. Pumpkins were used in the United States because they were larger and more plentiful.
I’ll admit it upfront, so diehard fans of AMC’s Mad Men are forewarned: I’m one of the few people who’s not completely infatuated with the show. But as someone who does branding for a living, I’m intrigued by how it reconstructs the ethos of an era using brands and pop cultural references.
There’s one indisputable truth about brand naming: your name is only as good as your company, product, or service. Consumers rarely invest in something based solely on the perceived quality of its name. They invest in a product’s or brand’s reputation. Names can influence purchase decisions, but they don’t unilaterally prevent or guarantee them.
Which leads us to the phenomenon of brand names that go bad.
In the 1950s, a top US automaker decided to elevate one of its existing brands to the level of luxury car, creating room for a new sub-luxury brand. The company did its due diligence and came up with a plan. The brand would represent a new business division. It would place the parent company in a parity position with other major US automakers.
The car launched with significant fanfare. But in just a few short years, the party was over. The company was Ford, and the brand was Edsel—a name that has become synonymous with colossal public failure. Speculation as to why the Edsel failed is endless. But one thing is fairly certain: it wasn’t because of the name alone. If that was the case, then brands like DeSoto, Chrysler, Buick, Cadillac—names that are no more or less odd-sounding than Edsel—would have failed just as quickly.
Consumer research done after the Edsel proved unpopular revealed, among other things, that the name was a problem. That’s a bit of a post-rationalization. What’s more likely is the car was a flop and took its name down with it. If the car had been a popular success, the brand name would be upheld as an example of how an unusual family name (Edsel Ford was the car’s namesake) can have breakthrough brand significance and stimulate record sales.
Two name changes—or more correctly, modifications—have received attention in the media and branding worlds recently. Pizza Hut has announced that its boxes and select locations will carry the name “The Hut,” and RadioShack plans to unveil new creative for “The Shack,” its shorter, catchier moniker.
These name shortenings are proof of what professional namers already know: names acquire meaning, they don’t create meaning. Once meaning is established, the brand name can be reduced to a shorthand version of itself, signaling its secure place in the realm of consumer awareness.
In the case of Pizza Hut and RadioShack, there’s also a more tactical motivation. As brands move away from their legacy offerings and expand product assortments, they outgrow their descriptive names. Today, Pizza Hut sells more than pizza, and RadioShack has more than radios on its shelves. The two brands are larger than their original products; their names stand for tangible and intangible experiences.
Anyone who names things for a living will tell you a name is simultaneously the most important and least important signifier of a brand. It’s the most important because it’s the most succinct verbal expression of everything the brand stands for. It’s the least important because that “everything” is what gives the name value. The name alone—or out of its brand context—doesn’t mean anything aside from its dictionary definition, assuming there is one.
Now think of all the places you’ve been—especially those places that conjure up fond memories or positive associations. The place names stand for something much larger than their geographic locations. Even places you’ve never been can have very specific associations. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr at the top of the Empire State Building. Dr. King and the March on Washington. Paris, France. Wasilla, Alaska. Each place name has its own narrative, real or fictional, that gives it significance beyond the everyday. The name represents the story that is the brand experience.
Colloquial speech is a powerful force, especially when it comes to brand names. In both cases above, a registered trademark is being invoked, but most consumers aren't aware of it. "Band-Aid" is a registered trademark of Johnson & Johnson, and "Laundromat" was a trademarked name created by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in the 1930s.