What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
-- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Welcome to a typical morning in twenty-first century America:
7:00 A.M. Your clock radio blasts you awake, terminating your recurring MasterCard nightmare with a Money Store spiel pushing second mortgages. Your eyes, still blurred from sleep, can barely make out the Sony logo on the radio as you fumble for the off switch, but you dutifully launch yourself from bed and stagger toward the kitchen. You dump a few measures of Starbucks and some water from the Brita into your Krups machine, punch the button, and head for the shower. Midway between the L'Oréal shampoo and the Pantene conditioner, you remember that today is the day the jeweler promised your Rolex would be fixed, good news, since the cheap Timex you've been wearing in the interim loses five minutes a day. Even better, you remember that today is Casual Friday at the office, so once out of the shower, your mouth still tingling from the Scope mouthwash, you bypass the ranks of Brooks Brothers and Armani in your closet and opt for Dockers, your favorite Nikes, and a Gap chambray shirt. Breakfast consists of a container of Yoplait and a Pop-Tart.
The drive to the office is uneventful except for the jerk in the Jeep who tailgates you most of the way there, giving you a tension headache that even two Advil, washed down at a stoplight with a gulp of Evian, can't seem to dent. Once you've squeezed your Miata between your boss's Lexus and a beat-up Bronco belonging to god-knows-who, your mood is not improved as you get to your office, switch on your iMac, and read your morning e-mail. Some clown on eBay has outbid you on that Pez dispenser collection in the middle of the night, and Discover Card has discovered that the Coach bag you bought for your sister's birthday has put you over your credit limit. The office manager wants to know who has been using the Xerox machine for Tupperware party invitations. And that weirdo in personnel is still trying to dragoon everyone into attending Dianetics workshops. You wonder whether Yahoo could help you find a new job.
Lunch is Taco Bell at your desk while you work on the Lucent account, followed by Altoids to kill the taste. By five o'clock, you're running on Yoo-Hoo, Visine, and M&Ms, so on the way home you decide to reward yourself with a Domino's pizza and a six-pack of Heineken. Midnight finds you fast asleep in front of a commercial for Chia Pets -- with one hand still buried in a bag of Cheez Doodles.
From the Reeboks we wear to the Volkswagens we drive, the daily lives of Americans are increasingly dominated by the manufacturers' trademarks that adorn nearly everything we own. We choose our food, our clothes, our cars, our household furnishings, even our cell phones, by brand name. So ardent is our devotion to brand names that corporate logos themselves have become wearable art and commodities in their own right; the streets of America are awash in consumers playing the role of walking billboards, clad from baseball cap to sneakers in product endorsements. A time traveler from 1950 visiting, say, Disney World today might conclude that he had wandered into a convention of people all supporting someone named Tommy Hilfiger for president.
But while our fondness for pursuing particular brands (and then flaunting them like trophies of the hunt) has become a pop culture phenomenon in recent years, many of these trademarks and product names pose mysteries. We gobble M&Ms all afternoon, but what in the world do the Ms stand for? Is Häagen-Dazs ice cream Scandinavian, German, or what? Was Scotch tape invented in Scotland? Was there really ever cocaine in Coca-Cola? And does Velcro actually mean anything?
Delving into the stories behind some of our most famous brand names is the mission of this book.
The desire to claim credit is a universal human trait, and the labeling of commodities to indicate their origin or maker is as old as trade itself. Even the prehistoric paintings on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in southern France were signed by the artists, and the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all used some sort of mark on goods to indicate who had made the item. In the Europe of the Middle Ages, members of trade guilds developed seals and marks to indicate the origin and quality of their wares (the mark of London's Goldsmiths' Hall is memorialized today in the name of the greeting card company Hallmark).
The earliest form of what we now would consider a brand or trade name was simply the name of the maker, often appended to one or more words denoting the item itself, as in "Smith's Cough Syrup." Of course, while word of mouth might build business for such a simply named brand, a wily manufacturer would usually throw in a few encouraging adjectives ("Smith's Pure and Effective Cough Syrup") to attract the attention of customers.
Often, however, mere words would not suffice to sell a product, because until the early twentieth century, any merchant had to count on a high percentage of his clientele being illiterate. Thus many brands also depended on visual symbols prominently displayed on their packaging to ensure repeat sales. The striking symbol still found on every box of Arm & Hammer baking soda, for example, is a relic of the low literacy rate of the mid-nineteenth century.
While the nineteenth century was characterized by brand names tied to the personal name of the inventor or purveyor of the product, in the twentieth century the trend was more toward product names that functioned as mini-advertisements for the product itself. Usually these were combinations of existing words, albeit sometimes with novel spellings (Krispy Kreme) or in truncated, whimsical forms (Jell-O, combining a variation of gelatin with an enthusiastic suffix). Occasionally, manufacturers picked names whose connection to the reality of their product was not immediately evident, as in the case of Grape-Nuts, a breakfast cereal containing neither grapes nor nuts.
The twentieth century saw an explosion of brands and brand names; in fact, the vast majority of brand names have appeared within the past one hundred years. But as the century drew to a close, it became apparent that a major problem was facing the coiners of new brand names: they had literally begun to run out of words. The stock of useful English words not already in use in brand names (and thus protected by trademark laws) was dwindling, and picking a name even vaguely similar to an existing brand was courting costly litigation.
Thus began the age of synthetic brand names. There have always been some made-up brand names, Kodak being a notable example. But the late twentieth century saw the transformation of the entire process of naming, from picking a word or two to slap on your product to creating entirely new words, quasi words that had never existed before, for your label. And as any market abhors a vacuum, the same period produced a flood of naming consultants and firms who would, for fees ranging from thousands to millions of dollars, switch on their thinking caps and produce a Brave New Name never before heard on earth but sure to be on every consumer's lips by the holiday shopping season. At least that was how it was supposed to work.
One of the earliest, and still perhaps the most famous, synthetic namings took place in 1972, when Esso spent three years and in the neighborhood of $100 million of its stockholders' money to change its name, under the guidance of naming consultants of course, to Exxon. The new name was not a big hit with pundits, but the buying public didn't seem to mind those two x's in the middle and the fact that Exxon meant absolutely nothing, so the floodgates of language opened to admit a tsunami of similar nonsense-names in the ensuing decades.
Today devising new brand names is big business, with the average new name running from $40,000 to christen a mom-and-pop operation to millions of dollars to divine a moniker for a fiber-optic network. For their money, customers of naming firms typically get surveys and focus groups of the breadth (and cost) normally associated with national political campaigns, as well as a staff of in-house linguists who analyze every potential name for the implications and overtones of each consonant and vowel. Great care is taken with the sound of the new name, and letters are ranked like star athletes. Letters such as V and S are considered good, as they suggest speed, although not as strongly as Z (as in Zantac and Prozac). The letter L suggests luxury, as does S (think Lexus). Often bits of real words are incorporated into the new name to "suggest" an idea or virtue, as in Accenture (the new name for the former Arthur Andersen Consulting), which is said to suggest an "accent on the future" (as opposed to wallowing in Arthur Andersen's spotty past, one presumes).
The criteria for a successful name generally accepted in the naming industry are sixfold:
It must be simple.
It must be easy to remember.
It must be impossible to mispronounce.
It must not infringe on an existing trademark.
It must not have any negative connotations in English.
It must not mean anything nasty in another language.
If the end result of this process is unrecognizable as anything resembling a meaningful word, we have a winner. And bonus points are awarded if the average literate adult can't guess from the name what the actual product might be. A meaningless name, cobbled together from powerful consonants and sexy vowels with hints of wealth, white teeth, and low taxes, is the modern marketing ideal, a blank canvas onto which can be projected any product that can be bought.
And that, dear children, is why the phone company is called Verizon and Daddy washes down his Ativan with Zima.
But at the risk of endangering a multibillion-dollar industry employing liberal arts majors who might otherwise starve, a reasonable person has to wonder what naming companies do that could not be accomplished with a Scrabble set and a bottle of old-fashioned gin.
Apparently even some people in the advertising industry have been wondering the same thing. In 2003, The Design Conspiracy, a London ad agency, set up a spoof Web site called What Brand Are You? After visitors to the site chose a "Core Value" and a "Main Goal," a computer script spat out a meaningless "personal brand name" bearing an uncanny resemblance to the product of a big-bucks naming company search project.
If there was ever any doubt that this parody was right on target, it was dispelled when its creators discovered that at least twenty of its gobbledygook creations, including such nuggets as Bivium, Libero, and Ualeo, had subsequently been registered as trademarks by visitors to the site. Of course, no one can really blame those folks for snatching up the freebies. A penny saved, after all, is a penny that can be poured into marketing whatever a Ualeo turns out to be.
There are indications, meanwhile, that the synthetic naming industry may be nearing its own Waterloo, just as "real word" naming did. Pharmaceutical naming, one of the most lucrative fields, with thousands of new products introduced every year, has recently come under scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Drug names are becoming confusingly similar, raising the danger of patients receiving the wrong medication, possibly with fatal consequences. The painkiller Celebrex, for instance, sounds very similar to the antidepressant Celexa, and either of them might be mistaken for Cerebyx, an anticonvulsive drug. The FDA reportedly now rejects one third of all proposed new drug names because of their similarity to names of existing medications.
A similar level of confusion may soon lead flustered consumers who find that they can't remember the difference between Avaya and Aviva to throw in the towel and not buy either of them. This "I give up" syndrome, writ large, will pose a curious challenge to the naming industry: where do you go when you run out of non-words?
Perhaps back to real words, perhaps of another language. The new frontier of inventing brand names may be to fiddle with French, or scramble Spanish, or invoke Italian, or even gamble with German.
Or, given the centrality of the graphic arts and animation to American culture today, perhaps we should simply go back to using distinctive visual symbols to denote all our brands, from pet food to popcorn to perfume. Eau de Bart Simpson, anyone?
Copyright © 2004 by Evan Morris