Skip to content

Meta-linguistics

November 10, 2010

In an effort to shift users from the online OED back to the paper version (an aside by a logophile: why would you ever read a beautiful document like the Oxford English Dictionary on a computer screen?), a Young & Rubicam campaign fomented a website that simply shimmers with brilliance.

SaveTheWords.org urges visitors to adopt a rare word that has fallen into disuse and out of the dictionary’s body of etymological wonders.

The Save the Words site greets its audience with protest-connoting march of signs which all cluster in the foreground and beg readers, “pick me!”

The campaign is working. The blogosphere and media are taking note of the pull of marketing words to a dictionary’s target audience: word geeks.

To honor the creativity of the site, to resurrect the glorious words, and to support the idea of paper dictionaries, I urge you to go. Sponsor a word. The tragedy of wordicide is too much to bear, and you can help. In your succisive ponderings, while your world famous cheese is rendling, find a plebicular word and adopt it.

Rebranding that stumbles but won’t fall

November 9, 2010

When the much-laudedEcoMetro Guide came out this year, Northern California groaned. The coupon book and local resource often used as a fundraiser for schools has rebranded itself the Chinook Book, and almost nobody I’ve spoken with is happy about the new name.

Most of the online response to the book focuses on the savings from the huge number and vast selection of coupons in this year’s edition. Speaking with people directly, I’m finding that nobody likes the new name. While Chinook makes sense for other markets (Denver, Portland, Seattle), it isn’t sitting well with the Bay Area.

Chinook is a northwestern wind, that could bring with it a story of freshness, change, and oxygen. But the word originally referred to wet, warm winds in the Pacific Northwest. The contemporary usage refers to foehn winds that push air from the Canadian Prairies and the Great Plains into mountain ranges. Neither connotation fits one-fifth of the target audience.

The target market for the book comprises two distinct groups: local businesses who pay to be in the book and local consumers who want to save money while shopping and buying local, in part to be gentle with the planet.

EcoMetro Guide made sense as a name in all the target markets: it said local, it said green, it said reference. Chinook Book may work for Denver, Seattle, Portland, and the Twin Cities, but for Northern California it says not-local, soggy, and heavy.

Merchants I’ve spoken with are threatening to pull out of the guide for next year, and consumers are mocking the name change (and in several cases refusing to buy because of the brand’s failure of imagination).

But the naming effort will undoubtedly succeed in 80% of the publisher’s markets. And the Bay Area will get over the name to save hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. The compilation of reference information and coupons in the book is often sold as a fundraiser for schools and in the stores that offer generous savings to purchasers.

So we may scoff, but we’ll buy. The name, then, is a failure for part of the audience, but the brand is established enough to survive.

What do you think?

Disaster checks

October 25, 2010

Bank of America is still fighting to regain customer confidence, and their new ad campaign revolves around them being perceived as a local bank. Around the country people are shying away from big banks, clamoring for local, smaller banks. So BofA is trying to tell its brand story so that people hear the narrative of local branch rather than a national monolith.

But they forgot the cardinal rule of verbal branding: linguistic disaster checks. Ask locals what they think when they hear your verbal branding solutions. Their answers might surprise you, but they can help you avert a communications mistake

We warn branding clients about testing for linguistic and visual disasters everywhere they offer their wares. You can’t sell a Nova in Latin America, and after retracting a disastrous campaign you can’t explain away the ignorance of local language.

BofA should have send done brief market tests, asking locals in their localized national campaign, “How do you get to work?” They would have heard that, around the San Francisco Bay Area, we “take 101 downtown,” “take 280 to 92,” and “take BART or MUNI.”

While people in DC take “the Metro” and in Boston they ride “the T” we in Northern California don’t use “the” when referring to public transportation or freeway options.

Ooops. So much for getting customers to think you’re local, BofA. All I see in this ad is “we’re a huge national bank that doesn’t know local markets.”

What do you do when confronted with a national brand masquerading as a local company?

How the Cheese Was Won

September 2, 2010

Northern California’s award-winning, artisan cheesemakers Cowgirl Creamery announced their new aged, organic cheese offering this season: Wagon Wheel.

It is a brand name that both hits and misses.

Certainly the name fits the company’s look and feel. And “Wagon Wheel” is a lovely play on the size of the cheese wheels, which is striking compared with the much smaller aged cheese Mt. Tam, Inverness, Pierce Point, Pt. Reyes, and Devil’s Gulch.

But the nomenclature system of Cowgirl Creamery’s other cheeses anchors their various aged offerings in vivid imagery and cache from the Marin County landmarks neighboring the Pt. Reyes-based company. The cheeses are successful in part because their graphic names capture the culinary prowess that is Northern California’s local, artisan, organic food movement by physically locating the cheeses in a tiny, breathtakingly beautiful area of the country. A generically Western name like “Wagon Wheel” misses an opportunity to evoke Cowgirl Creamery’s natural assets.

“Wagon Wheel” stands out from the brand’s lanscape names in an unattractive “what’s left after the abandoned stagecoach sits in the sun for 50 years” kind of way. Perhaps the artisan cheesemaker might take their new Strauss-milk cheese the way of ranch dressing—an inscrutable western sounding name becomes household word for salty and ubiquitous. But that hardly seems likely of a carefully crafted, mild, farmstead organic cheese.

The cheesemakers have named their successful Mt. Tam., Pt. Reyes, Pierce Point, Inverness, and Devil’s Gulch cheeses after local geographical marvels. “St. Pat,” a sixth cheese, arguably fits the nomenclature system as well, because the nettle-wrapped cheese is purported to be  evocative of springtime in the area.

Only one other aged cheese from Cowgirl has name that stands apart from the mountains and gulches around Pt. Reyes. “Red Hawk” soars above the company’s ranch-hand roots and evokes majestic, far reaching wilderness with each label. But “Wagon Wheel” fails to capture the wonder of the environment from which it springs. Wagon Wheel does not connote stunning, soaring, and startling nature the way the brand’s other names do.

There is drama and beauty in sending someone to the store for Devil’s Gulch, to eating Pierce Point, to exploring the nuanced flavors of Mt. Tam.  The same euphonic zest does not appear in the latest name. Wagon Wheel does not beckon foodies to the cheese counter, does not call wildly from its waxed paper. Wagon Wheel just gets you where you need to go.  A bit dusty, but proud that you held in for the long haul.  Quaint, but a rough ride nonetheless.

Within the cheesemakers’ aged collection, Wagon Wheel is supposed to be the workhorse of the cheese spectrum. The organic, hand-crafted table cheese produced in 25-pound wheels does the heavy lifting for the cheesemaker and its customers. Acknowledging the cheese’s role in the lineup, then, Wagon Wheel might be just the right name. Perhaps carefully hand-crafted, but certainly not breathtaking or refined. Efficient and a bit nostalgic.

Credible? Sure.
Memorable? Yes.
Differentiated? Yes.
Sustainable? Yes.

Does that mean the name succeeds? You tell me.

Don’t make your audience sic

August 31, 2010

Mistakes happen. Typos in emails and letters seem to crop up even after you’ve looked over your work several times.

But in packaging, advertising, and marketing materials, errors erode your audience’s trust.

When upscale athletic outfitter Title Nine sent out their Fall 2010 catalog featuring a full page spread touting “One good dress is worth it’s weight in carrots,” theiraudeince took a harder look at the claims, the materials, the construction, and the brand promise. If Title Nine  guarantees service but fails so obviously, customers second guess the whole process.  Echoes of how each experience with the brand is an opportunity to build equity turn to questions about quality.

Sure, you can argue only English professors and copyeditors care, but you’d be wrong. Nobody wants their brand to sound uneducated or sloppy. Playing with grammar, a la “got milk” or “think different” are risks but calculated and educated risks. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors are the fastest way to lock in the brand voice of stupidity. Readers catch the errors on company web sites, environmental materials, advertising, and packaging. And then the disdain and mocking go viral.  A brand associated with errors and mistakes is not one with a credible claim to quality.

Name their hopes, not their features

August 18, 2010

When Chevy announced pricing on its new hybrid plug-in Volt, the Internet was abuzz with questions, especially how the bankrupt car company hoped to be competitive when Nissan’s fully electric  LEAF is priced $8,000 lower. Some even argued GM wanted the Volt to fail. Analyzing the names of the two cars, it’s clear Chevy’s failure lies in a classic brand naming blunder: naming the attribute rather than the benefit.

There are several technical differences between the two cars. The Volt can travel 40 miles on an electric charge and then shifts to a gasoline engine to go up to 300 miles farther. Its interior mimics a space shuttle cockpit, claiming the technological future. The LEAF, on the other hand, runs up to 100 miles exclusively on electric charge and focuses internal and external design on minimalism.

Both names are examples of greenwashing, but function to different ends: Chevy hides behind the electric half of its hybrid engine and Nissan directs attention skyward to mask the coal-fired power plants fueling the LEAF’s electric charge.

The two names are obviously the result of intensive branding efforts that focused on different areas. The name “Volt” brings the audience into a laboratory where electricity is studied and mastered.  Volt makes the technology the focus, in its design and name.  It seems to be highlighting the electric half of the hybrid engine to shift the Volt into the electric fray rather than the hybrid market. “LEAF,” on the other hand, focuses on the emotional benefit to the owner and driver of an electric car. The name does not highlight the minimalistic design or the electric power sources. Rather, LEAF directs the consumer’s attention upward, to a specific oxygen-producing visual dancing amongst the treetops and blue skies. Chevy’s naming endeavor focuses us on science, Nissan’s on nature. But more important, Volt highlights an attribute and LEAF a benefit.

And that’s where the brands will stumble or surge in their marketing. Chevy is trying to hit a technological sweet spot between electricity and petroleum that appeals to the broadest consumer market. Hide the petroleum power source; direct attention to cutting-edge power and electrifying drivers. Choosing from the other extreme in the naming presentation, Nissan is targeting the eco-dollars by painting a verbal image of summer’s dazzling greens, brilliant blues, and sparkling clean air.

In naming we know that the client is the toughest sell and will always choose practical, attribute driven names when given the option. “Volt.” Electric. Scientific. Obvious. (And not a little tone-deaf to the connotations of electrocution, which paints Chevy, previously way behind in the search for green markets, a bit like a toddler sticking its finger in the socket of eco-naming.)

Unlike most clients, however, the eco-consumer will bypass expected and practical names to accept evocative, benefit-driven names. Will an electric car, the power from which is derived primarily from coal-fired and nuclear plants, actually act like a leaf, unfurling in Spring and cleaning the air? Nope. But can it feed the budding hope for a cleaner world? Clearly. Despite the annoying insistence of Nissan that LEAF be all caps, the name itself will capture the green market’s attention precisely because it highlights the most aspirational qualities of electric cars. Will it work? In May LEAF preorders had already exceeded production capacity.

Does this have to do with the simple logistics of using a brand name? Buy a Volt. Drive the Volt. Pay the power company for a Volt. Buy a LEAF. Drive a LEAF. Change the world by turning over a new LEAF.

Never underestimate the appetite of change-the-world consumers for aspirational names that align with their goals.

Bear with us…

July 23, 2010

While we build the site and upload posts and white papers, this blog is looking a bit sparse.  Bear with us.  In a month or so this will be a more vibrant site.