The San Francisco magazine 7x7* brought to my attention a pop-up juice bar that opened in the city over Memorial Day weekend. It’s called Sow.
This is what I pictured:
Sow and juice-imbibing piglets. Image from JustMommies.
No, no, not /sau/, insists the Sow website.
See? It’s Sōw, with a macron over the O to tell you to pronounce it as a “long” vowel. Or to confuse you further.
And because most city folks won’t know a sow from a sōw from a hole in the ground, there’s a dictionary definition:
verb /sō/ plant (seed) by scattering it on or in the earth
That’s mildly interesting, but so what? A dictionary definition doesn’t make me want to patronize the shop. Besides, while the “planting” concept might make “Sow” an apt name for a nursery or a community garden, the connection between “scattering seed” and “drinking fresh juice” is fairly remote. (From what I’ve read—on the Kickstarter page, for example—Sow doesn’t grow its own fruits and vegetables.)
Another quibble: Nowadays, if a non-farming person is at all familiar with the verb form of “sow,” it’s probably as part of an idiom. And that idiom is a shady one: sow discord, sow rancor, sow rumors, sow one’s wild oats.
As for the macron, here’s something I wrote in 2008 about Grāpple, a brand of grape-flavored apples:
Basic naming rule: If you have to rely on diacritical marks like the macron over the a to clarify pronunciation, your brand name isn't working. Additional hints (“Say Grape-L”) only make you seem more desperate.
That observation applies to Sōw, too.
We recently saw some fancy macronizing with Mondelēz, the new name of Kraft Food Inc.’s global snacks business. The macron over the second E is there to tell you—force you—to pronounce the name “moan-de-LEEZ.” But even the company’s original press release dropped the macron after the headline, and a more recent press release dispensed with it altogether. So go right ahead and say “MAHN-de-lezz” if you please. Or mahn-de-LAY. I won’t turn you in to the brand police.
(As Tate Linden of Stokefire, a branding agency, said in a tweet about Mondelez: “Any name that requires the Latin Extended character set gets a FAIL in my book. How many people can type an ē?”)
Let’s extract the juice from this critique:
1. You can’t use diacritical sticks to bully your customers into pronouncing your name one way or another. You can’t expect the media to play your little macron games. And you can’t fool your customers: We’ve been deceived a few too many times by meaningless marks like the umlauts in Yogen Früz and Häagen-Dazs.
2. Coined names like Mondelez can (almost) justify their forced pronunciations. But “sow” (noun) and “sow” (verb)—which have distinct etymologies, by the way—are real words with centuries of usage history. And as English-language learners quickly learn, words that end in ow follow neither reason nor rhyme in their pronunciation: you have to memorize throw, cow, bow (both of them), row (both of them), low, allow, now, know, flow, show, plow**, and so on. Faced with “Sow” out of context, we’re tongue-tied. Not a good way to promote word-of-mouth.
3. Unless your company publishes dictionaries, avoid definitions. They’re either too obvious or too obscure to matter; they’re the last refuge of the unoriginal and the branding-challenged. I don’t recommend them for speeches, either.
4. Short names aren’t always the best names—especially when their spelling isn’t transparent and homophones abound. (So? Sew? Soh? Seau?) That 7x7 article mentioned two new rivals to Sow: Juice to You and Corazon Juicebar. They aren’t world-beaters, but both of those names are more intuitive, memorable, and flavorful than Sow.
P.S. I’m writing here about names and brand language only. My comments are not intended to be a critique of business model, product quality, or the personal integrity of anyone involved in any company I discuss.
* A nicely named publication. The city of San Francisco covers approximately 49 square miles: 7 by 7.
** There is in fact a restaurant called Plow not far from Sow. Co-branding opportunity!