Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, two recent graduates of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute* in Troy, New York, have invented “a process that grows all-natural substitutes for plastic from the tissue of mushrooms,” writes Ian Frazier in the May 20 issue of The New Yorker (paywall). Bayer is the CEO of the company they founded; McIntyre is its chief scientist. They originally called the company Greensulate, because they were working on insulation panels. Now it’s called Ecovative Design, L.L.C.; its 32,000-square-foot factory is in a town that couldn’t be more aptly named: Green Island, New York.
Ecovative is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, like “innovative,” and the first “e” is long. I found it hard to get the hang of pronouncing the name, and for a while I thought that Bayer and McIntyre should look for a simpler one. But after talking a lot about the company with its principals and employees, almost all of whom are under thirty, I got to like “Ecovative” because of the way they said it.
Frazier’s change of heart – or head – illustrates a couple of interesting points about “difficult” names.
The first lesson is about “pronounceabity,” which is generally regarded as one of the three givens for an effective name. (The others are memorability and legal availability.) But as with any rule, there are successful exceptions. Will Leben, a linguist with Lexicon, the branding agency that named Febreze, Swiffer, and BlackBerry, writes in his company blog that “some brands succeed despite tricky phonetics–so tricky that pronunciations can still vary long after the brands have become established”:
Zagat’s intended pronunciation is “ZAG-it,” yet many of us go for the more exotic sounding “za-GAT.” … At the outset, Acura, Honda’s premium brand in the U.S., was accented like bravura and Futura by some people. Yet, thanks to early advertising that spread virally, and also thanks to the (intentional) resemblance to accurate, an unambiguous pronunciation was quickly established, and the brand, which now has been around for three decades, is still going strong.
Then there’s Moleskine, the Italian company that makes those improbably popular notebooks, datebooks, sketchbooks, and other “nomadic objects.” Not only is there no single correct way to pronounce the company name, Moleskine’s official position is that “everyone should feel free to pronounce it as he/she prefers.”
The other lesson to be inferred from Frazier’s experience with the Ecovative name is the power of the Zajonc Effect: the tendency of people, after repeated exposure to an unfamiliar thing, to reverse their initial feelings of dislike or distaste and like the thing more over time.
In other words, the more you hear a name, the more you like it, or at least don’t dislike it.
Like Frazier, I stumbled over “Ecovative” at first. I was reading the name, not hearing it, and I kept transposing the consonants and seeing the word as “evocative.” (That may or may not be the founders’ intention.) But we’re much more likely to “get” a name if we hear it, because humans have been listening to words for many millennia longer than we’ve been reading them. Walking around the Ecovative offices, Frazier kept hearing employees saying EE-co-vay-tive. Soon enough and sure enough, the pronunciation stuck with him.
Moral: Don’t let your brand name linger on the page or screen. If you want people to remember it, make sure it’s spoken aloud – frequently.
* Motto: “Why not change the world?”