Lands’ End. Chick-fil-A. Cheez Whiz. Publix.
What’s going on here?
In his latest column, “Off Brands,” Matthew J.X. Malady, who works the language beat for Slate, asks why some—OK, many—brand names are spelled and punctuated in “nonstandard” or even “terrible” ways. (Malady has a particular beef with Beef ‘O’ Brady’s and “the odd punctuation surrounding the O in the establishment’s name.”)
Malady interviewed me, along with a couple of marketing professors, to understand why, in his words, “our country is jam-packed with shops, restaurants, and products the names of which do not align well with traditional notions of standard written English.”
Malady may have started with a peeve, or a whole bunch of peeves, but to his credit he dug deep and got some thoughtful, reasonable responses. Here’s Vanitha Swaminathan, a consumer-brand expert who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business:
“There’s a famous theory in psychology that says that moderate amounts of incongruity—if it’s just somewhat different, but not too, too different—increase involvement,” she says. “It increases people’s interest, and they want to process the information more. At the same time, when you’re extremely incongruous, which means that you neither are communicating anything about the category you’re in or you’re not communicating anything about the brand attributes, you’re just different for the sake of difference, consumers are unable to figure out what you’re about, and they will just completely reject the information.”
Read the rest of the article to see what I told Malady. I’m especially tickled that he linked to my Pinterest board of brands with gratuitous umlauts and other needless diacritical marks.
See also “Phood for Thought,” my 2011 post for the Visual Thesaurus (no longer paywalled) on unconventionally spelled food brands, including Cheez-It, Chik’n Nuggets, and Wyngz.