Hoist the bare aluminum pole, my friends: today is Festivus, which means it’s time once again for my favorite holiday tradition, The Airing of Grievances.
For this year’s A of G—the sixth in a series—I’ve gathered some of the worst offenders from the world of marketing: the gaffes, goofs, and boneheaded blunders that we’ll recall for as long as schadenfreude remains in season.
Cromnibus: The $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 11 and by the Senate on December 13. The word is a portmanteau of omnibusbill (per Vox, “how Congress funds the government when things are working normally”—which in recent sessions is never) and the initials of continuing resolution, (“how Congress funds the government when it can’t come to a deal”). The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature. Also spelled CRomnibus.
Omnibusentered English—from a Latin word meaning “for all”—around 1829; it described “a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers.” By 1832 it had been truncated to bus. In reference to legislation, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, omnibus goes back to 1842.
Cromnibus caught on, however briefly, not only because of our enduring affection for portmanteaus but also because the word triggered similar-sounding associations that tickled our collective fancy. One of those associations is cronut, the croissant/donut hybrid invented—and trademarked—in 2013 by New York bakery owner Dominique Ansel. It has inspired dozens of imitators.
The cronot, a specialty of Bay Area bakery chain Posh Bagel. (Spotted earlier this month on Piedmont Avenue, Oakland.)
The omni- prefix has been used with sardonic intent in another recent-ish coinage, omnishambles, invented by British writer/director Armando Ianucci for a 2009 episode of “The Thick of It.” It was famously used in 2012 in the British House of Commons.
Update: Ben Zimmer alerted me to “the clever meta-blend cromnishambles,” as seen on Twitter last week.
Speaking of -bus words, and of Britain (but not of politics), IncubusLondon is a newish venture whose name is intended to be a portmanteau of [startup]incubator plus bus: it’s a co-working space in a London double-decker bus. Unfortunately, incubus has a separate and sinister meaning: “a male demon who comes upon women in their sleep and rapes them.” You’d think the London gang would have learned from Reebok’s costly misstep, back in 1996, when it named a women’s running shoe the Incubus. According to the Snopes entry, “Reebok Incubus” had been developed in-house and selected from a master list of about 1,500 names. Whoops:
Much chagrined, the company recalled 18,000 boxes of these unsold $57.99 shoes. The poorly researched name did not appear on the footwear itself but merely on its boxes, which provides a potential explanation for how the product’s rollout process got so far along before anyone commented on the unseemly name.
More of an excuse than an explanation, if you ask me.
Alas, no. And yet this myth persists among people who should know better.
I encountered both misconceptions—trademarkability and searchability—this week in a Brand New blog post about an e-book subscription service (with an introductory free plan) called Blloon. Not Balloon. Not Billion. Blloon.
The company is based in Berlin, but its target market is North America.
Armin Vit, the author of the Brand New critique, wrote:
Although I’m not a fan of the Flickr naming convention where vowels are removed gratuitously (while allowing for extra trademark-ability) there is something very charming about Blloon…
I left a comment correcting this statement (the trademark part, although I disagree with the charming part, too). My comment elicited a response from “mrwendel”:
Surely the biggest advantage to creative spelling of common words is searchability. Googling “balloon” versus “blloon” will yield different results.
Well, of course it will. But think about it. Why would anyone Google “blloon” except through typographic error? If you’re familiar with the company and have memorized its quirky spelling, you won’t need a search engine to find it. But if all you remember is “picture of a balloon” and “books,” you won’t find Blloon. You will find Balloon Books (publisher of kids’ books), BookBalloon (a blog), Red Balloon (a bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota), Big Red Balloon (publisher of kids’ books), and Black Balloon Publishing (“the weird, the unwieldy, and the unclassifiable”). Just for starters.
If “Blloon” is meant to be pronounced “balloon”—and the company’s branding consultants say as much*—than the name enters an already cluttered brandscape. There is nothing distinctive about “balloon” in the world of books, e- or otherwise. And the word doesn’t earn search points for dropping a vowel.
That’s not all: In the real world your customers don’t use search the way you may imagine they do. (Neither do you, as a matter of fact.) If you’ve done a good job with PR, marketing, and social-media strategy, then they’re clicking a link to reach your site. Once they visit, their browser memorizes the URL and they’re spared having to retype it. If they’re searching blindly—for, say, free e-books—then your name won’t help unless it’s Amazon, Google, or Project Gutenberg. (By the way, when I searched for “free e-books,” Blloon did not appear anywhere on the first five pages of results.) You’ll need to bolster your searchability through markup and other programming tricks, or through paid advertising.
Meanwhile, here are some of the ways in which a misspelled name can damage your brand:
It makes you look desperate. (You didn’t have the time to explore the full range of appropriate, distinctive names.)
It makes you look cheap. (You didn’t have the budget for the real-word domain.)
It makes you seem unworthy of customers’ trust. (If you can’t spell a common word, in what other ways will you disappoint?)
It makes you appear illiterate. (In the book business in particular, this may be the kiss of death.)
It tells customers that the real spelling was already taken by a more credible competitor. (Or, in this case, by many competitors.)
It makes your brand harder, not easier, to find. (“Which letter did they drop—the A, the L, or the O?”)
I’m not saying that tweaked spellings are never appropriate. Cinergy worked for a Cincinnati energy company: it was a homophone of “synergy” that incorporated the first syllable of “Cincinnati.” Trix has been a successful cereal brand for almost 60 years; it sounds like “Tricks” (the original name of the brand’s rabbit mascot) while being shorter and snappier. (Never discount the X factor.) Successfully tweaked names are intuitive to pronounce and to spell.
Blloon, by contrast, no matter how artful its logo or stylish its web design, just looks like a spelling mistake. You might say it goes over like a lead balloon—for trademark and for searchability.
“Working with a colleague in the Netherlands, we created a name that felt strange, and familiar at the same time. When pitching the name to the client the rationale was simple: ‘It’s a balloon without the “A”’.”
From whence the name? It’s a play to make the word “mortgage” less weighty and ponderous. According to [founder Patrick] Browne, the company thought that “S’moretgage could be a nice way to make that word sound a bit less intimidating.” Once you learn how to spell it, it’s not too hard to remember.
A couple of comments:
1. Memo to TechCrunch: It’s just “whence”—the word means “from where,” so “from” is redundant.
2. “Once you learn how to spell it” is a lousy way to launch a name. If you really want to compare indebtedness to an empty-calorie children’s snack, at least make the spelling easy to swallow. “S’mortgage” would work just fine—no need for the E in the middle, which makes the pronunciation look like it rhymes with “floret-rage.”
Neither the Smore website nor the TechCrunch story gives any background on the name, but the campfire icon drives home the association. (The company is based in Palo Alto, and its founders appear from their names to be Israeli.) According to TechCrunch:
The service, which mostly targets non-technical users, says it currently has over 500,000 registered users, who have published over 1 million flyers. Usage and revenue currently growing at about 15 percent to 20 percent per month.
But few commercial portmanteaus rise to those heights. Instead, what we see is a lot of chop-and-jam (or perhaps choja, as the blend trend would have it).
Last year, for example, saw the debut of Burger King’s Satisfries, a combo of “satisfy” and “fries” that satisfied no one. (It doesn’t help that the word sounds almost exactly like “saddest fries.”) Sonic Drive-Intortured phonetics with Spicedictive, a distinctly nonaddictive word. The New York Times devoted many column inches to a bourbon-rye blend called Bourye, which I see as Bour Ye and want to pronounce like “Hear ye, hear ye!”
Also in 2013, Subway introduced the Flatizza (flatbread/pizza), which invites adolescent chortling* about flat tits.
Image via A Walk in the Words, who called Flatizza “a phonetically problematic portmanteau.” Indeed.
And I’m sorry to say that we are far from finished with this tired trend. Today marks the rollout of Framily, from Sprint.
“You don’t have to be family to be Framily.” (“That is not a typo,” advised Lifehacker.)
“Up to 10 friends, family and others,” it says up there. Why not go all in and call it Framiloth?
Maybe “Framily” will catch on as shorthand for Friends and Family. (And maybe, somewhere out there, there’s a burning demand for a 10-line mobile plan.) But I’m doubtful. The Framily name elicits winces and groans, not smiles. An undercooked hybrid, it’s the turducken of telecom.
This Technology tip via brother Michael. Post title via Dorothy Parker.
* Which isn’t to say you can never use This in a name. Compare, for example, This Into That, the name of a small business in Berkeley that transforms old books into clever and useful objects such as clocks and key holders.
Also ill advised: a wordmark that makes it all too easy to read the name as “anus.”
I have anticipated your questions: No, “Onus” is not the name of the CEO/founder. (Her name is Kimberly Lee.) And it’s not “on us,”as in “The first visit’s on us!” I phoned the office: “Onus” rhymes with “bonus,” of which there is none to be found in the name.
Some names are born bad, others achieve badness, and still others have badness thrust upon them. Here are four bad names, each bad in its own tragic, annoying, or inept way.
There is simply no excuse for the spelling of Ketchuppp.
According to TechCrunch, “Ketchuppp wants to help you meet up with the people you actually like spending time with on a regular basis (or did before social media ate your social life) — and do so in person, not digitally.” (Imagine!) Evidently the founders fell in love with the “catch up” idea, never considered any other name directions or asked for professional advice, and kept fiddling with the spelling until finally they found a dot-com domain for $5.99. (Ketchup.com is for sale; Ketchupp.com—at least the double P would have suggested “app”—redirects to Pinocc.io.) Bad strategy, bad name. And to make matters worse, the web copy repeatedly uses “Ketchuppp” as a verb, which risks genericizing the brand name.
(Also, “Not Just Another Social App” is an I-give-up tagline. Tell us what you are, not what you aren’t.)
It could have been worse, I guess. As one TechCrunch commenter points out, “At least it’s not called KKKetchup.”
Scorecard: Unoriginal concept, tortured spelling. But it’s pronounceable. 30/100.
Ketchuppp is an app and a startup, so we can chalk up its bad name to inexperience. But Aesynt? It’s what McKesson Automation is called now that the division’s has been spun off from McKesson Corporation. And the parent company is an almost 200-year-old American institution with sales of about $122 billion (2012).
Take a minute to consider how you’d pronounce “Aesynt.”
Did you rhyme it with “adjacent” or “nascent,” with a long A sound in the first syllable? Did you focus on the /ae/ vowel cluster and try to connect the name with “aerial” or “aesthetic”? Did you see the “syn” as having something to do with “synthesis” or “synergy,” and pronounce it accordingly?
Now that you know how to pronounce Aesynt, try Lytx.
I’ll go first: I read the name as Lyt-X, or “light-ex.” (I assumed it was following the pattern of SpaceX.) Not so fast! Lytx is the new corporate name for 15-year-old San Diego-based DriveCam. The website gives no pronunciation clues, so we turn to Xconomy (another X name!) for the details:
So “Lytx” rhymes with “critics”? That’s a stretch. The /ly/ cluster can be pronounced at least three ways: as lie, lee, and lih. Yes, “lyric” and “lynx” are pronounced with the lih sound, but in coined names, /ly/ at the beginning of a name usually defaults to lie, especially when the addition of /t/ makes it look like a new spelling of light (see Lytro, Lytron, Lytera).
Scorecard: Tortured spelling, counterintuitive pronunciation, generic concept. Looks cool, though. The CEO’s last name is Nixon, which may explain the X. 30/100.
What pains me about “Blah” is that I’m a big fan of Fly London—I recently discovered the brand and now am the happy owner of several pairs of FL shoes—and I want it to do no wrong. I’m willing to indulge Fly London’s penchant for slightly wacky style names (Yif? Yush? Yoni? Faff?) because so many of the shoes are so fabulous. To be honest, I wouldn’t include the Blah in that category, but I also wouldn’t stigmatize it with a bad name. Blah goes beyond wacky, beyond whimsical; it’s just mean and dispiriting.
Scorecard: Pass the Prozac and lock up the kitchen knives. 0/100.
Do some corporate or product names make you shudder and cringe? Are there names you find so annoying that you can’t bear even to utter them aloud?
I want to know about the names you hate, and why. Is it the sound of the word, its spelling, a personal association? Can a good product or stellar customer service overcome your aversion to a name?
For comparison, consider the related phenomenon of word aversion, the well-documented tendency of some people to detest certain words. (“Moist” is frequently cited.) Read Mark Liberman’s posts on Language Log (start here and follow the links) to learn more about word aversion.
Now leave a comment and tell us about the names that make you cringe.*
UPDATE: And, if you can, tell us why these names bother you.
* Commercial names only, please—companies and products. Let’s leave baby names out of the discussion.