“When Simon Tam dropped out of college in California and moved to Portland, Ore., to become a rock star, the last tangle he imagined falling into was a multiyear battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over his band’s name.” The trademark tussle over “The Slants,” which the USPTO has deemed “disparaging” and thus ineligible for protection. (For a more technical perspective, see this Brent Lorentz post at Duets Blog.)
The strange charm of cutthroat compounds like pickpocket, scarecrow, and, well, cutthroat: Stan Carey on these rare English words“that have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.” (I wonder how the newish fondleslab fits in?)
The 2014 Social Security Administration stats on baby names are out, and the Baby Name Wizard blog has discovered some interesting trends in the data. The biggest trend? What naming expert Laura Wattenberg calls “the great smoothing of American baby names”: goodbye “chunky” names (Jayden, Jessica), hello “silky,” vowel-rich names (Amanda, Mia, Noah, Liam).
Speaking of popular names, here’s a fun tool to discover what your “today baby name” would be, based on the ranking of your own name in the year you were born. The tools works backward too: If I’d been born in the 1890s, chances are I’d have been named Minnie. More than a time-waster, the tool can be a big help in character-naming. (May take a while for the tool to load.)
“She originally went by Flo White, then Lord of the Strings. She eventually settled on the Period Fairy. It was more straightforward.” A new ad from category-busing Hello Flo, which sells a Period Starter Kit to adolescent girls.
If you’re considering a coined name for your company or product, it’s helpful to keep in mind a general rule of English pronunciation: When a vowel precedes a single consonant that’s followed by an e, the first vowel is long. Double the consonant and the vowel becomes shortened.
Later: long a. Latter: short a. Miler: long i. Miller: short i.
Yes, yes, there are exceptions. But coined words are like hoofbeats: we expect a horse, not a zebra. We look for simplicity, not conundrums.
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.
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”’.”
Specialty’s Café and Bakery, which has 48 locations in California, Washington, and Illinois, has been puzzling proofreaders and other persnickety types since its founding in 1986.
Specialty’s in downtown San Jose.
Sure, we love the giant cookies, the fresh focaccia, and the meal-in-a-bowl soups. But that apostrophe! It’s wrong, right? Unless, of course, there was a Jane Specialty in the company’s past, and that the possessive apostrophe signifies that the chain is named for her. Unlikely, sure. But stranger things have happened.
I’m a former journalist, and I never let idle speculation take the place of investigation. So I sent an email via Specialty’s website, hoping (but not really expecting) that someone would set me straight.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a phone call (a phone call!) from Sean Reiter, vice president of branding and sales at Specialty’s. “I understand you want to know about our … unique name,” he said, chuckling. And then he told me this story:
The company started in a familiar way: garage, two founders, maxed-out credit cards. The name the founders chose was Specialties—the correctly spelled plural. (More on that choice later.) “But when they went to apply for a business license,” Sean told me, “they discovered that spelling was taken, so they changed it to Specialty’s.” (More on that in a bit, too.)
I’m not the first person to ask about the spelling, Sean added. “We get a fair number of inquiries. In fact, I used to send out a response that read, ‘We’s don’t understand’s the problem’s!’”
Then he told me another spelling story.
Specialty’s corporate offices are in Pleasanton, California, about 25 miles east of Oakland and the site of the Alameda County Fair. The town was founded in 1894 by John W. Kottinger, an Alameda County justice of the peace, who named it in honor of his friend, a Civil War-era general named Alfred Pleasonton. A typographical error by a U.S. Post Office employee turned “Pleasonton” into “Pleasanton.”
What better home for a misspelled company than a misspelled town? Clearly, I told Sean, Specialty’s and Pleasanton are a perfect match. And then we both laughed.
Specialty’s is doing so well, and Sean Reiter was so good-humored and generous with his time, that it seems churlish to nitpick further. But names are my game, so I am obliged to point out some lessons to be learned from this story:
1. Whether it’s spelled Specialties or Specialty’s, it’s not a very good name. It falls somewhere between generic and descriptive; it fails to suggest a benefit or evoke an emotion. It certainly doesn’t say “delicious,” “speedy,” “fresh,” or any of the other qualities we’ve come to expect from the chain. “Specialness” is not a distinctive claim; all of Specialty’s competitors can make it.
On the other hand, I’m also obliged to tell you that there are companies with long and successful histories whose names resulted from misspellings. Ski-Doo (a misspelling of Ski-Dog), Lands’ End (a misplaced apostrophe) and Lane Bryant (a misspelling of the founder’s first name) are three that come to mind.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a cookie. Or maybe three cookie’s.
When I was a kid we called them “thongs” or “zoris.”
What exactly can you expect when you commission a $5 logo from Fiverr? To find out, Sacha Greif invented a company (“SkyStats”) and tested the waters. Among his conclusions: “Fiverr apparently sees nothing wrong with designers appropriating other people’s work. And not only do they tolerate it, they even directly profit from it since they feature these fake work samples prominently.”
Cherevin may be the evil aggressors of economic warfare, but I’d love to have them as a client. They could teach me about propping up housing markets, and I might be able to offer them a nugget or two about reducing security breaches through better interaction design. Plus, I bet it’s fun to get a project brief with the objective of ‘instilling fear and obedience.’
UPDATE: This morning (June 18), the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, an independent tribunal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, recommended that the federal registrations for “Redskins” trademarks be cancelled. Read the TTAB fact sheet.
Power Vocab Tweet was invented by the creator of Everyword, which recently completed its mission to tweet every word in the English language.From the blog:
On the surface, Power Vocab Tweet is a parody of “word-of-the-day”blogs and Twitteraccounts. My real inspiration, though, comes from the novel Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. In that book, a group of underground linguists invent a language (Láadan) that “encodes” in its lexicon concepts that aren’t otherwise assigned to words in human languages. …
The definitions are generated via Markov chain from the definition database in WordNet. The words themselves are generated from a simple “portmanteau” algorithm; each word is a combination of two “real” English words of the appropriate part of speech. (The forms of the words and text used to generate the associated definition aren’t related.)
Ski-Doo, the snowmobile brand so widespread that it’s almost a generic term, was never meant to be called “Ski-Doo.” Its inventor, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, had named his creation “Ski-Dog,” because it was meant to replace a dogsled. As a 1992 article in Popular Mechanicsexplains: “Fortunately for Bombardier (pronounced bom-bar-dee-ay), an early brochure was misspelled and a winter legend was born.”
Bombardier, born in 1907 in the rural town of Valcourt, Quebec, had experimented with snow vehicles since he was a teenager. His first attempt, created when he was just 15, used a rear-mounted Model T engine and a wooden propeller. A 1935 prototype employed a sprocket-and-track assembly and floating suspension. In 1942 he founded Bombardier Recreational Products (now BRP); the company still has its headquarters in Valcourt but is now a multinational corporation that makes railway and aerospace parts, Evinrude outboard motors, and Can-Am all-terrain vehicles.
Ski-Dog wouldn’t have been a bad choice for the brand name, but as Ski-Doo the company benefits from the association with “skidoo” or “skiddoo”—to get away, to go out—an early-20th-century slang term that may have been derived from 19th-century “skedaddle.” It’s an appropriate association with fast-moving, terrain-defying vehicles—an association that carried over to the company’s aquatic brand extension Sea-Doo, launched in 1988. “Skidoo” is memorialized in the quaint phrase “23 skidoo,” about which Barry Popik’s Big Apple blog has the last word.
And as the 1992 Popular Mechanics story helpfully points out:
While the name of the most ubiquitous snowmobile was the result of a printer’s error, perhaps it wasn’t really a mistake. After all, there is a relationship between a dog and doo. Perhaps future historians will dig up the truth.
The online-only fashion and beauty retailer ASOSlaunched in London in 2000, began turning a profit in 2004, and first expanded outside the UK—originally to France, Germany, and the US—in 2010. Today the company has 4,000 employees and sales of £753.8 million (nearly $1.3 billion). The company sells more than 850 brands, including its own, and is the most-visited fashion website in the world, per day, among 18-to-34-year-olds.
The logo is lower case, but the company name appears in all caps everywhere else on the site. The media are less consistent: the Guardian (UK) spells it Asos; the New York Times has used both ASOSand Asos.
As for the pronunciation, opinions vary—some people use the A-S-O-S initialism, others rhyme it with “pesos”—but the consensus tilts toward “A-sauce” (rhymes with play-floss, emphasis on the first syllable).
Pronunciation diktats are irrelevant in the eyes of US trademark law. As Jessica Stone Levy noted in a comment on that Asus post, “the USPTO at least lives by the precept that ‘there is no correct pronunciation of a trademark because it is impossible to predict how the public will pronounce a particular mark’.”