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.
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’.”
Logodaedaly: Skill in adorning a speech; verbal legerdemain. From Greek logos (word) and daedalus (clever worker). If you recognize Daedalus, mythical father of flew-too-close-to-the-sun Icarus, go to the head of the class, you clever worker.
Logodaedaly was one of the many rare or obscure words presented to young contestants (age 8 through 15) during last week’s Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Things got a little silly in round nine. Everyone in the ballroom had a good laugh when Mary Horton got the word “logodaedaly” (pronounced “log-a-deedle-y”), because it means arbitrary or capricious coinage of words. -- Sylvia Killingsworth, New Yorker Culture Desk blog, May 30, 2014
Mary Horton, a 13-year-old from Orlando, Florida, advanced to the finals but stumbled on aetites, “a hollow piece of clay ironstone the size of a walnut.”
For the first time since 1962, the Spelling Bee had two champions: Ansun Sujoe, 13, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathway, 14, of Painted Post, New York. (The bee ends in a tie when the final two contestants continue to spell correctly until the pronouncer runs out of available words.) The final words were feuilleton (a part of a European newspaper or magazine devoted to material designed to entertain the general reader; also a short literary composition) and stichomythia (dialogue of altercation or dispute).
Trend Watch: Both "feuilleton" & "stichomythia" are spiking after the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie. http://t.co/Zj4jZETIHP
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.
Last week Kara Goucher, a top American distance runner and two-time Olympian, announced she was leaving Nike, her sponsor for more than 12 years. Her new sponsor is a small Seattle company—it has just 10 full-time employees—that sells only women’s running apparel: Oiselle.
In the world of elite runners and their fans, this was huge news. I probably speak for the rest of us when I say my response to the story—discovered via atweet from author/runner Rose George—was “Oi-what?”
The logo contains a clue: oiselle, according to the company’s About page, is “a French word for bird.” (It’s not in my French-English dictionary. According to my French-speaking resource Jessica Stone Levy, who has a better dictionary, it translates to “hen-bird,” whatever that means, and “the familiar meaning is damsel.” Adds Jessica: “I would say it’s lucky that not even a French major knows that meaning of the term.” Even a French minor knows the common word for bird, oiseau; one online source suggests that oiselle is the female form of the word, and this source gives the meaning of oisellerie as “bird-catching” or “bird-breeding.”)
As for the pronunciation and backstory, here’s Oiselle founder and CEO Sally Bergeson, herself a serious amateur runner (2:59 marathon):
In hindsight, it would be untrue to say that I haven’t cared deeply about running fast and even winning. But for me, and the small family that makes up Oiselle, the sport has always been about something more. At various times it’s our therapy, escape, religion, and girl time. But perhaps simply enough, it’s been our sense of freedom. And thus the name Oiselle (pronounced wa-zell). A French word for bird, it alludes to that feeling of weightlessness that most runners know and love. That sense of flight – when the legs go fast and the heart goes free.
This is a great story, and it goes a long way toward justifying a name that breaks all the conventional rules: it’s obscure, hard to pronounce, and hard to spell.
Sometimes, though, a “difficult” name is the perfect choice. And this strikes me as one of those times.
As I’ve written in the past, context counts. Here’s what I wrote then about another peculiar-seeming name, Melvyl:
University of California librarians didn’t need to be told the etymology behind Melvyl, the name of UC’s online library system: They recognized the name of Melvil Dewey, father of the Dewey Decimal System. Dewey’s first name is obscure to us laypeople, but that’s OK with librarians. They probably appreciate being spoken to in a sort of code.
“Obscure to outsiders, resonant with insiders” is what’s going on with Oiselle, too.
Oiselle (the company) is bent on cornering a very specific niche market: women for whom running is central to their lives. Their love of running sets them apart; they may refer to one another as “sisters.” They’re a bit obsessive (a 2:59 marathon, if you please!).
For this audience, a brand name gains value by sounding special, distinctive, even rare. The brand name becomes something of a shibboleth: “a word of pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.” If you stumble over the pronunciation of Oiselle, you’re obviously not a member of the club.
Nevertheless, Oiselle isn’t elitist about its quirky verbal identity. The website is full of playfully avian brand extensions that help outsiders feel like insiders:
The name of founder Sally Bergeson’s blog is “Volée,” which can mean “the flight of birds” or “volley.”
Customers who share photos of themselves wearing Oiselle apparel use the hashtag #FlyStyle—a nice double entendre.
A new collection of lighter-weight running apparel is called Flyte.
Then there’s the -elle ending of Oiselle: French for “she,” it’s a clue about who’s being talked to (and who isn’t). Not for nothing, I like that Oiselle suggests “gazelle,” a fast, graceful animal that lives to run.
Birds aren’t rare in commerce. There’s Angry Birds, of course, and its chirp-alikes (although Flappy Bird flaps no more). A popular sprinkler brand is called Rain Bird. And Twitter’s bluebird is familiar even to those who disdain social media.
Oiselle takes a common, even overplayed metaphor and makes it feel fresh, authentic, and slightly exotic. Yes, you may stumble the first time you try to say the word. But runners stumble, too—and if they’re dedicated, they pick themselves up and press on.
(But it’s a good thing Oiselle is in Seattle and not Portland. The “put a bird on it” jokes would be never-ending.)
A “difficult” name like Oiselle requires a deep, even stubborn commitment on the part of management. It can easily become a liability if you don’t cultivate it and continually infuse it with fresh significance.
Most of all, though, it helps to know your audience. Are they risk-takers and experience-seekers? Then you may want to take that risk and create that experience.