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 a tweet 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:
- Oiselle employees are “the flock.”
- The company blog is called “Bird Is the Word.”
- 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.