This post was going to be a short riff on a line in that Inauguration poem by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman—the line about the vine and the fig tree, which got me thinking about figs. Mmmm, figs. But one fig led to another, and next thing you know I was way down a figgy rabbit hole from which there was no escape. Go figure.
In 2002, the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers—now known as PwC—rebranded its consulting business. The move wasn’t entirely voluntary: The US Congress had just passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in response to the accounting scandals of the previous few years (Enron, WorldCom, et al.), and firms like PwC were feeling the heat. PwC worked with a global branding agency, Wolff Olins, and in June 2002 announced the consulting business’s new name: Monday. It was meant to suggest “a fresh start,” spokespeople said. The company plannedto invest $110 million through fiscal 2003 to establish the Monday brand.
The response from the outside world was … not kind. It probably will not shock you to learn that Monday—the day of the week—isn’t popular.
“Ask someone to name their least favourite words. The chances are that ‘Monday’ will come somewhere on the list,”the Irish Times snarked. An opinion writer for IT Week called the new name “bizarre” and said it represented “spin triumphing over substance.” German observers pointed out that “Monday” suggested low quality, as in “Monday cars” assembled before workers have recovered from the weekend.
Just another case of hating new names until we don’t? We never had a chance to find out: In July 2002, IBM bought PwC’s consulting unit and renamed it, in classic IBM fashion, the IBM Consulting Group.
But something about “Monday” must have resonated in the culture at large, because 19 years later, the name is thriving. It’s attached unapologetically to swimwear, haircare products, a team-management system, and at least four unrelated brand agencies in Canada, Macedonia, the UK, and the US.
Most Mondays I write here about a single word or phrase that I’ve found timely or otherwise compelling. This week—well, one word doesn’t suffice. So I’m turning over the blog to other writers whose words have cut through the chaos and helped me find my bearings. Some of these pieces may be paywalled. Support journalism.
On Tuesday, January 5, Rob Meyerson, creator of the How Brands Are Built website and podcast, asked on Twitter whether there’s “a word/phrase for when current events or culture ‘hijacks’ an otherwise OK brand name.” Rob cited Isis Mobile Wallet, which changed its name to Softcard in 2014 to avoid confusion with the terrorist group ISIS*; and Wix’s full-stack web development service Corvid (named for the bird species that includes crows), which had been confused with COVID-19 and which recently changed its name to Velo**. Wix released a clever video to announce the change.
Before the day was over, name developer Anthony Shore had come up two good ideas:
the CleHappy Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us! The traditional Airing of Grievances seems superfluous this year: we’ve been airing and grieving for most of 2020. So let us gather quietly—and virtually—around the traditionally unadorned Festivus pole and wish for feats of strength to get us through the season.
My annual list of notable brand names is up on the Visual Thesaurus now, and I invite you to read it if you have a VT subscription (still just $19.95 a year!). I cover the 2020 brandscape from Animal Crossing to Zoom; the list includes a tongue-twister and a generic name. Here’s a free excerpt:
Aunt Jemima. The 131-year-old pantry-staples brand, named for a fictional, racially stereotyped character in post–Civil War minstrel shows, had long been controversial. 2020 was the year the brand's parent company, Quaker Oats, announced it would change the name at last. It was one of several big brand-image pivots: the Washington Redskins traded a slur for a generic name (see below), and Uncle Ben's — which like Aunt Jemima had built a business on the image of a Black servant — is becoming Ben's Original. As I observed in July, several "plantation" names are also being reconsidered. Read more about the history of Aunt Jemima.
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.