I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
Plus signs have become ubiquitous in branding: You see them in the names of streaming services (ESPN+, BET+, Paramount+, et al.) retail and restaurant names (Nic+Zoe, Flour+Water, et al.), and even NASA’s Venus probe (DAVINCI+). For my latest Visual Thesaurus column, “What Do Plus Signs Add?”, I look at the rise of the plus sign from its origins as a compression of Latin et (“and”) to its use in telecommunications and computer programming and as shorthand for “larger sizes.”
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Years ago, when “having your colors done” was trendy, I thought there might be a story in it, so in the interest of research I sought out a color consultant and handed over my money. There were a lot of charlatans and opportunists in this field, but I lucked out: The color analyst I found was John Kitchener, who had an art-history background and an unerring eye. (He’s still in business, but has relocated from the Bay Area to the Atlanta area.)
For what I remember as a not-inconsequential (but worth it) fee, John gave me palette of fabric swatches that suited my eye and skin colors. He also gave me something equally valuable: a lesson in what he calls “style essences” and what other image consultants sometimes call “style personalities” or “style profiles.”
Color Me Beautiful (1981), an early and influential guidebook. Not John Kitchener’s system.
Knowing my style essence—which shapes and textures harmonize with my overall look, which styles to avoid—greatly simplified my wardrobe choices and gave me an objective assessment that my mirror never quite delivered. (After the consultation, it dawned on me that even when I was 4 years old I looked and felt terrible in “youthful” clothes.)
Style essences continue to interest me, and when I read a post on the subject by style blogger Susan of Une Femme d’un Certain Age, I realized that there was a lot of overlap between the fashion-y side of style profiling and the brand-y side that I do. When you’re building a brand—starting with the name and tagline—you first need to identify your brand’s personality: its style essence. As with personal style, brand style is often a blend of two or more traits: dramatic, classic, romantic, nerdy (that’s my term; style consultants don’t use it!), playful, and so on.
Want to know more about how brand personality can influence your choice of a brand name? Read my new story on Medium, and let me know in a comment about your own style-personality and brand-naming experiences.
Most naming advice in the popular media makes me clutch my head in despair, but this Inc. article by Minda Zetlin is different. Zetlin interviewed experienced name developers Anthony Shore and David Placek—both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with—and their real-world examples are smart and helpful. “Avoid names that describe your product” and “Don’t fall in love with one name” are the first tips, and yes, you’ve heard them from me, too. (h/t trademark lawyer Ed Timberlake)
That, it seems, was the guiding principle behind the name change, announced April 26, of Standard Life Aberdeen PLC, an asset-management firm based in Edinburgh. The company name will henceforth be rendered as Abrdn—but pronounced, as in days of yore, as “Aberdeen.”
In an official statement, the company’s chief executive, Stephen Bird, said: “Our new brand Abrdn builds on our heritage and is modern, dynamic, and, most importantly, engaging for all of our client and customer channels.” He also said the new brand “reflects the clarity of focus that the leadership team are bringing to the business as we seek to deliver sustainable growth.”
On March 13, 2020, Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski noticed that all of the dictionary’s lookups were pandemic related: coronavirus, quarantine, draconian, lockdown, cancel. For the somber one-year anniversary this month, WGBH looked at how the pandemic has transformed the English language, and whether its impact will endure:
Will people five years from now still say they are “zooming” when they conduct a video meeting online? Will slang terms like “doomscrolling” and “covidiot” make their way into wider use or be little-known relics from a brief moment in time? Will “COVID-19,” in all-caps, be the preferred styling? Or will it be overtaken by “Covid-19,” in lowercase, a styling many news organizations have started using?
“Trade characters” like Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats man used to be much more common in American commerce than they are today, writes logo expert James I. Bowie in Marker. They were so common, in fact, that the US Patent and Trademark Office assigned six-digit codes to trademark applications to “capture personal characteristics, including race and gender, as they were perceived in American culture many decades ago”:
There are codes for Native Americans and Asian Pacific people, but not for African Americans. Women, but not men, can be coded as “Hawaiian,” while men, but not women, can be deemed “Famous,” “Cowboys and westerners,” or “Farmers, hillbillies, or hobos” (the second of these terms was recently stricken). The categories for Scottish men and women seem to exist solely to code trade characters representing thriftiness — or, more bluntly, cheapness.
Aunt Jemima pancake mix, circa 1940s. James Bowie: “The Aunt Jemima logo was given codes 020301 (portraits of women) and 020315 (women wearing scarves on their heads).” Read my February 10 post about Aunt Jemima’s recently announced name change.
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.