Originally published on October 13, 2016; revised where appropriate.
Earlier this week I spoke via Clarity, an expert-advice service, with a CEO who was considering changing his company’s decade-old name. He told me he didn’t have the budget for professional naming services, so he and his business partner, both tech guys, had attempted to come up with a new name themselves. After 12 (!) months of brainstorming, they finally had a couple of candidates. One name, the CEO told me, was a great description of their product. The other name described what their customers wanted. They’d already bought a bunch of domains – some for more than $1,000 – related to both names.
I kept silent, but I heaved a private sigh. Within five minutes, my caller had mentioned the two troublesome D-words of naming: describe and domain. One of those words can doom a branding project; the other is almost always a distraction.
I’d hoped to hear a different D-word, the one that matters: distinctiveness. But my caller admitted he hadn’t known it was a factor in brand development.
That CEO is far from the only client I’ve worked with who has focused, misguidedly, on descriptive names and “available” domains and neglected (or been unaware of) distinctiveness. It’s such a common oversight that I wanted to take some time to talk about it.
“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.
Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments (by telephone, because of the COVID-19 pandemic) in a case with special interest for those of us who follow developments in naming and trademark law. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office vs. Booking.com, the case argued on May 4, is the culmination of eight years of efforts by Booking.com, which calls itself “the world’s #1 choice for booking hotel accommodations,” to register its full name, including the .com, as a US trademark. My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus gives you a sense of what’s at stake by examining some key terms, including generic, domain, and, yes, booking.
The Booking.com wordmark
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers (still just $19.95 a year!). Here’s an excerpt:
I’ll get to the regularly scheduled links in a bit, but I wanted to lead off with some recommendations from my 2019 media diet (a term I’ve borrowed from Jason Kottke, whose blog always makes for tasty consumption).
A couple of years ago I published a post about naming objectives: what a name should or must communicate. Naming objectives are a key element of your written naming brief, and one of the foundations on which names are developed.
There’s another important foundation: naming criteria.* If objectives are about meaning, criteria are about everything else that goes into a name: spelling, sound, legal requirements, web addresses.
I didn’t expect to spot a domain trend when I attendedMad Props, “a night of live storytelling to help us all understand the state propositions on the 2018 California ballot,” held Monday at a funky club near San Francisco’s Civic Center. Honestly, I just wanted to become a better-informed voter. But the trend was too obvious to ignore.
When I checked in I picked up a voter guide published by BytheBay.cool (“Our mission is to transform residents into citizens”); inside was a printed link for voters outside San Francisco, Ballot.fyi (“We're tired of the constant news about Trump. Luckily, California gives us 11* semi-ridiculous ballot initiatives to vote on and make fun of. We'll break them down for you, explain what different sides are saying and why your vote actually matters”).