A study of 597 logos found that “descriptive logos more favorably impact consumers’ brand perceptions than nondescriptive ones, and are more likely to improve brand performance.” (Harvard Business Review)
Old descriptive logos (left) vs. new nondescriptive logos (right).
When I’m asked to rename a brand, it’s usually for one of two reasons: a legal challenge (someone has a prior claim to the name) or a major shift in the organization’s direction (we used to sell housewares; now we sell jewelry).
Neither of those scenarios applied to Resourceful HR, a 10-year-old Seattle human-resources consultancy that approached me last autumn about a name change. The company was thriving. It had successfully registered RESOURCEFUL as a trademark. And its business plan involved a refinement, not a revolution.
Still, company founder and CEO Jennifer Olsen told me with a sigh, it was probably time to change the name. For starters, her graphic designer had “taken the brand imagery as far as it could go.” And the brand strategist she’d hired, Catherine Carr of Vitamin C Creative, had done some interviews and concluded that “what she was hearing from us was more exciting than what she was seeing in our materials.”
Mailchimp has changed a lot since it was founded in 2001. In the beginning, it was a side project of a small web-design firm; the company name followed the popular compound-word trend of the era. (Compare PayPal, founded in 1998; Typepad, 2003; Grooveshark, 2006.)
The company survived, thrived, and diversified. And the name – never the company’s strongest feature, to be honest – began to look dated. Time for a rebrand?
Caterpillar, the heavy-equipment manufacturer, has had a registered trademark for CAT since 1949. Now it’s extending CAT to a footwear line. And not just steel-toed boots, either: these oxfords are women’s street fashion. (Duets Blog)
The method Google Maps uses to name city neighborhoods “is often mysterious. The company declined to detail how some place names came about, though some appear to have resulted from mistakes by researchers, rebrandings by real estate agents — or just outright fiction.” (New York Times)
You probably remember the story about the guy who’s sent to prison and, on his first night behind bars, is baffled when his cellmate shouts out “TWELVE!” and is greeted with raucous laughter. Another inmate shouts “TWENTY-TWO!” and gets the same reaction. Up and down the cellblock: “THREE!” “FOURTEEN!” “THIRTY-ONE!” followed by peals of laughter. Finally the new guy asks his cellmate what the numbers mean. “We’ve been in here so long that we’ve heard everyone’s jokes,” the cellmate explains. “So we just call them out by number.”
Naturally, the new guy wants to fit in. So several nights later, when there’s a pause in the numerical call-and-response, he shouts “NINE!” And … silence, punctuated by groans. “Why isn’t anyone laughing?” he asks his cellmate. “Well,” says the old-timer, “some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.”
That’s sort of how I feel about numerical brand names. Some of them can carry off the bold move into all-digit branding, and some can’t.
Until the 1990s, if you lived in the U.S. and needed a new mattress you probably began and ended your search with the letter S. Simmons (founded in 1870), Sealy (1881), and Serta (1931) were the CBS, NBC, and ABC of the mattress world: anything else was on the far end of the dial and virtually unsupported by advertising.*
The Big Three had sturdy, uncomplicated names. Simmons was named for company founder Zalmon Simmons. Sealy took its name from its place of origin: Sealy, Texas. Serta, which began life as the nearly generic Sleeper, Inc., is harder to analyze: I’ve found no etymology for the name, although it may have been an attempt to convey “certain.” (Compare Certs, a brand of breath mints** that debuted in 1956.) Serta and Simmons merged in 2012 to form Serta Simmons Holdings.
Everything began to change in 1992, when Tempur-Pedic – originally a Swedish company called Fagerdala Foams – introduced its “memory foam” (technically viscoelastic; the visco comes from viscosity) mattresses to the U.S. Tempur-Pedic doesn’t tell a story about its name, so I’ll have to guess that it’s an altered-spelling blend of temperature, pure, and orthopedic. (The mattress material is said to respond to body temperature.) As a name, it’s an improvement, to Anglophone ears, on “Fagerdala,” which may have been an anagram of the founders’ names. Tempur-Pedic was acquired by Sealy in 2012 and is now called TempurSealy.
After Tempur-Pedic, the deluge. Foam mattresses were cheaper than traditional innerspring mattresses, and they didn’t require separate box springs. As foam technology improved, more and more companies got in on the sleepy-time action. The advent of the Internet and direct-to-consumer sales encouraged even more competition. The final disruptive turning point was the development of technology that could compress a foam mattress down to a single inch of thickness so it could be packed in a box. Today, U.S. mattress sales total more than $14 billion (the figure is from 2014), and there are dozens of mattress manufacturers – see the Sleepopolis website for reviews and comparisons – whose names reflect a wide range of naming styles. Here’s my rundown of some of the most interesting names. So as not to drive myself nuts, I’m limiting the list to nationally or internationally available brands, which means I’ve left out a bunch of Bay Area names like Ergo, Essentia, and Earthsake. Founding dates are from Crunchbase, Wikipedia, and news reports.
Last week Taser International, maker of stun guns, body cameras, and technology for transmitting law-enforcement data, announced that it was changing its corporate name to Axon, the name of its body-cameras. As part of the rebranding, the company is offering a free body camera to every police officer in the U.S. for one year, plus a year of free data storage.
Axon pursued a popular renaming strategy for companies that are shifting their product focus: Elevate the name of the product that’s going to carry you into the future. “Axon” is not a brilliant name; its dictionary meaning is “the long process of a nerve fiber that conducts impulses away from a nerve cell,” and that’s sparked the synapses of a lot of other companies. (A sampling: a company that makes “nutraceuticals for Baby Boomers”; a kiteboard company; a bedbug-extermination company; and Dolby, for its surround-sound VOIP program, which the company shut down late last year.) And Axon pales in comparison with Taser, which has a vivid name story: The word was coined in 1974 by the device’s inventor, Jack Cover, who created an acronym from the title of one of his favorite childhood books, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, originally published in 1911. Cover bestowed a middle initial on Tom, and a name was born. It couldn’t have hurt that “Taser” echoed two slightly older science-y names: maser and laser. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that Taser “threatens to escape the cage of its copyright [sic; should be “trademark”], despite the strenuous efforts of the owners, who are within their rights to fight to hold it.” Among other trademark no-nos, Taser has spawned a backformed verb, to tase.