I’m researching a longer piece on “plus” in branding, from plus size to Nic+Zoe to all those +-suffixed streaming services. Along the way I stumbled on a couple of new plussed-up brands with unusual naming stories.
Apple introduced its looped-square “control” icon⌘ in 1983, but the symbol’s origins go back to sixth-century Scandinavia. Tom Chatfield traces the historyof the symbol also known as “St. John’s Arms.”
The dripping-heart symbol was created “in a few hours” by a Finnish graphic designer, Leena Snidate, for the security firm Codenomicon. “Heartbleed” was originally Codenomicon’s internal code name; the bug’s official name is CVE-2014-0160. CVE stands for “common vulnerabilities and exposures.” Read more about Heartbleed in TechCrunchand in Fast Company Design.
And here’s naming news from another corner of the animal kingdom: The Scientific American blog Running Ponies reports on six new species of “child-eating Dracula ants” with “cool ninja names”: Shadow, Labyrinth, and Mirror. The scientific name for this ant subfamily is Amblyoponinae; the genus name, Mystrium, was chosen to evoke “the uncertainty surrounding their general biology, ecology and behaviour.” (Via Our Bold Hero.)
“In the globalized, consumption-fired 21st century, branding is the air we breathe,” writes Frank Viviano in the Spring 2014 issue of California, the Cal Alumni Association magazine. “The Plato and Newton of that volatile universe is David Aaker, a congenial professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, born and raised in the placid calm of Fargo, North Dakota.” Aaker is vice chairman of the global brand consultancy Prophet, the author of the influential business book Brand Relevance, and the creator of the Aaker Model, which, writes Viviano, “asserts that a brand is a vital form of corporate equity, a measurable asset whose value is as important to a business as its capital infrastructure and staff.”
The headline says “On the Internet, All the Good Company Names Are Taken,” but the story (in the Globe and Mail) is really about a different problem. “For all its focus on innovation and disruption, the tech startup world can be downright risk-averse when it comes to naming conventions,” notes tech reporter Omar El Akkad.
A Radio Shack ad in last Sunday’s newspaper straddles the line between taboo and avoidance.
“#!+* Happens Protection Plan”
That string of symbols is known as an obscenicon; the word was coined by Ben Zimmer* in 2006 as an improvement on “cursing characters.” A few years later, linguist Arnold Zwicky argued for “obscenicon” over “grawlix,” one of the terms invented by cartoonist Mort Walker for the same concept:
[Obscenicon] was invented as a technical term in linguistics — well, that tiny part of linguistics that concerns itself with devices for taboo avoidance in print. … In the case of the obscenicons vs. the grawlixes, I don’t see any overlapping territory worth disputing about. Both words are relatively recent coinages of technical terms, in specialized fields that have little to do with one another. And in fact even the older (by about 40 years) grawlix isn’t of sufficiently general use in sufficient numbers to have made it into any of the general dictionaries of English — though after this web discussion, it might get there, and maybe eventually obscenicon too.
In the headline, Radio Shack uses #!+* to mean “shit,” as in “shit happens”: the fact that the formal name of the protection plan is the demure “It Happens” makes this pretty clear. But the later reference to “when your beloved device goes #!+*” makes it confusing. (Your beloved device goes shit? Goes apeshit? Goes ass-over-teakettle? I could go on, but won’t.) Notably, Radio Shack did not choose the more obvious character substitution of $#!+, a string that actually resembles S-H-I-T.
Sharrow: A road marking indicating that the road is to be shared by cars and bicycles. A portmanteau of share and arrow.
The original sharrows were sometimes called “bike in a house” because of their design:
They were included in the 1993 Denver Bicycle Master Plan but not widely implemented in that city until 2010. In 2004, the city of San Francisco, where incidents of “dooring” were increasingly common, commissioned a study of the effectiveness of sharrows. According to One Less Car: Denver:
The goal of the study was to determine which markings were most effective, and how they should be used. The really neat part of this study is how it was conducted. The group used before-and-after video footage to determine the effectiveness of the sharrow. They tested two versions of the sharrow; the 'Chevron style' … and the 'Bike-In-House' version … They looked for cyclist positions relative to the curb or a parked car, as well as passing motorist traffic positions relative to the cyclist. In short, what they determined is that ANY sharrow improves cyclist and motorist positioning. Sharrows created a buffer between cyclists and parked cars, as well as between the passing cars and cyclists. They did a good job of evaluating variables, and in the end concluded that sharrows can be an effective solution to improve cyclist safety and both cyclist and motorist behavior.
David Darlington writes about sharrows and other features of urban bicycling in “Critical Mass,” in the November issue of San Francisco magazine:
Polk [Street] is an officially designated bike route, but the part we were riding has no formal bike lanes. We were following “sharrows”—stenciled images of bikes with arrows, indicating where cyclists should ride, especially to avoid car doors. To make room for these, 11 years ago two southbound lanes on Polk were reduced to one, following the example of Valencia Street, ground zero for the bike explosion now engulfing the city.
Darlington reports that San Francisco has 2,800 sharrows.
At least 27 other US cities have introduced sharrows to their roadways, according to a Wikipedia entry.
In Chinese culture, the number eight has associations of good fortune: the word for eight, bā in Pinyin, sounds similar to words meaning “wealth” and “prosper” in Cantonese and other Chinese languages.
That’s why you’ll see an unusual number of symbolic eights in the Bay Area, which is home to large Asian and Asian-American populations.
This mixed-use development on the site of a former Howard Johnson’s motel in Oakland calls itself “Chinatown’s happiest community.” The “88% sold” sign has been displayed for many months, and may or may not be strictly accurate. Shortly after the project’s completion, in early 2008 (surely no coincidence), an article in the San Francisco Chronicle explained the Eight Orchids name:
The numeral 8 … was not chosen randomly. To the Chinese, eight is a lucky number that stands for prosperity and good fortune. When you take the numeral and turn it on its side, it becomes the symbol for infinity - forever. Triple it and you’ve got 888 - three times the luck and the last three digits of the price tags on the condos.
Speaking of 888:
888 Brannan (at 8th Street), San Francisco.
This South of Market building houses the Giftcenter and Jewelrymart (yes, that’s how they spell those words). It’s open only to the trade.
Double eight has its own symbolic meaning in Chinese culture. According to Wikipedia, the two digits resemble 囍, “the ‘shuāng xĭ’ (‘double joy’), a popular decorative design.”
88 Kearny St., San Francisco.
88 Kearny is an office building in San Francisco’s Financial District, a short walk from Chinatown. The double eights create a striking logo.
The Kearny and Brannan buildings may not have begun their lives as 88 and 888, respectively. Street addresses are assigned by city or county agencies, but developers and owners sometimes petition to have the numbers changed. You may recall that that’s what Ronald and Nancy Reagan did when they moved to Bel-Air, California, in 1989. Their house number was originally 666 St. Cloud Road, but Nancy Reagan had it changed to 668 because in the New Testament Book of Revelation, 666 is “the number of the Beast.” Of course, 888 would have been even better, but that would have required buying a different house on a different block.
A couple of scholarly studies have drawn attention to the importance of a tiny scrap of nomenclature: a publicly traded company's ticker symbol. The studies prove once again, if proof were needed, that your commitment to your brand is reflected in every element of your corporate identity.
In the more recent study, a couple of Princeton researchers looked at the relationship between the "fluency" of a stock's name or ticker symbol and its performance after an initial public offering (IPO). Their findings: the more fluent (easily pronounced) the name or symbol, the better the stock performed--especially right after the IPO, and regardless of the company's size.
Why would this be so? Simple memorability--a well-known criterion for naming (along with pronounceability, credibility, and legal availability). People are naturally drawn to easily remembered names and symbols--preferring, for example, Callaway Golf Co.'s ELY to Medicis Pharmaceutical Group's MRX. "People are also more inclined to believe aphorisms that rhyme (e.g., woes unite foes) than similar aphorisms that do not rhyme (e.g., woes unite enemies)," the paper said. Human brains are hardwired to remember rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and other mnemonic devices.
The second study, presented at the Financial Management Association's 2004 meeting by two University of Texas (San Antonio) finance professors, looked at what happens when companies change ticker symbols but not their names. Bad news here: both trading volume and stock price declined immediately and stayed down.
This study provides support for the decision of, say, Philip Morris to retain the ticker symbol MO (which has "clear meanings of financial strength, momentum, and performance excellence," according to the company's announcement) when it changed its corporate name to Altria. What the company didn't say, but which seems pretty obvious, is that familiarity helps, too: it suggests stability and continuity.
What does this research portend for your own IPO-bound company? First, don't leave naming--even ticker symbol naming--to chance. And second, it's never too early to start thinking about it. Check out how some Segway enthusiasts are using the new research to guide their thinking about a hypothetical Segway IPO.