The power of names
The Power of names

Brad Davidson is writing a regular series for ogilvydo.com called Wordcraft. In it, he will explore the intersection of marketing and linguistics, helping marketers understand how a more nuanced understanding of language can lead to effective consumer engagement.

When Shakespeare wrote, “that which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet”, he didn’t mean that names don’t matter. In fact, he meant the opposite. People think that a name is just a label, not the thing itself.  But if you’ve ever had a fight over what to name a child or a pet, you know that there is a real difference between Benjamin, Michael, and Angus. Or Drogo.

Linguists consider the name to be  the signifier and the thing to which the word refers to be the signified.  Unless there is some sound symbolism (like “woosh”), signified and signifier are in an arbitrary relationship.  No matter what you call it—a tree, an arbol, or a baume—it’s still just a tree.  You just happen to use whatever set of sounds given to you by English, Spanish, or German to refer to it. The tree remains the same.

However, while a rose by any other name might still be, biologically, the same rose, experientially, it’s not. We might like to think that we could see beyond a different name to discern the same sweet smell, but we know from research, from anecdote, and from personal experience, that it doesn’t work like that.  Names set the stage of expectation, and expectation defines our subsequent experience.  If we expect something to smell bad, it is far more likely that it will smell bad to us, and if we really expect it to smell bad, we probably won’t try too hard to smell it anyway. In other words, if we called it a dungflower or a shitplant instead of a rose, not only would we be far less likely to go in for a big sniff, our expectation would be that it will stink.  Given that expectation, such a flower would smell less sweet.

Expectations matter because of the way our brains are wired.  Brains employ organizational mechanisms to group random facts into coherent, related batches of information—called perceptual sets—even if there is no proof they are related. When faced with new facts, we rush to put them in order by a series of inferential leaps using applied experience as our guide.  This trait helps us quickly assimilate opportunities and sense danger. It also sets expectations. If you see a yellow school bus and notice that the sun is heading to the horizon, you might reasonably draw the conclusion that school is letting out.  You then take the fact that school is letting out and apply it to your current situation in a relevant manner: if you are driving somewhere, you might take a different road to avoid the buses or watch out more closely for children playing; if you are a stay-at-home parent out shopping, you might realize you need to hustle home and collect the kids off the bus. You have built a perceptual set which drives your behavior, and you based it on only a smattering of information.

We draw conclusions from small sets of data based on our experiences with larger sets of data, and these in turn are what set our expectations for what is to come. They tell us, in other words, the simplest, most brain-efficient way of processing subsequent information by pre-conditioning us to a certain interpretation of those facts. If you think it’s a rose, you’ll expect it to smell sweet, and if you think it’s a dungflower, you will expect something quite different, even if you’ve never heard of one before.

Names and marketing

A name is one of the first things you learn about something, be it a product, a service, or a person. Names set expectations, in more than just descriptive ways. In fact, the more descriptive the name, the more pedestrian, and the less interesting, which means we likely assume we already know everything we need to know about it. A name like Booksonline.com is purely descriptive. It evokes retail experience involving books and…that’s it. But a name like Amazon, which has nothing to do with books and everything to do with adventure, mystery, and a sense of wild possibility, allowed the company to begin as “the world’s biggest bookstore” only to evolve into the world’s biggest store.

A good name is evocative of an experience, not just stuff. Take three names of similar stores as a case in point: Linens’n’things, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Crate & Barrel. I have been in each of these stores, so I know something about them, but let’s assume I didn’t. As a native speaker of English and an experienced consumer, what are my expectations? What information do I really have to go on?

Loads. What do you know about any store that is called X n’ things, say, Linens n’ Things? For one, it sells linens. For two, it sells other stuff—but we’re not sure what kind of stuff. So far, so good. But it also tells us that the ‘n things are not really important enough to be named.  We can expect that the store will sell linens, but past that, we don’t really know.  The name suggests that they’re a little murky on it, too.  .

How about Bed, Bath and Beyond? This name is a bit more evocative, more concrete, and, therefore, better at setting our expectations. If it was Beds, I might think it sold beds; if it was Baths, I might think it sold plumbing fixtures. But beds and baths together? Has to be furnishings.  And Beyond? That implies more as a promise, not as a lazy way of saying more random stuff. Beyond gives the name an expansive lift, a promise of the unexpected.

And what about Crate & Barrel?  I know something about crates and barrels—they store things, often things that are shipped from one place to another, maybe a place far away. Nice things are put in crates, important things. Crates and barrels are made of wood, and harken back to a time of craftsmanship and handmade objects. I am going to draw the conclusion that what they sell are things that come in crates and barrels, and that sounds cool. The name itself has a style and coherence—two strong words, some alliteration, and a nice meter with the visual of the ampersand giving some latitude for design. Of the three, the most creative, most evocative is Crate & Barrel. And that’s the one I want to go to.

Can we build names on purpose that create these evocations and expectations?

Of course we can. We know enough about words and sounds to know the expectations they will create for most people—Latin and Greek names sound smart and educated in English, for example, and Saxon words sound familiar and comforting (think: intestines versus guts). We know that energetic consonants sound fast, ([z] is the phonetically most energetic, and the fastest, sound there is, for speakers of all languages), that stop consonants sound powerful, and that nasals like [m] and [n] sound slow and comforting. Open syllables (syllables that don’t end in a consonant) sound more musical, and lighter, than closed ones, which is one reason why Hawaiian sounds a lot lighter and more lyrical than German.  You don’t need to be a scholar of old English to know that Beowulf was a tough guy, nor a Shakespearean expert to know that Romeo is a romantic. Call them Beorabbit or Frodo, and you get a far different set of expectations.

The true point of Juliet’s speech is often lost. Yes, she says that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet; her purpose, however, is to get Romeo to change his name so that they can be married. She wants Romeo to change his name precisely because it his name, and only his name, that makes them enemies instead of lovers.

The lesson? If you have a brand, and want to name it, then get thee to a namery. Go.

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