Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 14th, 2017

Their brand is crisis

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A while back, The New Yorker ran an engaging piece by John Colapinto about the branding firm Lexicon, which specializes in coming up with product names for corporate clients. It was published nearly six years ago, but it’s stuck in my head, after so many other articles have faded, in part because the work of Lexicon—which has named such brands as BlackBerry, Pentium, PowerBook, and Dasani—feels like a distillation of what writers and artists do all the time. It’s hard enough to write a distinctive slogan or jingle, but trying to evoke so much in a single word, like Swiffer, resembles a form of black magic. (I’m reminded of the protagonist of John Barth’s novel The Tidewater Tales, who keeps cutting down a short story until it consists of nothing but the word “olive.”) But there’s a science to it as well. Colapinto writes:

Lexicon employs two in-house linguists and consults with seventy-seven others around the world, specialists in languages as diverse as Urdu, Tagalog, and Hindi—a critical resource, [founder David] Placek says. They screen names for embarrassing associations. (The industry abounds in tales of cross-linguistic gaffes, like Creap coffee creamer from Japan, Bum potato chips from Spain, and the Chevy Nova—in Spanish, the “no go.”) They also offer input on the unconscious resonance of particular sounds. In the mid-nineties, Lexicon funded a linguistic study whose results suggested that the sound of the letter “b” was one of the most “reliable” in any language—“whether you were in Poland or Paris or New York,” Placek said. He mentioned this to the Research in Motion executives, and they decided to capitalize both “b”s: BlackBerry.

Yesterday, a story broke about another brand that starts with a “b.” Bodega, a startup that has raised millions of dollars in venture investment, inspired a flurry of online rage after Fast Company published an article with the headline “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The profile, which was responsibly reported and written by Elizabeth Segran, summarizes the company’s pitch as follows:

Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card…Bodega’s logo is a cat, a nod to the popular bodega cat meme on social media—although if the duo gets their way, real felines won’t have brick-and-mortar shops to saunter around and take naps in much longer.    

There are obvious problems here, both on the practical side and on the level of what we’ve somehow agreed to call “optics,” and they’ve been capably pointed out by others. But the company’s name, which appropriates a term for corner stores in urban areas often owned by immigrants, didn’t help. As Segran relates:

I asked [founder Paul McDonald] point-blank about whether he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive. Not really. “I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no.’ It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

When I first read that quote, shortly before the firestorm broke, I thought of the famous line from Fargo: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there.” It seems safe to say that if you feel obliged to check whether or not your brand name is a “misappropriation,” you’re probably better off not using it, and that the three percent of respondents who find it objectionable might cause you a disproportionate amount of trouble. (Focusing on “the Latin American community” also overlooks the fact that many people are more than willing to be offended on behalf of others.) In an apologetic post that was published late yesterday, McDonald asked rhetorically: “Is it possible we didn’t fully understand what the reaction to the name would be?” He answered himself:

Yes, clearly. The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined. When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation. We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.

Personally, I’d be curious to know which “branding people” they consulted, and whether they were seduced by the “reliability” of the letter “b,” or by the word’s “consonant-vowel-consonant pattern,” which, as Colapinto notes, is “among the first that infants learn in any language.”

Whatever the process was, the result was that Bodega ended up with just about the worst name that it could possibly have chosen. Its business model has other issues that make it unlikely that it could pose a threat to anyone, much less one’s favorite corner store, but it could easily have positioned itself to make it seem that it was targeting big chain drugstores, not independent businesses. Instead, it chose a name that was like a torpedo aimed at itself. It was a self-inflicted wound, and you could argue that the editors of Fast Company were ready with almost unseemly glee to ram the dagger home. Yet it was bound to happen sooner or later, and the real question is why none of Bodega’s investors raised concerns about it at any stage. You could say, quite reasonably, that the culprit was the lack of diverse voices in technology and finance, but I suspect that something else was involved. The founders were clearly aware of the potential for trouble, but they were so in love with their name and logo that they ignored it. It was worse than a sin—it was a mistake. And if they’re penalized for it, it shouldn’t be for being offensive, but for being bad at what they were supposed to be doing. As Colapinto writes:

Placek said that it can be dangerous to become too programmatic about what he calls “tactical” aspects of naming. The real goal, he says, is to determine what “story” a client wishes to tell about his product (it’s faster, it’s more powerful, it’s easier to use) and then find a word that evokes it, without being predictable or even necessarily logical.

For better or worse, “Bodega” was definitely a name that told a story. And it ended up saying more about its founders than they probably would have liked.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2017 at 9:20 am

Quote of the Day

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[Not only are we] more likely to remember a plotted narrative; we are also less likely to ask awkward questions about it. This is why historians as well as novelists (traditionally) place such value on “followability”; it limits the possibility of awkward questions, it leaves less to explain; for historians usually write narrative rather than explanation if they can. Thus the detection of occult figurations, and the questioning of the narrative as a report on fact, is delayed.

Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

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