Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lexicon

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

Do titles matter?

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The other day, I found myself thinking about sex—in particular, about, once thought to be the most valuable domain name on the Internet, until it was caught up in a legal battle so epic that it inspired its own book. Ultimately, after the site’s previous owner went bankrupt, someone paid $11.5 million for the rights, but the site, as it currently stands, is a ghost town (although still not safe for work). And it isn’t hard to figure out what happened. In the early days of the web, investors were furiously snatching up what seemed like lucrative domains, all common words like Clothes or Books, never expecting that our most heavily trafficked sites would have names that sound like complete nonsense: Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Bing. In fact, of the sites I visit daily, none has a domain name consisting of a single recognizable English word.

In hindsight, it’s clear that investors simply misunderstood how people would surf the web, assuming that they would find products and services by randomly typing words into the address bar, adding “.com,” and hitting return. It’s quite possible that some users are still doing this, but for the rest of us, Google provided a much more effective approach. It didn’t really matter what a site was called: as long as it appeared prominently in your search results, you’d find it, even if it was called Kazaa or Flickr or Picasa, rather than Music or Domain names ceased to matter when one’s primary interface became the search engine, rather than the address bar. If the web had been like browsing in a bookstore, with site after site scrolling by, a domain like might have been an asset, but that just isn’t how we use the Internet.

These reflections were inspired by an article by John Colapinto in this week’s New Yorker—which is truly an excellent issue, by the way—about Lexicon, a company that does nothing but invent names for products. Lexicon’s triumphs include Pentium, Swiffer, PowerBook, and Dasani, and they’ve transformed the art of naming into a science, down to analyzing the meaning of p vs. b sounds, and quantifying the desirability of alternating vowels and consonants. The real question, though, is whether such names matter at all. Here’s Bernd Schmitt, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School:

Would Amazon be just as successful if it was called Nile? My guess would be yes, because the name is just a starting point for a brand. The most important branding decision is more about brand strategy, distribution channels—where are the customers you want to reach?

And yet it’s hard to believe that names don’t matter. Colapinto points to great novels that nearly had bad titles: would The Great Gatsby have become a classic as Trimalchio in West Egg, or Farewell, My Lovely as Zounds, He Dies? The answer seems to be no—although it ignores the fact that nearly all the great classics of world literature have bad titles—but it only brings us up against a related question, which is whether the function of a novel’s title has also changed.

Because the way we’re searching for books is changing as well. In the old days, many of us found books in the way that early speculators in domain names assumed we’d find things on the web: by browsing, essentially at random, among a vast but finite range of choices. When you’re trying to catch the eye of someone glancing casually over the thriller section of a bookstore, say, the title and cover become essential. Now, though, browsing in its pure sense is on its way out, and we find books in the same way we find everything else: through search queries, recommendations from other readers, and suggestions from sites like Amazon. The title and cover, then, seem much less important than the book’s metadata—its plot summary, its keywords, and even, in many cases, its searchable contents. (Interestingly, and for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the movie industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction, as witnessed by grindingly literal titles like Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher.)

So do titles matter? Yes, obviously, for readers who still browse for novels in bookstores—and whoever you are, I thank you. They also matter, less obviously, for professional book buyers at bookstore chains, who essentially judge books by their covers when deciding how many copies to order. As for the rest of us, my own impression, having spent a long time thinking about titles for my own books, is that titles have a neutral or negative effect. A good title, in itself, won’t make a novel easier for an online browser to find, but a bad title might turn off a reader who found the book in an Amazon search. Titles, like covers and typography, are an index to quality: a bad title and design usually means a bad book, because a publisher that is sloppy about such issues is likely to be sloppy about more important things. Titles and covers still matter, then—but less as a way of attracting readers than as a means of sealing the deal.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2011 at 10:19 am

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