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Giving Offense: A Secret to Brand Naming Success

Drew Letendre

It is a virtual axiom in branding circles that a name should ‘not give offense’ in principle languages, ‘should have no pejorative meanings or untoward associations.’ That is how we put it in our counsel to clients. We tell them that we will develop names that don’t cross these lines.

Practically everybody knows about the classic Chevy Nova ‘case.’ ‘Nova’ which means ‘new’ in Latin, means ‘It doesn’t go’ in Spanish (‘no va’)—not exactly the kind of message one wants to attach to—well—lots of products, but especially not to a car. Frankly, I don’t know if the name spelled death for Nova sales in Latin American markets. And, what seems worse—though I’ve never heard anyone comment on it—is the astronomic meaning: ‘a cataclysmic nuclear explosion…caused by the accretion of hydrogen…, which ignites and starts nuclear fusion in a runaway manner.’ (Wikipedia). Pick you poison: from benign inertness to universal cataclysm.

What you hear less about, if at all, are ‘bad’ names that identify successful businesses. Here are two (and they might set the conventional naming wisdom on its head).

Aetna, the insurance conglomerate, is named after Mt. Aetna, an active volcano. Now, why would anyone in their right mind name an insurance corporation after a massive ‘object,’ that could explode or implode (or both) at any moment, without warning, causing untold death and destruction? Why would you name a company built on preventing, mitigating, and/or compensating for catastrophe, collision, etc. after the source of the very collisions, etc. it is sworn to protect from? What of the suggestion (or possible mis-interpretation?) that the corporation is to be identified with the object in question? As I’ve said before, this is a little like giving a fast food franchise a name that rhymes with ‘Coli.’ And yet, who faults Aetna for their name? Who even comments on this otherwise frankly bizarre choice of monikers?

The other topsy-turvy case that comes to mind is Banana Republic. Am I the only person who recalls that this is (or was once) a slur against ‘third world’ (another slur), ‘under-developed,’ or non-industrial nation states? Isn’t it odd that a company whose main demographic is probably composed of university-educated, white, liberal democrats—attuned and obedient to the niceties of political correctness—would not only overlook the choice, but adopt BR as their high-end apparel brand of choice (and as one that—like, Kenneth Cole—actually reflects their political values, to the extent it represents such values at all)? Could the recent adoption of “BR,” by the way, signal a late afterthought about all of this? An elegant way to sweep it under the rug with a little remedial naming? Quite possibly. Guilt is better late than never in branding, as in life. Who knows how many well-heeled Latino/Latina customers this saved or gained?

So, what are the lessons to be learned from these observations? First, think twice before establishing an overt ‘gag rule’ on names that may ‘give offense’ or have ‘pejorative meaning’. Second, if a slur-name shows up in the master list, don’t throw it out for that – at least not yet. ‘Park it on the side’ …you may have the next Aetna in your hand. Third and last: names—even ones that appear to have 3 strikes against them before they get up to the plate—are what you make of them. Within reasonable limits, almost any name can be ‘made to work.’ Naming appears to be a much more forgiving endeavor than it might seem at first blush. Important to know.