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Words about words, brands, names and naming, and the creative process.

Sound Strategy

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Names are everywhere, all around, constantly clamoring for our attention. We see them on our screens, on billboards and print media, on business cards, in product placement and promotional pieces, on packaging, and on the products themselves. And we hear them mentioned in content and in ads, in overheard or direct conversation, on voicemail messages and on-hold loops, in press announcements and other public speaking events.

With all the din and clatter, how does a name stand out to capture our attention? How does a brand break through the clutter to connect?

The first building block is the name itself. The name begins a conversation, introducing the offering to an appropriate audience. This first impression establishes the tone, the spirit, the expectation of what may be in store.

Visually, the name is represented by a logotype — the name as written in a proprietary typeface, e.g., Google, Stüssy, the New York Times — a logomark — the Nike swoosh, the apple with a bite taken out, the Target bullseye — or a combination — the caricature of a chicken ornamenting the initial C of Chick-fil-A, the arrow embedded in the word FedEx.

Visual identities are calculatingly crafted, with an analytical eye on the color palette and typeface families best suited to express the brand’s intention. Research reveals the role of color in triggering emotional responses. From the passion and exuberance correlated with the color red, the energetic and playful punch of orange, yellow’s cheerful radiance, blue’s trustworthiness and restraint, the refined royalty of purple, the youthful femininity of pink, the grounded warmth of brown, and the sleek exclusivity of black, color carries a not-so-secret coded message.

There is similar pseudo-scientific savvy associated with typeface selection. Serif typefaces — a serif is a small perpendicular line finishing each stroke of a letter — connote tradition and professionalism, while san serifs lean more fresh and modern. Script typefaces are formal and/or decorative, reflecting a softer sophistication, while handwritten faces telegraph friendliness and approachability.

Lineweight, letterspacing, and case also play roles in conveying brand positioning: a heavy lineweight projects power, while a lighter weight evokes elegance; tight letterspacing is forceful and commanding, while more space between each letter signals expansiveness or refinement; a logo executed in all uppercase letters grabs attention, while all lowercase purposefully understates.

Really, it’s kind of intuitive. A handwritten “hospital” sign seems a little sketchy, and a die-cut metal sign offering “eggs” conjures futuristic factory food rather than something free-range and family-farm fresh.

Just as visual elements in brand identity are designed to catch our eyes, the linguistic structure of the brand name is essential to catch our ears. Rhythm, cadence, percussiveness or sibilance, repetitiveness and the like combine to create an aural signature. The bubbly musical fluidity of Coca-Cola, the evocative chic mystique of Zara, and the short, sharp, shock of Xbox each reflect the interplay between linguistic construction and brand experience.

Rhyme is one of the commonly used linguistic tricks to catch the ear. Another is alliteration, a figure of speech describing when the same sound repeats in a group of words — Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. We usually think of alliteration as referring to the first letter of each of the words, but it also refers to the first letter of syllables in multi-syllabic words — tattletale, bombastic, seesaw — and repeating sounds within stressed syllables in a group of words — incredible creatures, reliable delivery. Important to note that alliteration does not refer to the same letter repeated, but rather the same soundSex and the City, extra crispy, Jefferson Georgia. [A related concept to alliteration is assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds in a group of words, as in linguistic trick.]

Alliteration creates memorable language, and is used powerfully in political speeches — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s indelible “I have a dream” speech including the belief that his children will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character — in song lyrics — Joni Mitchell bemoaning that they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, the Beatles urging that we whisper words of wisdom, let it be — and, of course, in naming. From products — Hamburger Helper, Grey Goose, Hula Hoop, Gorilla Glue, KitKat, BlackBerry — to companies — Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Lululemon, Samsung, PayPal — and entertainment — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, East of Eden, Westworld, Breaking Bad, Conversations with a Killer, Mad Men, Blue Bloods — alliteration abounds.  

Alliteration accentuates certain syllables, creating a textural complexity that rings and resonates in the ear. The brain can hold onto to the words more readily, making them easier to call to mind later. It is a top-notch tool to keep in your naming toolkit. But, as always, don’t be so enamored with a particular tree that you lose sight of the forest. Alliteration — like any phonetic device — isn’t the star of the show. Rather, it is part of the support squad in the overarching objective of honoring the offering.

As example: on my route to the airport, there’s a sign for the Philly Pretzel Factory, and I laugh out loud every time I see it. Because it would be so much better — from the aspect of alliteration — if it read Philly Falafel Factory. The only trouble with that is … the place produces pretzels.

And while this would be an obvious miscue, it is surprising how enticing figures of speech can be when the core of an offering is less literal — the “pretzel” Nike is offering is not sporting equipment; the “pretzel” Warby Parker is offering is not eyewear. In naming [or selecting a name], while it might be linguistically compelling to go for the gimmick, the trendy, the clever, the cute, it’s a short-sighted superficiality. If the name doesn’t articulate a core truth of the offering, it is a “bad” name. The name has one job. And it needs to do it. Completely. Obsessively. Without ego.

An example: The tagline for Kay Jewelers uses alliteration to perfection. Every kiss begins with Kay not only showcases the brand name with a playful, memorable twist, but also completely encapsulates and articulates the brand experience — a gift of jewelry scores some sugar.

Alliteration is awesome! And starting this week, #PlaysWithWords will mix it into the mind games on wordplay Wednesday. You heard it here first.