The art of branding (Fonk magazine 358)

Text: Mike Dijkstra Taurel.

One of the current trends in naming is the increasing importance of semiotics and Conversational brands, brands consisting of two or more descriptive words that convey a message. Mike Dijkstra Taurel is founder of naming specialist Globrands and chair of the Global Naming Network, a global partnership of 14 globally based naming agencies, and discusses the issue in more detail in this article.

As the world is constantly changing, so are the naming trends and cultural landscapes where those brands are used. Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Apple, etc. In addition to their business success, these companies are also brands that have changed our naming landscape and influenced our naming culture by setting new trends. For example, Airbnb made it acceptable to use multiple consonants in French – something that was previously distant and taboo for the French and now evokes friendly closeness and modernity.

As part of our culture, brand names represent ideas that influence the world. They create conversations and moods and shape (usually unconscious) perceptions through the intrinsic message they convey. Take Invictus, Paco Rabanne’s perfume, for example, which literally means ‘unbeaten’ in Latin. Even if you are not aware of why you feel that way when you see a particular name, your brain makes neural links for you. Therefore, even without having learned Latin in school, Invictus conjures up images of victories, masculinity, power and Roman arenas.

Some of those neural links are quite direct because the name resembles a word you know or have seen before. At first, for example, Tikkie was not an app from ABNAMRO but a soccer term (“tap back Jaap”), a counting word (“a tap smaller”) or a touch (“tap on the shoulder”). Now Tikkie has become a convenient means of payment. Some connections are cultural. These cultural connections are most interesting because they go beyond the rational and they evolve over time.

emotional codes and rational meaning
Semiotics is the scientific study of words, symbols and sign systems that helps us understand how cultural codes are used in our society and what we can do with them. Language, signs and symbols are tools that brands can use to communicate their story. Because they evoke human collective associations and meanings. Because naming is so close to everyday word usage, semiotics is an essential tool for brands to discover the right codes in their market to match the culture and language use of their audience. In practice, semiotics consists mainly of answering two complementary questions, namely finding the best connection between emotional codes (how) and rational meaning (what).

How do you express an idea within its own cultural context?
Imagine we want to find the different ways to express the idea of convenience. By collecting brand names that express this in the customer category but also in adjacent categories, we can think of different routes to express this concept: a word from everyday life (the store brand G’woon), an onomatopoeia (HOP!), an expression (Beautiful) etc.

What do these types/codes convey in terms of meaning in our cultural context?
Let’s take again the example of Invictus and the men’s underwear brand Impetus. Latin names ending with -us (-um, ius etc.) are used to express an idea of status, intelligence and authority. So if you want to develop a brand that should have similar characteristics, you can think of a name with such a word part. The semiotic approach provides inspiration for brand names that align with positioning, as well as clues to help you connect the what (meaning) with the how (codes).

The semiotic process applied to naming can be divided into 3 steps:

Stap 1: Understand your direct competitors

Well-known source water brands in the Netherlands include Spa, Sourcy and Sanpellegrino Terme, with brand names that are seemingly unrelated but associate with “source,” one of the codes for that product group. If you look at the brand names of spring water in France, you will see that, even if they are named after the city they come from and sound like random names, many of them contain the syllable VI: VOLVIC, EVIAN, VITTEL, VICHY. VI, of course, stands for “Vie”: life in French. This idea of life and vitality is a globally dominant code for water, the “source de vie.”

Yet most brands introduced later deviated from this, as the brands became too similar. Therefore, a category can also become too crowded so that it is necessary to take a different route. Each brand lives in a broader context within which its competitors create a system of expressions, values and dominant meanings. By decoding name typologies, semantics and languages of your competitors and looking at their subtle differences, we can understand the dominant codes and position the players in the landscape.

Step 2: Look at where space is

But understanding one’s own category is also identifying empty spaces and new dynamics. As we said, the world is constantly changing and new entrants, new initiatives are always redefining the landscape. A nice example is Tony Chocolonely, which broke existing codes in many ways, including that of milk chocolate by putting their dark chocolate in light blue packaging. Contrariness that initially creates confusion works well. As long as you are consistent. For example, the cosmetics industry has long been dominated by classic brands like L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Clinique, La Roche Posay that embody a certain scientific authority. However, DTC and Indie brands are shifting the perception of the category towards more proximity and accessibility, leading to new emerging codes.

Interesting trend in this, which we also see in many other new brands, is that of what we call the Conversational brands: such as two combined common words, small phrases or expressions. This first step in mapping your own category serves as a guide in your creativity and decision-making process, helps discover market codes, but also highlights empty spaces.

using codes from outside my category, from pop culture and media
By analyzing codes in adjacent categories and pop culture, we can examine not only the full cultural context of a concept, but also how they evolve: which ones are dated, dominant in contemporary culture or newly emerging.

no-nasties products

Let’s take another example of the cosmetics industry that has jumped on the global trend of minimalism. Consumers are focusing on transparent, no-nasties products, with “less” being the new motto. Some beauty brands already express the idea of minimalism in their name through the idea of everyday essentials (The Ordinary, Nécessaire), and new brands such as Honest Beauty and PÜR are looking for other ways to express this cultural trend. Across categories, the analysis of brand names expressing “minimalism” shows that it can be expressed in up to 12 different ways, each revealing a facet of the concept that can help us exploit new spaces. To illustrate, here are 4 codes related to “minimalism.”

Step 3: Codebreaker, established leader versus ambitious challenger
To get the most out of the semiotic analysis, assess the results according to brand ambition: do you want to “fit in” and follow emerging trends in the category? Or pave the way and innovate with new codes? New direct bank N26 is one of the first banks to use an alphanumeric name, creating a new cultural reference in its category. ABNAMRO with new10 is a notable brand in the wide range of loans that, like Floryn, Florius, Findio or Finzicht almost all follow existing codes.

leveraging cultural trends
Dominant codes in a category are important to consider when the brand wants to become part of the established order. Brand extensions that want to enter a new market (e.g., a skincare brand entering the makeup segment) should also take this into account, while also looking closely at emerging codes.

First, look at the message you want to convey with your name, with the Conversational trend offering many new opportunities to bring a new perspective and differentiate yourself. In some product groups, it is getting quite crowded in that again, such as the healthy snacks and fruit drinks that all want to make it clear that they are healthy and there are no bad substances in them.

Which one will it be for you? How do you leverage cultural trends to develop your brand? When applying semiotics to branding, always keep in mind:

  • Your ambition. A distinctive name within the category can mean a longer road but more rewarding. Make sure you are the first (e.g., innocent).
  • Whatever route you take, follow it for good reasons and live up to them.
  • A “Conversational” brand name can say a lot but keep in mind the trademark and domain name implications
  • Once created, never forget to also check the ‘street-language’ meaning of the name in the country.