The Forbidden Letters

The brief for the naming project was comprehensive and clear, except for one line toward the end: “No names that begin with A, B, or F.”

Wait. What?

Curious about the prohibition, I emailed the client — a native English speaker, by the way. The response: “I’m not a fan of brand names that begin with those letters.”

Hmm.

I made a little list. Apple, Amazon, Adidas, Amgen. Barclays, Bluetooth, Boeing, Bloomingdales. Fitbit, Flickr, Ford, Facebook.

I showed the list to the client, who considered it thoughtfully, and then countered: “Names that begin with A remind me of aspirin, Advil, Allegra, and other drug names. Names that begin with F make me think of failure.”

But … Apple. But … Facebook.

The client laughed. “I don’t associate A with Apple! They’re just … Apple.

Exactly.

What’s your perception of these letters?

Our psychological associations with certain words and names can be deep, stubborn, and irrational. Scientists have long been interested in word aversion, the phenomenon that makes some people cringe at words like — trigger warning! — moist and slacks. Even if a word doesn’t cause actual revulsion, it can have a tenacious hold on our psyche. For example, once we’ve decided that a word can only be a car name, we’ve blocked our brains from accepting it as the name of anything else — even if it may be an excellent fit for, say, a real estate company.

That’s not a productive mindset for naming, which works best when we can associate and create as freely as possible.

It’s true that certain sounds (as opposed to letters) can be problematic for certain naming assignments. If your audience includes Spanish-speakers, you may want to avoid names that begin with S plus a consonant blend, such as Sprint or Stouffer’s. That’s because S[consonant blend] is not phonetically possible at the beginning of Spanish words; native speakers will insert a vowel sound to make the word conform to Spanish phonotactics (“Esprint,” “Estouffer’s”).

Similarly, R and L can be hard to say for speakers of some East Asian languages, and V and W are challenging for speakers of Arabic and many South Asian languages.*

Another reason to avoid names that begin with a certain letter: One or more of your competitors has a name that begins with that letter. When your rivals are Ace, Acme, and Apricot, you’d be well advised to look further down the alphabet for your own name. You’ll want to stand out, not get lost on the A-train.

Neither of these exceptions applied to my client. This was letter aversion, and fixed associations with specific letters, plain and simple.

“Rules” like “No names that begin with A, B, or F” aren’t just illogical, they’re counterproductive. You may associate A-names with drugs, but I may think of airlines like American and Allegiant. (When I think of drug names, I think of X’s and Z’s.) A third person might think of tech giants like Alibaba and Alphabet.

A name should be chosen because it’s a good fit for a brand’s story and personality, because it’s legally distinctive, and because its audience will find it appropriate and appealing. Don’t let letter aversion — or its counterpart, letter infatuation — dictate your choices.

And my “No-A-B-F” client? Saw the light, I’m pleased to say.

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* And yet … I once had an Asia-based client who insisted on “no names with R, L, V, or W.” And then chose a name with a V and an R.