In January 2019, Marriott International introduced a new consolidated loyalty program for guests at all of the company’s branded properties — Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz-Carlton — under a single new name: Bonvoy. The company’s global chief commercial officer said the new name was selected from a list of 600 candidates, and that Bonvoy was “a clear winner” because it communicated a “modern, fresh, and aspirational” identity.
Marriott customers disagreed. Quickly, loudly, and vehemently.
Here’s a small sampling of the feedback on the travel site One Mile at a Time:
“Too easily confused with Bon Jovi.” “Absolutely appalling.” “More like Mariott OyyVeyy.” “It’s Marriott saying ‘Bon Voyage’ to members who are opting for the better Hilton and Hyatt programs.”
Readers of another travel site, The Points Guy, were even less charitable
“Sounds like a cheap ladies’ clothing company.” “A marketing exec hit send too fast on an email and Marriott took them seriously.” “Ridiculous, stupid name.”
Harsh words, but hardly unprecedented. Almost without exception, when a brand — especially a well-known brand — introduces a new name, the public responds with virtual pitchforks. It’s meaningless! It’s a waste of money! The old name was better!
It doesn’t even have to be a major change.
Remember when, in March 2009, cable television’s Sci Fi Channel announced that it was rebranding as Syfy? A critic at Vulture called the change “the dopiest idea ever to touch down on planet Earth.” Time included Syfy in a list of “the top 10 worst corporate name changes.” The sci-fi blog io9 scoffed that the new name was “a typo.” AdAge wondered whether there should be “a Syfy death watch.” Cnet called the change “ill-advised.” Science-fiction writer John Scalzi pointed out that “syfy” means “syphilis” in Polish; commenters on his post complained that “Syfy” looked like it should be pronounced “siffy.”
Readers with even longer memories will recall Anderson Consulting’s name change to Accenture, which took effect on January 1, 2001. Time called it “generic corporate nonsense.” And in 2000, when Porsche introduced its Cayenne model — an SUV named for a pepper! — a reporter for the Chicago Tribune snorted that the name was “the king of meaningless monikers.”
And yet all of these brands didn’t just survive the jeers, they thrived.
By early 2010, Syfy had recorded its most successful year, quarter, and series (“Warehouse 13”); 10 years after the name change, Syfy was a strong presence in global markets (where “sci-fi” has little intrinsic meaning) as well as in the United States.
Accenture spent millions to promote its new name (which had been coined from accent and future), and five months after the launch it had achieved 53 percent “unaided ad awareness” — that is, volunteered without prompting.
And the Porsche Cayenne? Still in production, still selling well, still a major influence on other nontraditional car-model names such as Leaf and Soul.
There’s a pattern here, and it has a name: the Zajonc effect.
Back in the 1960s, the Polish-American social psychologist Robert Zajonc — his surname rhymes with science — was working at the University of Michigan on the connections between how people feel and how they think. In one of his experiments, he showed people lists of unfamiliar words — Turkish in some cases, completely made up in others — and asked for their responses. At first, the subjects said they disliked the strange words. But the more they were exposed to them, the more likely they were to change their opinion and say they liked the words.
Zajonc repeated the study with images instead of words, and got the same results. His conclusion: Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds contentment. Zajonc called it the “mere exposure effect.” In his honor, it’s now also called the Zajonc effect.
Although Zajonc postulated that the “mere exposure” can occur on a subconscious level, there’s never been a proven link between so-called subliminal advertising and preferences for names or products. No matter: The Zajonc effect is on full display with our conscious responses to new names.
Why do we react strongly and negatively to unfamiliar words and names, which, after all, have no power to physically harm us? Probably because we’re wired to reject novelty. In our prehistory, any mysterious plant might have been toxic; any strange person could have posed a threat. We favor familiarity in our environments — and our words. “It is common to bat away linguistic novelty — ‘It won’t catch on’,” wrote the language expert Henry Hitchings in 2011. “Such disdain is tinged with anxiety, and to speak of ‘our’ language is to identify the source of this fear. For while no one truly owns English or any other natural language, we feel proprietorial about the language that we speak and write. As a result we are apt to look on linguistic changes — including new words — as personal affronts.”
The eighteenth-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson disparaged the noun finesse as “an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language,” Hitchings tells us. I’d add that a century ago, the writer and language-advice-giver Ambrose Bierce told Americans to avoid the adjective talented because “there was never the verb ‘to talent’.” In the same vein, a lot of people hated lunch, jeopardize, and the verb to contact — that last usage until as recently as the 1960s. We know how those controversies ended.
What does this mean for coiners of new brand names? For starters, avoid focus groups. The Zajonc effect tells us that customers want familiar names; the more distinctive (or “disruptive”) the name, the more likely they are to reject it. But effective branding isn’t about consensus and pleasing everyone; it’s about defying familiarity and creating fresh new associations. A focus group never would have approved Virgin as the name of an airline (inexperienced pilots?) or Banana Republic as the name of a clothing store (bananas?).
And one more piece of advice: Once you’ve chosen a name, commit to it fully. Tell its story — repeatedly, and well. “Mere exposure” isn’t the only component of effective branding, but it’s not merely a catchphrase. It’s what customers require to bond with your brand.