What’s in a brnd name?
A case of the missing vowels sparks an investigation into the modern practice of brand-naming.
Over the last few years vowels have been falling off brand names the way Hazel fell in love with Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars — slowly, then all at once. It first started in the mid-2000s, when Silicon Valley startups daintily dropped the “e” from their names (Flickr, Tumblr, Scribd), not as much to sound hip but to bag domains before they were swiped up by other businesses.
Today, if you take a little jaunt around our studio in the Flatiron District — dubbed New York City’s healthiest neighborhood — you’ll find umpteen buzzy boutique spaces with names that look like 90s vanity plates or NASDAQ symbols. The rule seems to be, at least one vowel must be missing. NYC’s first walk-in dental bar DNTL sounds like “dental” uttered through clenched teeth. Acupuncture studio WTHN’s co-founder Shari Auth insists, “when you do spiritual work, the first thing you need to do is get rid of the I.” The omitted “e” in Flatiron’s newest assisted-stretching studio Stretch*d makes exercise sound like an expletive. MNDFL, another meditation space, vows to be mindful by being vowel-less. The only pragmatic vowel-dropper around is alternative wellness spa Modrn Sanctuary, whose founder Alexandra Janelli said “the domain name Modern Sanctuary was already taken.”
Some of them are more difficult to discern than others. L.A.-based denim startup DSTLD is “distilled” distilled, while Anthropologie’s wedding line BHLDN isn’t beholden to the English alphabet. Brands with too many vowels are at a disadvantage: PPL (Apple) and MZN (Amazon) don’t exactly roll off the tongue or make for the most obvious abbreviations.
Somewhere along the way vowel-dropping went from a means to an end to an end in itself. What first started as a business-driven decision to secure a dot-com URL has morphed into a mainstream design aesthetic that informs the naming strategies of IRL spaces like dental clinics. It’s even invaded how we speak in conversation with each other. If internet lingo and textspeak continue to shrink our lexicons, how long before brands and people are communicating entirely through emojis? Did Tim Berners-Lee realize when he invented the World Wide Web that it would effectively take us right back to cave drawings and reverse millennia of language evolution?
The all-caps, no-vowel trend is just the latest example of the profound implications that the modern brand-naming industry can have on culture. With just 26 letters in the English alphabet and infinite possibilities, coming up with a name is no small feat. If you Google “how to name a brand,” you’ll be sifting through 7,690,000,000 search results.
Now that we have a better sense of what’s at stake, it’s worth asking: What’s in a brand name, anyway? Linguists and strategists alike turn to the bouba/kiki effect to explain. In a 2001 experiment inspired by German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler, respondents were shown two distinct shapes and asked to intuitively assign the made-up names bouba or kiki to either shape. Both Indian Tamil speakers and American college graduates consistently associated jagged edges with kiki and rounded blobs with bouba. This was a crucial insight for branding; we tend to link certain sounds with visual shapes in a way that cuts across languages and cultures. It’s why names and logos must work together.
Of course, brand-naming hasn’t always been an exercise in phonetics and focus groups. Companies during the Industrial Revolution were pretty straightforward, often named after their founders or products (Levi’s, Nestlé, US Steel, Standard Oil). It wasn’t until the mid-20th century postwar economic boom that the rise of mass consumerism forced businesses selling identical products to differentiate themselves with Mad Men-era initials like 3M and DHL; and later, quirkier monikers like Dunkin’ Donuts and Trader Joe’s.
Silicon Valley has since run wild launching a number of silly fads, perhaps the biggest one involving verb-ifying verbs. “Spotify” was one of just 12 tech startups in 2008 with the -ify suffix. By 2014, there were 101. Nowadays, online brands want to be on a first-name basis with users (Ollie, Alfred, Oscar), while monthly subscriptions love to remind us that they come in boxes (BarkBox, BirchBox, MistoBox).
The new emphasis on friendliness and approachability isn’t surprising given our centuries-long transition from selling commodities to knowledge-based, creative economies. But amidst the techlash and our exasperation with Silicon Valley’s move-fast-and-break-things mantra, we’ve become suspicious of the sleek, serif type-laden marketing that has come to define e-commerce startups and dsrptv brands. This fatigue signals a growing demand for candor. It explains why Weight Watchers’ rebrand to WW didn’t go down so well with angry Tweeters (How dare a diet-culture-peddling business deflect scrutiny by posing as wellness.) But the Dunkin’ Donuts rebrand to just Dunkin’ was reasonably well-received. (That’s what people call it anyway.)
Would the world be any different if bouba-style Google had a kiki name like BackRub — what the co-founders originally called it? Will we ever go back to the matter-of-fact naming characterized by the industrial age? Vowels, misspellings and abbreviations aside, the naming process is more an art than a science. Even though a name is only the first touch-point in a multi-channel interaction with any brand, it carries weight — evocative at best, evasive at worst.
A name, ultimately helps us remember what a company sells so customers know what to look for, employees are proud of what they’re helping to build, investors realize what they’re buying into and the rest of us get what it stands for. As for what sounds best, in a culture that increasingly values essence over embellishment, Financial Times columnist Pilita Clark believes we’ll go for the one “that simply does what it says on the tin.”