An Apple a Day Keeps the PC Away

Brand naming as linguistic product placement

Posted Feb 13, 2011

apples with Apple logoIt's hard to imagine nowadays, but it used to be that when it came time to name a company or a product, someone would just trot out a perfectly sensible, serviceable name like General Motors or Model-T or Corning Glass Works. Or International Business Machines. And that would be that. Practical yes, but a bit drab compared to the more modern evocative names we've gotten used to: Apple, Jaguar, Trojan, Dove, Axe, BlackBerry, to name just a few.

The theory behind more current naming practices is no big secret: if you grab an appealing word of English (and they're free! And in the public domain!) and make that your brand name, people won't be able to resist imagining all the wonderful features of the word you've co-opted whenever they hear your brand name. Technically, what you've done is taken a string of sounds that happens to already have a meaning in English, and given it another, different meaning—in other words, you've created a pair of homonyms, kind of like the two separate meanings of words like bank or rose. But you're hoping that people will link those two meanings together in their minds. (Which is why you actually have to make sure that the English word fits with what you're trying to project about your brand. Notice: the brand names Dove and Axe are not exactly interchangeable).

All of this seems obvious. The fact that an image of a large sleek cat so clearly comes to mind when you think of the brand name Jaguar makes it pretty evident that the two meanings share a mental connection. But if the two meanings of Jaguar are linked, wouldn't you also expect that a nature show on wildlife in South American rainforests would end up containing what amounts to linguistic product placements for the luxury car—simply by talking about prowling jaguars? You're probably not aware of thinking about cars while hearing about a jaguar's hunting habits. But the thought may be crossing your mind nevertheless.

Language scientists have known for decades that when you hear or read a word that has a second meaning, you get that other one along for free, whether you need it or not. So, imagine reading a sentence like: Finally, the exterminator showed up and got rid of all the cockroaches, spiders and other bugs. You may not have consciously experienced images of spies or secret surveillance devices. But there's pretty good evidence that when you came across the word bug, you probably weren't just thinking about creepy crawlers—you were also activating the other completely irrelevant meaning of the word.

How do we know this? One way to tell is to measure something called semantic priming, which works like this: Suppose you're reading the sentence about the exterminator, you get to the word bug and then you suddenly see the word ant flash on the screen in front of you and you have to press a button as soon as you recognize that ant is a word. Chances are, you'll be faster to respond to ant than you would be to a word like cat, which has nothing at all to do with bugs of either the insect or James Bond variety. This is because when you see bug, it immediately brings to mind a slew of related concepts and words—such as ant—so that when you see one of these words a moment later, you can react to it quickly, because it's already on your mind. What's interesting is that you'd also react quickly to the word spy, meaning that both meanings of bug must have popped into your mind.

This always made me wonder: If you hear a regular word like tide or apple in normal conversation, would the brands of the same name also automatically light up? Quite possibly, but the real question of course is whether this would amount to anything more than just a brief mental flicker. It was one of those things I always wished someone would do a study on.

So I was intrigued when I recently found, buried in an old 1977 paper by Richard Nesbitt and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, an experiment that showed an inkling of product placement via word ambiguity. In the study, subjects were told to memorize a list of word pairs, with half of the subjects seeing the pair of words ocean-moon. Later on, the subjects were asked to name a brand of laundry detergent, and those who had seen ocean-moon were more likely to name Tide than those who hadn't. When they were asked why they'd picked that brand, most of them made no connection to the word pair that was planted in the memory test. Instead, they said things like "My mother uses Tide", or "I like the box."

I haven't seen anyone really pick up on this curious study to find out whether using a nice, ordinary word of English might actually have an impact on brand awareness or choice. But I can't help but wonder: as people stroll down the produce aisle bagging their fruit, do they suddenly think of that song they'd meant to download from Apple's iTunes store, or decide they need to check the messages on their BlackBerry?

Someone should do a study.

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R.E. Nesbitt & T. DeCamp Wilson. 1977. Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

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