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Most people think “branding” is simply about creating a catchy, memorable name for a product, service, organization, and even people. However, branding is much more complex. Good branding starts with the development of a message or impression that reflects the unique benefits and characteristics of that entity, and then creating a name that ideally communicates its qualities and personality to targeted customers. As one can imagine, there are numerous approaches and philosophies for brand naming.

Here are two contrasting examples: Trump’s tendency to coin descriptive, simplistic (and usually negative) labels on his adversaries that reflect his opinion of them, and the more subconscious, subliminal use of “phonologics” to create brand names for pharmaceutical products.

Despite many faults, Donald Trump is effective at creating and then repeating incessantly short and snappy, yet memorable brand names for people who might pose a threat to him, or who he just doesn’t like. These labels create an immediate and lasting image of that person, which is particularly appealing to his core base of supporters who have strong emotional feelings for a straightforward outsider like Trump. These abbreviated nicknames are also ideal for social media like Twitter that offer limited content. Of course, other people see these names as simply an extension of Trump’s childish impulsiveness and insecurities, but they do stick. For example:

  • “Crooked Hillary” – a tag that immediately denotes Trump’s interpretation of her dishonesty.
  •  Lyin’ Ted Cruz” – Trump purposely misspells “lying” for added emphasis.
  • “Little Rocket Man” – an obvious pun at the diminutive Kim Jung-Un from North Korea.
  • “Pocahontas” – his slur for Elizabeth Warren, this moniker really upset many Navajos recently.
  • “Liddle Marco Rubio” – Trump’s way to signal Rubio’s immaturity (again misspelled on purpose) which led to their debate on hand size during the campaign.
  • “Leakin’ James Comey” – reviving the cadence of his “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” Trump’s way for combating such criticism.
  • “Sloppy Steve Bannon” – most recently to castigate Bannon for his leaked criticism of Trump in Michael Wolf’s new book, Fire and Fury.

These are all consciously simplistic and communicate Trump’s intended impression that he wants the public to perceive. On the other end of the spectrum is an approach that builds on the subconscious innuendos that resonate subliminally and impact one’s emotions – the use of sound symbolism called “phonologics.” Because this involves a relationship between speech sounds and emotions, it is especially useful for international brands where everyone shares the same reaction to the sounds of certain consonants and vowels, even for fabricated brand names. For example, research by linguists shows that:

  • “X” reflects hi-tech and innovation
  • “Z” is the most active consonant, and connotes fast and daring
  •  “V” is very fast, big and energetic
  • “C,D” are powerful, sound larger, often used for luxury goods
  • “K, T, and P” are crisp, quick and also daring, generating good recall
  • “S,L” imply pleasant feelings
  • “Y” at the end of a word is more friendly, often found in nicknames.

Pharmaceutical companies use this process of sound symbolism extensively, since they recognize that for physicians and end users, the harder the tonality, the more efficacious the product is perceived. Creating new words with the desired speech sounds has the same emotional impact in any language. so it is ideal for international distribution. Here are just a few examples of their broad use of the letters “x” and “z”: Nexium, Clarinex, Celebrex, Xanax, Zyban and Zithromax.

Many drug companies combine this sound symbolism with other linguistic connotations. Viagra is full of these subconscious innuendos, for example. It rhymes with “Niagara,” a popular honeymoon spot; additionally, water is linked with sexuality and life. The letter “v” connotes speed, energy, and sizability. The syllable “vi” sounds like the beginning of “vitality” and “vigor” as well.

Similar symbolism is shared by others in this category. Levitra comes from “elevate,” le is the masculine form of “the” in French, and “vitra” alludes to “vitality.” Cialis, which is more about sensuality and romantic engagement, has the “s” sound which flows gently, the smooth “l” in the middle, and has no “stop consonants” (e.g. “ p, b, d, and t”).

The common thread for both very different brand name approaches is that the desired impression is first determined by what will appeal to and motivate the target voters or customers. Brand names are very important, but it must start with the content (i.e. the core message) and the imagery a marketer wants to communicate.


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About Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is President, founder of The Pathfinder Group, a business development firm specializing in emotional branding, ideation facilitation and international expansion. His background has focused mainly on marketing and new product development with executive positions at reputable companies in the US and abroad – Richardson Vicks/P&G, Church & Dwight, Seagram and Newsweek. Jay has also been teaching a branding course at NYU since 1999 and recently wrote a book on the “Basics of Branding”, published by Business Expert Press. Jay has a BA from Colby College and MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth.

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