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Brand Names of the Year for 2013

How to choose the most important brand names of a year? Some lists emphasize companies' value, others sales volume, and still others ad spending. My own criteria are a little different. Like the American Dialect Society, which every January picks words of the year, I look for brands that are "newly prominent or notable" in the last year. Then I factor in the brand names' linguistic significance (or "interestingness") and the degree to which they represent naming trends or breakthroughs.

Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 choices for Brand Names of 2013:

BlackBerry. The mobile-phone pioneer made headlines in 2013 for circling the drain: poor sales, declining stock price, rumors of a takeover by a Chinese company. But whatever happens to the company, the BlackBerry name will always have a place in brand-history books. When it was being developed by the Canadian company Research in Motion in 1998, the system was called PocketLink. The name tested well, but the CEO thought it was too descriptive. A team of name developers at California-based Lexicon came up with BlackBerry, a nod to the device's tiny keys, like the seeds of a berry. Although the CEO liked the name, he assumed it was an invented word: in Canada, the blackberry is called a loganberry.

Blockbuster. This one's another downbeat story. Founded in 1985 at the beginning of the home-video era, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010; in November 2013 it announced it would close all of its remaining stores and cease its DVD-by-mail operations as well. It was a sad end to a company whose name had a sinister history. The first "blockbusters" were World War II bombs capable of destroying a city block. Beginning in 1955, the word was used to describe real-estate brokers who sold houses to African-American families in all-white neighborhoods, thus "busting" the block. Toward the end of the 1950s, "blockbuster" became entertainment-industry jargon for "a film or book that achieves enormous sales," and it was this sense that was appropriated by Blockbuster the company.

Glass. Google's name for its new face-mounted computer is notable for what it isn't: it's not an invented word, it's not tech-y sounding, and — although it's worn like eyeglasses — it isn't plural. And unlike most Google brands — Drive, Translate, News, Docs — it's more metaphor than description. In a review published in March, Catchword Branding's Beth Gerber praised the name: "The elemental nature of glass, its ubiquity in modern life, its very low-techiness, all make the name Google Glass immediately accessible and user-friendly." One sign of how quickly Glass was adopted by the culture: Even though the product is still available by invitation only, its users are already being tagged with a rude nickname.

Goldie Blox. This Oakland, California, company was started by a woman engineer who wants to "disrupt the pink aisle" — all those princess games and costumes in toy stores — by selling construction toys to girls. It became much better known when it was selected as one of four finalists in a contest to win a free advertisement in the 2014 Super Bowl. And it made even bigger headlines in November when it tussled with the Beastie Boys over the use of the band's song "Girls" in a company video. As for the Goldie Blox name, it's a clever twist on "Goldilocks,"  the folk-tale heroine whose name, as Ben Zimmer pointed out in a column last month, has been "showing up in some unexpected contexts, from astronomy to economy."

Here. Where is brand naming headed? Here. In 2013, two large technology companies — Nokia and PayPal — independently chose "Here" for consumer brands. (Nokia Here is a map service — shouldn't it be called There? – and PayPal Here is a credit-card reader.) Each company clearly thought its choice was fresh and clever; unfortunately, extremely common words confound search engines and make it hard for customers to find you. Another example of this unfortunate trend: This Technology. That's right: This.

Obamacare. Officially, it's called the Affordable Care Act, or ACA: "Obamacare" was the derisive nickname assigned to President Obama's signature legislation by his Republican opponents. At first, Obama and the Democrats distanced themselves from the term. Then they embraced it. "I know people call this law Obamacare, and that's OK," the president told attendees at the White House Youth Summit in early December. "Because I do care. I do." It turns out, however, that many Americans harbor negative feelings about Obamacare ... while they approve heartily of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, branding matters.

PRISM. This code name for a mass surveillance and data-mining program was revealed worldwide in June 2013 when an American security contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked information about it to the Washington Post and the Guardian (UK). The official name of the program, which was launched in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, is US 984-XN. Although "PRISM" often appears in all capital letters, it isn't an acronym; it is, however, a popular metaphor for "spectrum of light." What's often overlooked is that a prism misrepresents whatever is seen through it. Coincidentally, 2013 also saw the release of "Prism," the fourth album from pop star Katy Perry.

Redskins. Football's Washington Redskins have had that name since 1937 – before that, the team was the Boston Redskins – but in 2013 there was renewed pressure to change what many Native Americans and others see as an offensive term. In a 29-page report issued in October, the National Council of American Indians spelled the name with an asterisk ("Redsk*ns") and decried the team's "ugly" legacy of racism. Ten members of the U.S. Congress, 60 clergy members, and President Obama called for a name change, and several newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, stopped printing the Redskins name in stories about the team. On the other hand, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — not exactly free of controversy himself this year — also weighed in, saying a name change would be "ridiculous."

Shinola. Who says you can't recycle a name? From 1907 through the 1960s, the Shinola brand was synonymous in the U.S. with shoe polish. The original Shinola trademarks expired in the 1980s, and this year a new Shinola – makers of high-end wristwatches, bicycles, and small leather goods – rose up in Detroit. "We didn't want to try to invent a name that had heritage and pretend there was history behind it," the new company's chief operating officer told Fast Company. Instead, they looked for inactive brands they could invest with new meaning. (And yes, they knew about the decades-old vulgarism.) In the early years of the 20th century, names that ended in -ola (Crayola, Victrola, Pianola) were fashionable; today, the -ola suffix implies "old-school ... in a good way."

Silk Road. This anonymous online black market was called "the Amazon.com of hard drugs." It accepted only the bitcoin virtual currency as payment. Silk Road's chief operator was known as "Dread Pirate Roberts," a moniker swiped from the book and movie The Princess Bride; revealed as Ross William Ulbricht, he was arrested in October 2013 in San Francisco, and the site was shut down by the FBI. The Silk Road name has a long and storied legacy: it was a 4,000-mile-long series of trade routes that began during the Chinese Han Dynasty in the second century B.C. Besides silk, the road(s) carried many other goods — as well as bubonic plague, or Black Death.

Have I left out any other important-in-2013 brand names? Leave a comment and let me know!

And here (not Here) are my Brand Names of the Year for 2012 and 2011.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday December 12th 2013, 10:56 AM
Comment by: sally L. (s natick, MA)
interesting , thank you!
Friday December 13th 2013, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Jessica L. (ENGLEWOOD, CO)
Re Shinola, this is all I ever think of now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Bfe6CgYbH8

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