Ad and marketing creatives
Brand Names of the Year for 2018
What will you remember about 2018? Among everything else, I'll remember some brand names that made headlines or just piqued my professional curiosity. Here are my top ten, in alphabetical order – a list that includes four e-prefixed sectors: e-cigarettes, e-scooters, e-commerce, and esports.
Amazon's private-label brands. Their names appear to have been created by neural networks or by a random toss of Scrabble tiles: WULFUL, YFFUSHI, WEEN CHARM, Bropastures, Dreamlish, Ipple Store, GiGling EyE. In November, two stories in the New York Times investigated the stories behind these micro-brands. In some cases, wrote John Hermann, international companies create made-for-Amazon brands "in hopes of gaining more direct access to consumers in different markets, with a particular focus on the United States, though they sometimes suffer in translation." But other brands, wrote Jenny Odell, lead the observer down a rabbit hole she calls "uncanny e-commerce."
Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin, and Wind. If you have the mixed fortune of living in a city where a new form of battery-powered transit is in vogue, you'll recognize these snappy one-syllable names as competing brands of rentable electric scooters. "It's no flying car, but the e-scooter had a huge impact on city streets in 2018," observed Digital Trends. Cheap to rent (just $1 for the initial ride) and virtually unregulated, e-scooters represent freedom to some people – and a giant headache to city officials dealing with carelessly disposed vehicles. (In my city, dozens of e-scooters have been tossed into a lake.) It may be coincidental that all of these brands are four-letter words, but "four-letter word" is undeniably what comes to mind when an unhelmeted scooter-rider is careening toward you at 15 miles per hour.
Fortnite. Video games used to be played in living rooms or arcades. Now "esports" attract online and real-life spectators, and none is more popular, or lucrative, than Fortnite, a hybrid building-shooting-survival game released in September 2017 by Epic Games: The game received 2.3 billion views on YouTube in February 2018 alone. Why "Fortnite"? According to a CNN explainer, the name is a variation of fortnight (a period of two weeks; compressed from fourteen nights) because in one of the game modes, Save the World, players must "survive" for two weeks. The name has additional overtones of fort-building, knights, and darkness.
IHOP/IHOB. On June 4 IHOP – founded in Burbank, California, in 1958 as International House of Pancakes, and acronymized as IHOP since the mid-1970s – rattled its flapjack fans by announcing that "we're flippin" our name to IHOb." A few days later, the chain revealed that the "b" stood for burgers, and soon after that, the whole thing was unmasked as a stunt to promote the chain's non-breakfast menu. By August, the company announced that its hamburger sales had quadrupled as a result of the promotion. With that mission accomplished, the company became IHOP once again.
Juul. The electronic cigarette Juul – a device for "vaping" flavored nicotine, minus the tar of conventional cigarettes – was introduced by Pax Labs in 2015; in 2017, Juul was spun off as an independent company now valued at $15 billion. Its name suggests both a precious gem and the amount of energy – one joule – required to produce one watt of power for one second. Although e-cigarettes are promoted as a safer smoking alternative, nicotine is still a highly addictive drug. Juul's success, especially among teens, has made it the target of concern and even alarm. In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it would review the sales and marketing practices of the major e-cigarette makers.
QAnon. Unlike the other names on this list, QAnon isn't a commercial brand. Instead, it's the name of a conspiracy theory that first appeared on anonymous Internet message boards – that's the "anon” part – in October 2017, and gathered steam in 2018. (The "Q" refers to "Q clearance," a security authorization in the U.S. Department of Energy. Some people inferred from this that the author of the anonymous messages worked inside the federal government.) According to the theory, the ongoing Special Counsel investigation isn't targeting President Trump and his 2016 campaign but rather top Democrats. QAnon has crossed over into the non-virtual world of protests and even criminal action, and it has a cryptic slogan: wwg1wga, which stands for "where we go one, we go all."
Tide Pods. "Washing your mouth out with soap" turned literal in early 2018, when teenagers began taking "the Tide Pod challenge," biting into candy-colored packets of laundry detergent. In January, poison control centers in the U.S. received 134 reports of "intentional exposures" to laundry packets, compared with 53 cases reported for all of 2017. The Tide brand was launched by Procter & Gamble in 1946 as the first heavy-duty laundry detergent in the U.S.; single-dose Tide Pods, with dissolvable packaging, were introduced in 2012. "Tide," with its evocation of cleansing ocean currents, is a good example of suggestive branding; although the company styles "Pods" in all capital letters, I found no evidence that the word is an acronym.
Xerox. In January, one of the most venerable names in office equipment announced that it would be acquired with its former partner, Fujifilm of Japan. Xerox had been founded in 1906 in Rochester, New York, as the Haloid Photographic Company, manufacturing photographic paper and equipment. (Haloid, an old word that describes common salts like sodium chloride, has been superseded by halide. Silver halides are used in photographic film and paper.) The company perfected a method of making print copies using dry toner, and coined the word xerography, from Greek roots meaning "dry writing," to describe the process. Haloid became Xerox Corporation in 1961; in 1970, Xerox opened the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or Xerox PARC, which developed many computer technologies later appropriated by Apple's Steve Jobs.
WW. Founded in 1963, Weight Watchers grew into the 500-pound giant of the weight-loss industry. In recent years, though, membership declined. "People wanted to eat healthier but didn't want to diet," is how CNBC put it in October 2018. "For a company named Weight Watchers, that posed a problem." The solution: a slimming-down of the name to its initials, which are meant to suggest "Wellness Wins." But that created a new problem: "WW" is hard to say – it has twice as many syllables as "Weight Watchers" – and the notion of "double you" is at odds with most members' goals. And the new logo, with up-and-down arrows revealed in the negative space, is reminiscent of fluctuating weight.
Zara. In June, First Lady Melania Trump paid a visit to a shelter for migrant children in southern Texas, but it was her coat that made a statement: The hooded green jacket bore a faux-graffiti message on the back: "I Really Don't Care, Do U?" The story drew attention to the jacket's retailer, the global chain Zara. Founded in 1975 in the town of La Coruña in northwest Spain, Zara has become a global fast-fashion giant. Founder Amancio Ortega Gaona had wanted to call the store Zorba, after the 1964 film Zorba the Greek, but there was already a bar called Zorba two blocks away. "They had already made the molds for the letters in the sign," the company's communications director told a New York Times reporter in 2012, "so they just rearranged them to see what they could find. They found Zara."
What were your top brand names of 2018?
See my Brand Names of the Year for 2017 (with links to previous years at the end of the column).