Ad and marketing creatives

Brand Names of the Year for 2019

Every December I look back over the previous twelve months and identify the brands that made the biggest impact — positive or negative — on technology, culture, and society. (This year, I've also looked back at a decade of brand names; read my blog post here.) Some achieved their status by thriving, others by failing. Because I'm a name developer, I'm especially interested in the names themselves: how they're constructed, what they signify, why they were chosen.

My list is subjective and selective. In the comments, let me know your own candidates for brand-name recognition.

Barneys. Barney Pressman opened his discount menswear store in 1923 in a 500-square-foot space on New York's Seventh Avenue; the business's slogan was "No Bunk. No Junk. No Imitations." Barneys — the company dropped the apostrophe in 1981 — changed direction in the 1970s, expanding nationwide and introducing women's departments and high-end European and American labels. Featured in "Sex and the City" and "Friends," the company bounced back from a bankruptcy in 1996 but couldn't survive the most recent challenges to retailing. On November 1 it filed for bankruptcy again and began liquidating its expensive wares. It was the end, as the New York Times put it, of a long era of "aspirational Manhattan cool."

CrowdStrike. The Sunnyvale, California, cybersecurity company, which had uncovered a Russian breach of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, made headlines this year when President Trump — in defiance of facts — claimed that CrowdStrike was owned by, and presumably indebted to, Ukrainians. This baseless claim was raised and refuted during the November impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. Indeed, said former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, the Ukraine conspiracy is a "fictional narrative being propagated and perpetrated by the Russian security services themselves." CrowdStrike doesn't explain its name, but its connotation of "the best defense is a good offense" is appropriate for a company that specializes in identifying advanced threats and targeted attacks.

Cybertruck. Electric-car manufacturer Tesla's angular, stainless-steel-alloy pickup truck won't be manufactured until 2021, but its introduction on November 21 made a big splash (and a big crash when its windows shattered during a demonstration). The name is back-to-the-futuristic: The cyber prefix — from a Greek root meaning "to steer" — comes from "cybernetics," coined in 1948 by the mathematician Norbert Wiener to describe "the theory or study of communication and control." It became a popular combining form with the rise of personal computers in the 1990s, and appears in dozens of compounds from cybersecurity to cybersex.

Cybertruck model and logo.

Deadspin. Known as a sports website for people interested in more than sports, Deadspin was founded in 2005 in partnership with Gawker Media; it effectively died in early November 2019 when its writers and editors resigned en masse. The reason: a mandate from new owner G/O Media to "stick to sports." The company had been named by Gawker publisher Nick Denton after other names — Miscaster, Offjock, Spinstop, Tronball, Offscore — were rejected. "It's a wonderful irony that one of the most popular sports blogs in the world was named by a gay Brit who hates sports," former Gawker Media managing editor Lockhart Steele told Adweek in 2013. The use of death-related words in branding may seem counterintuitive, but it's surprisingly popular.

Impossible and Beyond. In the flourishing plant-based-meat-alternative market — sales topped $3 billion in 2018 — two brands have achieved crossover success. In August, Burger King introduced the Impossible Whopper, made by Bay Area-based Impossible Foods, to stores throughout the US. (Slogan: "100% Whopper, 0% beef.") In November, Southern California-based Beyond Meat teamed up with Dunkin' (formerly Dunkin' Donuts) to bring the Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich to more than 9,000 locations. Both names represent a departure from old-style vegan naming conventions (Tofurky, chik'n): They're nondescriptive, evocative, aspirational — and flexible.

Palantir. The data-analytics company, founded in 2003 and based in Palo Alto, was targeted this year by students, an investor alliance, and its own employees because of the company's partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Palantir, which is privately held, took its name from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which a palantir is a magical "seeing-stone" (the word means "far-seeing" in Tolkien's fictional Quenya language). Palantir's product names are also drawn from fantasy: Gotham (Batman), Metropolis (Superman), and Foundry (a space station in Star Wars).

Stadia. Google entered — and, it claims, revolutionized — the online gaming world with the launch of Stadia on November 19. Instead of requiring a console or extra-strength PC, Stadia games are cloud based and subscription priced, and can be streamed to a TV, browser, or mobile device. Reviewers found the platform less than enthralling ("Still just a beta," pronounced The Verge), but the Stadia name is a winner. It's one of the plural forms of "stadium," and it subtly acknowledges the growing interest in video games as spectator sport. As the branding agency Catchword observed, Stadia "sounds welcoming and awe-inspiring at the same time."

thredUP. "Used stuff is the next big trend in Christmas shopping" read the November 15 headline in the Los Angeles Times. The biggest player in the fashion-resale industry is thredUP, which was founded in 2009 and which calls itself "the world's largest consignment & thrift store." In 2019 thredUP partnered with JC Penney and Macy’s to sell used clothes in stores. The company's name suggests "trading up" and "upcycling" — Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year for 2019. "Threads" has been a slang term for clothes since the 1920s.

TikTok. "The world's most valuable startup you've never heard of" (The Conversation, January 2019). "The first Chinese-made app to take the world by storm." (South China Morning Post, March 2019.) "The most downloaded social media app worldwide for September 2019" (Sensor Tower). But what is TikTok? It's an app for making and sharing short videos — "content powered by AI technology" — that launched internationally in September 2017 and now reportedly has more than 500 million users. In September 2019 it announced a multiyear partnership with the National Football League. The TikTok name, which appears only outside China, apparently is — according to — "a play on tick-tock, onomatopoeia for clocks and a term for countdowns and minute-by-minute action." In China, it's known as Dǒuyīn (抖音), which translates to "vibrato" or "trill." (My thanks to Victor Mair, professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, for translation assistance.)

A static representation of the vibrating TikTok logo.

VSCO. It was the summer of the "VSCO girl": a young woman, usually white, who posts photos of herself on the mobile photo-sharing app VSCO. (The name, an acronym for Visual Supply Company, is pronounced vis-co.) Initially released in 2011 by its Oakland, California, parent company, the app allows editing (like Instagram) but doesn't track influence metrics (unlike Instagram).

WeWork. A high-flying office-space-rental company that persuaded investors it was a tech company, WeWork was valued at $47 billion in January 2019. It filed an initial public offering in August — then abruptly suspended it when its finances and leadership came under scrutiny. (Among other things, founder and CEO Adam Neumann had registered a trademark for "We" and then sold its use to his company for almost $6 million. Neumann was forced to resign, but pocketed a hefty consulting fee and nearly $1 billion in stock sales.) By November, the valuation of We Company, as it's officially known, had dropped to $7 billion.

See my brand names of the year for 2018, with a link to previous years' lists at the bottom of the column.

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

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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