Ad and marketing creatives

Brand Names of the Year for 2020

The big dictionaries have already weighed in on their word-of-the-year picks: Merriam-Webster chose pandemic, Collins selected lockdown, and Oxford Languages focused not on a single word but on "the phenomenal breadth of language and development over the year." Still to come: the American Dialect Society's virtual, open-to-all WotY vote, scheduled for December 17.

Meanwhile, I'm reviewing another aspect of the year in language: brand names. Which ones triumphed, flamed out, or made a dramatic change in this strange, sad year? Here are my Top 10; as always, your additions to the list are welcome!

Animal Crossing. On March 20, just as COVID-19 shelter-in-place directives were taking effect, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons, its first brand-new console release in 19 years, and the first game to reach 5 million digital sales within a month. Unlike other smash-hit games like Fortnite (which I wrote about in my 2018 roundup), ACNH has no shooting and very little competition; instead, players encounter cheerful anthropomorphic animals while building a society. "The game is played at a relaxed pace, in which the player can do as much or as little as they want on any given day," Imad Khan wrote in the New York Times — the perfect escape from a newly anxious and uncertain real world. Of additional naming interest is the clever way Japanese words have been Anglicized for the game. A primary character, Tom Nook, is based on the tanuki (raccoon dog); his holdings include Nookington's Department Store, and players acquire currency called Nook Miles.

Tom Nook

Aunt Jemima. The 131-year-old pantry-staples brand, named for a fictional, racially stereotyped character in post–Civil War minstrel shows, had long been controversial. 2020 was the year the brand's parent company, Quaker Oats, announced it would change the name at last. It was one of several big brand-image pivots: the Washington Redskins traded a slur for a generic name (see below), and Uncle Ben's — which like Aunt Jemima had built a business on the image of a Black servant — is becoming Ben's Original. As I observed in July, several "plantation" names are also being reconsidered. Read more about the history of Aunt Jemima.

Bamlanivimab. Bam-what? It's rare that a generic pharmaceutical name — as opposed to its brand name — makes headlines. But when drugmaker Eli Lilly announced its new COVID-19 antibody therapy, in November, it tickled a lot of fancies, sparking parodies and song tributes. Cara Tramontano, who works in regulatory operations at a Bay Area biotech company, called it "a quantifiably terrible generic name," but noted that it had to meet strict requirements: it had to end in -mab (for monoclonal antibody), for example. Read her Twitter thread here.

Helpful pronunciation guide for Bamlanivimab

Corona. What to do when your brand name is synonymous with something deadly? In the 2010s, dozens of companies changed their names from "Isis" — previously associated mostly with an ancient Egyptian goddess — to distance themselves from the militant Islamic State. It was a different story with Corona beer, first brewed in Mexico City in 1925 and now sold around the world. Although a March poll found that 38% of Americans said they wouldn't buy or order Corona beer, by July the brand was posting double-digit sales growth. "Corona" is a Spanish (and Latin) word meaning "crown" — the virus is called "corona" because of its crown-like spikes.

Discarded Corona beer can.

Lysol. You can't spell "pandemic" without "panic," and panic buying characterized the early months of the COVID-19 scare. Lysol, a brand of disinfectants developed in Germany in the 1880s and first manufactured in the US in 1912, was one of the companies that benefited. In March, sales of aerosol disinfectants jumped 343% over the previous year's sales, and sprays and wipes were scarcely to be found. The Lysol name was formed from the ly- in lysis (loosening, dissolving) and the -sol in cresol, a coal-tar derivative used in the product's manufacture. Researchers later determined that there was low risk of surface transmission of the virus. Nevertheless, grocery stores are still touting their "clean carts." Lysol's history isn't altogether squeaky clean; read my 2013 blog post about its early ad campaigns.

Parler. The social-media app envisioned as a conservative-libertarian alternative to Twitter and Facebook (and funded by billionaire right-wing activist Rebekah Mercer), launched in 2018 and saw a surge in users in mid-2020; it was the most-downloaded app in the Apple App Store on the weekend of November 8, after major media outlets called the US presidential election for Joe Biden. Its most prominent users are outspoken conservatives such as Fox News host Sean Hannity and Senator Ted Cruz; President Trump has also spoken favorably about it. The "Parler" name comes from the French verb meaning "to talk" but is pronounced like parlor — a word that itself comes from French. The room we call a parlor was originally "a place for speaking."

Quibi. The short-video streaming service — the name was a contraction of "quick bites" and was pronounced "quibby" — launched on April 6. It had an all-star executive team led by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman and content from big names in entertainment like Will Forte and Chrissy Teigen, and it attracted $1.75 billion from investors. Just six months later … pffft. The app, which had struggled to find subscribers despite a 90-day free trial, announced it would be shutting down and selling its assets. A very quick bite indeed.

The Washington Football Team. Like Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins team name had been criticized for many years by Native groups and their allies. In 2013, as I wrote in a year-end review, team owner Daniel Snyder insisted he would "never change the name. … NEVER — you can use caps." But money talks, and in July 2020 investors worth more than $620 billion wrote to Nike, Pepsi, and FedEx, asking them to withdraw their team sponsorships; FedEx, which has the naming rights to the team's stadium, formally requested a name change. And the popular Madden video game announced it would not feature the Redskins but would instead use "Washington Football Team." A week later, Snyder finally acquiesced. The team will play under a generic name, "Washington Football Team," until a permanent name is chosen. Which may be NEVER.

Washington Football Team logo

Zoom. Sure, there are other video-conferencing platforms: WebEx, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans, GoToMeeting. But Zoom was the one that has so dominated the pandemic landscape — not just for businesses but for families and social groups — that it was used as a verb ("Let's Zoom about it") and turned into novel coinages like zoomiversity (Zoom university), zutor (Zoom tutor), zumped (dumped by a partner over Zoom), and even the Yiddish-inflected oysgezoomt (all Zoomed out). Zoom Video Communications was founded in Mountain View in 2011; the software launched in 2013. Between December 2019 and March 2020, the average number of daily users on the platform grew twenty-fold. As I wrote in April, "Zoom" is an effective name: short, punchy, and evocative, though far from unique: See Erin Griffith's story in the New York Times about all those fast-sounding startup names.

What were last year's big brand names? Read my 2019 review, with links to earlier end-of-year columns.

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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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