Ad and marketing creatives

Branding by Definition

Some brands capture your attention with made-up words: Qajack and Squidoo, hungerectomy and splurjobbing. Other brands deliberately misspell familiar words: Klout, Flickr, Cheez-It.

But some companies prefer a more traditional way to make an impression — one that might have pleased your third-grade teacher. They consult a dictionary.

Take Babson University, which takes pains to syl•lab•i•fy a word that doesn't really need the dots: entrepreneurship.

In 2011, the nearly century-old Boston-area college opened its first West Coast graduate business school in San Francisco, where it began festooning utility poles with ads that both invoke and challenge dictionaries. "The world needs a new definition of entrepreneurship," the Babson web copy announces — and you can write that definition yourself, right there on the web site. (Most of the submissions lead one to conclude that professional lexicographers are secure in their jobs. "Grabbing a life passion by the horns and sculpting it into a real business that adds value to others' lives," reads one "redefinition.")

At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the nameless restaurant — it's just called The Restaurant — makes an interior-design statement with what looks like an enlargement of a dictionary entry for "taste."

Photo credit: Drew Mackie, Back of the Cereal Box.

Look closer, though, and you'll see that something's not quite right. "Taste" is pronounced with a long A (tāst), not, as the mural has it, with the broad vowel sound indicated by the dieresis (täst, or "tahst").

For some reason, dictionary-driven advertisers seem to think common words require the most spelling out. Like "taste." Or "ideas," as in the case of one Bay Area company.

Dictionary definitions and pronunciation guides are so appealing that they appear even when the advertiser wants you to believe that the message transcends written language. In a new campaign for its Sync fragrance line, athletic-shoe company Puma tells us that "body language" is more primal and meaningful than words. Yet the Puma "dance dictionary" cites — you guessed it — traditional dictionary entries.

What accounts for the popularity of branding-by-definition? Visual impact is part of it: Syllabification slows you down and forces you to read a word you might otherwise ignore. In addition, associating a brand with a definition implies that "We define (or redefine) an industry, a category, or a concept."

Dictionary citations also look scientific, and Americans in particular have long been drawn to science-y business theories. We see that proclivity today in paeans to "corporate DNA" and management fads like Six Sigma, but the trend goes back more than a century to the "scientific management" writings of Frederick W. Taylor, who studied ways to make assembly lines more efficient.

Finally, there's the desire for the credibility and authority that — to many people —an old-fashioned print dictionary still confers. (Newspaper editor and occasional Visual Thesaurus contributor John McIntyre calls this way of thinking "dictionary fundamentalism.") It's an impulse similar to the one that provokes some people to protest that a usage "isn't a word" if it doesn't appear in Webster's or Collier's or the American Heritage Dictionary — or the Visual Thesaurus, for that matter. Conversely, if you can claim the stamp of dictionary approval — as discount retailer Loehmann's did with its "Loehmannomics" promotion — you can hope to be perceived as intelligent and trustworthy, even with an invented word, a mysterious part of speech, and a clunky definition.

In The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, his recently published account of the making of Webster's Third International Dictionary, author David Skinner observes that Americans have historically regarded dictionaries — in particular the home-grown product, Webster's — with something close to reverence. "Webster's was 'the supreme authority on all matters applying to language,' as one newspaper put it," Skinner writes of the dictionary's 19th- and early-20th-century editions. "... A dictionary in the living room became a symbol of genteel aspiration. It was a password for culture, a ticket to knowledge, a compendium of all that was known and worth knowing." In its own pages, writes Skinner, Webster's Second — published in 1934 — "was 'the Dictionary,' with a capital D and the definite article as if no other existed."

I asked Kory Stamper, a modern-day dictionary editor at Merriam-Webster, what she thought about ads that cite dictionaries. "I have to confess that to a lexicographer, these are the least effective ads in the world," she told me via e-mail. But the biggest problem with ads-by-definition, she said, "is that the mystique of the dictionary ends up butting up against the reality of the dictionary. The mystique says that dictionary definitions convey authority, that they get you to think about what something really is, and they are therefore perfect vehicles for conveying the essential nature or mission of a company. But the reality is that most people expect dictionary definitions to be boring, which is the last thing that any advertiser wants their ad to be. Dictionary definitions are not supposed to be arresting or sexy."

That goes for pronunciation guides as well. Their value is questionable: If your brand name or key message requires phonetic spelling-out, it's probably too difficult. On the other hand, if you don't need one — if your word is ideas or taste — why bother?

I can, however, think of one example of a dictionary borrowing that's useful, credible, and clever — the trifecta of brand memorability. It appears in a long-running campaign for Travel Nevada, which I originally wrote about in 2009. The ads don't use syllabification or definitions, but they do make excellent use of a pronunciation symbol from dictionaries: the breve over the first A in "Nevada," indicating a short vowel sound like the one in "cat." That's right: out here we say Nevaaada, not Nevahda.

You could look it up, but now you don't have to.

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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.