One of the biggest trends in branding for the last several years has been something very small: the plus symbol.
It's tacked onto the names of streaming services: ESPN+, Disney+, Paramount+, AppleTV+, BET+, AMC+, Discovery+.
It replaces ampersands — or the word and — in two-part retail names: Nic+Zoe (women's clothing), Malin+Goetz (beauty products), Foley + Corinna (handbags). And in restaurant names: Flour + Water, Snaps + Rye, Block + Tackle.
It's the "others" in LGBTQ+.
It modifies the names of established brands: Shopify Plus (with a plus sign added to the U of "plus"); Uniqlo+ (inspired by the Swedish flag and "transformed into a plus to signify addition, growth, and connections … plus a positive mindset").
It even hangs off the end of the name of a NASA probe of the planet Venus: DAVINCI+.
What does it all add up to? Let's do the math.
Plus — the word and the symbol& mdash; can serve multiple functions. In arithmetic, + signals addition; in the sciences, it denotes a positive electrical charge. In colloquial English, it means "more," "better," or "extra." As I wrote back in 2013 in "Shall We Plus?", it can even be pressed into service as a verb.
In the beginning, the + symbol was created by compressing the E and the T in the Latin word et, or "and." The ampersand, in case you're wondering, is just a fancier offshoot of the same root. The + sign first appeared in 14th-century Italian manuscripts; it was introduced to Britain in 1557, along with the minus sign, by the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, who is also credited with inventing the equals sign. (When your name is Recorde, maybe you're destined to spend your life pondering sums.)
For hundreds of years, the plus sign stayed in its math/science lane, letting the decorative ampersand take the commercial spotlight. Things began to change in the early 1920s, when the American retail chain Lane Bryant introduced what it called "Misses-Plus" sizes "for the woman of smaller stature and fuller figure." The + symbol was a convenient shorthand: a 1929 ad provided a size chart from "16+" to "50+." Eventually the misses was dropped, leaving only plus, and by the early 1950s "plus-sized" could refer to women as well as to clothing. (And only women: boys were "husky" and adult men were "portly.") Plus-size started being shortened to plus in the late 1970s, popularized by Plus Models Management Ltd., founded in 1978. In 2019, when the womenswear chain Anthropologie introduced its "inclusively sized" collection, it called the new sub-brand "A+" — as in "an outstanding grade."
Throughout the 20th century, the plus sign crept into other areas of our lives as well. One influential factor was the advent of direct international phone dialing in the 1960s. The International Telecommunications Union had to come up with notation that told relatively primitive switching systems to "leave Country A, connect to Country B." The symbol the ITU decided on was ++ (and simply + for intra-national calls). Over time the convention was simplified to a single +, which you'll now find above or below the zero on your mobile phone's keypad. When you include the + in a stored international phone number, your phone automatically converts it to the correct outbound access code.
The plus sign is also a common naming convention in computer programming. One example: The C programming language has been around since the 1970s. In 1985, the C++ programming language — an enhanced version, or "C with Classes" — was released, and soon became ubiquitous.
Plus signs and technology were now going together like PB+J. Want to open a new tab in Windows? Compose a new tweet? Add an Instagram post? Move a movie onto your watchlist? There's a + for that, that, that, and that.
The next frontier was brand names. In 2011, when Google launched a new social-media platform — the company's fourth, after three failures — it named it after the plus function. To give a stamp of approval to a Google+ post, users clicked the "+1" button. The action quickly became known as "plussing." Although the service attracted a fiercely loyal community, it couldn't make up for some serious minuses, and it shut down in 2019.
The big plussing surge came in the late 2010s, and it came to a television or other streaming device near you. One after another, starting with ESPN+ (2018), streaming-media services began joining the Plus Posse. (Actually, the French got there first, in 1984, with Canal+, the world's first terrestrial pay channel. Scoffers called it "Canal Minus." It's still around; its sub-brands include Ciné+, Comédie+, and Sport+.) By the time CBS All Access rebranded as Paramount+ in March 2021, "+" had become a familiar signifier for "streaming," just as the e- and i- prefixes had signified "electronic" and "internet" and as smart now connotes "connected via wireless technology."
Some branding professionals bemoan the plethora of plusses. In a February 2021 New York Times article headlined "Why Plus Is a Minus When Naming Your Streaming Site," reporter Tiffany Hsu interviewed name developers who lamented that the plus sign is "the lowest common denominator" and "generic." But despite an occasional outlier like NBC's streaming service — not NBC+ but Peacock, named after the network's longstanding logo — the plus sign perseveres. Writing for Time in February 2020, Katy Steinmetz pointed out that the plus sign "suits the modern tendency toward narrow, nerd-chic sans serif fonts" and "suggests customers will be getting something extra without making it at all clear what that extra thing might be." And Fast Company, in September 2020, praised the plus sign for "saving us all time and energy": "The symbol," wrote Jeff Beer, "becomes a great shorthand for streaming service in the consumer's mind. BET Plus? I know exactly what it is without even asking."
Is the future all positive for plus? The prediction business is a risky one, but at some point,"plus" may become tainted by association with something not-so-wonderful. In fact, it may already be happening. In recent weeks, a new coronavirus variant — a mutation of the original "Delta" variant — was identified in India. Its name? Delta-plus.