When the heartburn medication Zantac was introduced in 1981, its name was perceived as bizarre: too creepily close to the sci-fi name of a galaxy far, far away. Six years and much relentless advertising later, Zantac was the best-selling prescription medicine in the U.S. Today, the influence of its once-iconoclastic name can be seen from Prozac to Xanax to Zyprexa.
In 2000, when Porsche named its first SUV the Cayenne, automotive writers wrote many condescending column inches about it. "A sport-ute named for a hot spice!" one reporter scoffed, adding that the name was "the king of meaningless monikers." Now? The model continues to sell well, and the name is not only accepted but admired for its distinctiveness. The most telling stamp of approval: We see Cayenne's influence in quirky car names like the Kia Soul and the Nissan Leaf.
One more example: When Apple introduced the iPad, in 2010, the name was roundly mocked: The "pad" element made it seem like a feminine-hygiene product, critics said. And yet by 2015, more than 250 million of the devices had been sold.
It's a phenomenon as curious as it is predictable: Introduce a new brand name, brace for criticism – even outrage – from all corners. And then ... wait. Within three months, six months, or a year, the name will be shrugged at – or even esteemed. Frequent exposure to a name, it turns out, sands down the irritating edges and increases our fondness for what had been a source of contempt.
What's going on here?
Back in the 1960s, a Stanford University social psychologist named Robert Zajonc – his surname rhymes with science – set out to answer that question. He showed people lists of unfamiliar words – Turkish in some experiments, completely made up in others – and asked for their responses. At first, the subjects expressed dislike for the strange words. But an odd thing happened: The more they were exposed to them, the more they favored the words. The findings, in a nutshell: Familiarity doesn't breed contempt; it breeds contentment. Zajonc called it the "mere exposure effect." In his honor, it's now also called the Zajonc effect.
Although Zajonc postulated that the "mere exposure" can occur on a subconscious level, there's never been a proven link between so-called subliminal advertising and preferences for names or products. No matter: The Zajonc effect is on full display with our conscious perceptions.
The Zajonc effect explains why, when Andersen Consulting renamed itself Accenture on January 1, 2001, it spent millions of dollars to build awareness of the new name, which had been coined by an employee from "accent" and "future." Never mind that pundits blasted the name as "generic corporate nonsense." The more you saw "Accenture," the more you accepted it, or even embraced it. Five months after the launch, according to one analyst, "unaided ad awareness" of the new name – volunteered, that is, without prompting – was 53 percent, and "total ad awareness" was an astonishing 89 percent.
Not every company can afford such an expensive marketing effort, which explains why many brand names don't get a chance to win us over. And most brand names don't take the risk. Companies often make the mistake of "testing" new names with focus groups of potential customers – who, as the Zajonc effect tells us, are predisposed to dislike the newest-sounding names and prefer names similar to those they've seen before. But effective branding isn't about consensus and inoffensiveness; it's about distinctiveness. A polarizing name – such as Banana Republic, which was once perceived by many people as politically offensive; or Google, which in its early days was compared to baby talk – has the best chance of standing out from the competition.
Why do we tend to react strongly and negatively to unfamiliar words, which, after all, have no power to physically harm us? Probably because humans are wired to reject novelty. In our prehistory, any mysterious plant might have been toxic; any strange person could have posed a threat. We favor familiarity in our environments – and our words. "It is common to bat away linguistic novelty – 'It won't catch on'," wrote the language expert Henry Hitchings in 2011. "Such disdain is tinged with anxiety, and to speak of 'our' language is to identify the source of this fear. For while no one truly owns English or any other natural language, we feel proprietorial about the language that we speak and write. As a result we are apt to look on linguistic changes – including new words – as personal affronts."
Two hundred fifty years ago, Hitchings adds, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson disparaged the noun finesse as "an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language." I'd add that a century ago, the writer and language-advice-giver Ambrose Bierce told Americans to avoid the adjective talented because "there was never the verb 'to talent'." In the same vein, a lot of people hated lunch, jeopardize, and the verb to contact – that last usage until as recently as the 1960s. We know how those controversies ended.
That's why I watched with some amusement when, earlier this month, two well-known companies announced name changes that immediately provoked contempt and mockery. Oath – Verizon's new parent brand for AOL and Yahoo – was maligned by the influential design blog Brand New as "ridiculous, pretentious, annoying, and, above all, irrelevant." The veteran tech columnist John C. Dvorak called the name "creepy and cultish." In my Twitter timeline, people scoffed at Axon, the new corporate name for the company that makes Taser stun guns, because it reminded them of the Axe brand of men's body sprays.
Are Oath and Axon perfect names? No, and for different reasons. Oath suffers – so far – from the lack of a coherent, credible brand story, and it's harder to pronounce than you might expect a four-letter word to be. Axon is inoffensive in that corporate, consensus-building way, which is to say it's not particularly distinctive. But in both cases, I'm willing to give these names some time to circumvent my unfamiliarity reflex. Rather than edge away suspiciously or rush in with a snarling critique, I'll remind myself that names don't have to please everyone. Rather, they need to evoke emotion, set an expectation, and serve as captivating titles that make you want to know more about the story.
That's not to say that all new names are good names, or that the Zajonc effect is infallible. Take tronc, for example, the name taken last year by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing. I disliked the name then (and I was far from alone). And now, nearly 12 months later, I have concluded that no matter how high minded and tolerant I aim to be, no matter how much time I allow for a period of adjustment, I may never have enough "mere exposure" to love this absurd honk of a name. Sometimes, it seems, familiarity just validates the contempt.