June 25, 2007
Brand Name Oxymorons: Confusing, Contradictory, or Clever?
Oxymorons (or, more properly, oxymora) are one of the better-known and more popular figures of speech. It doesn't take a degree in literature to see that there's something funny about phrases like "jumbo shrimp" and "advanced beginner."
As a naming strategy, oxymorons are something of a two-edged sword. If you decided to call your company "Crash Airlines," you might drive customers away, or you might attract people who want to fly with someone who has a sense of humor. Most companies prefer not to take the risk, but a few have jumped right in:
- The Fluke Corporation manufactures testing and measuring equipment. Customers don't seem to worry that the results they get might be a fluke.
- Jeep manufactured an SUV called the Cherokee Pioneer from the 1980s to the early 2000s. In American history, at least, the Cherokee were settled natives whom European pioneers displaced.
- Some Krispy Kreme doughnuts may be both crispy and creamy, but cream itself is anything but crispy.
In politics, interest groups often choose names that are not merely ironic but downright misleading. Phillip Morris Tobacco bankrolled "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restriction," which sponsored an initiative to weaken smoking ordinances.
Most often, however, it's consumers who decide that a particular product name is a contradiction in terms. (The top candidate in this category is probably "Microsoft Works.") Rob Hof of BusinessWeek argues that the iPhone is not a phone, but a computer. The Los Angeles Business Journal called Hollywood Park, Inc. "the most misnamed company in town" after it sold Hollywood Park to Churchill Downs. And there's a certain irony in ordering your laser toner from the Ink Jet Superstore.
It may not be possible to avoid having your brand name used against you, but it's a good idea to plan for the possibility and to make your product live up to its name. It's much better to catch people's attention with a deliberately incongruous name than to have dissatisfied customers conclude that your product has been misnamed.
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