To Xfinity and Beyond: The Brand Name Game

April 26, 2010 • On Media

Xfinity, the result of Comcast’s multimillion dollar rebranding effort, has raised eyebrows among critics since its unveiling in February, surely in part because the new name reads as if the cable and internet behemoth is now peddling “infinite porn.” Though this may help the ratings of its recent acquisition of a post-Conan NBC, it also points to the hazards of playing the name game with one’s media empire.

Last year’s switch to Syfy from the Sci Fi Channel (which was bundled in with the NBC acquisition) was a bellwether of sorts for a rash of identity anxiety seemingly sweeping corporate America. At first, punsters riffed on obvious syphilis gags, but eventually the derision gave way to a kind of indifference, which its ad firm surely spun as a form of “acceptance” worthy of their outsized invoice.

This too will likely become the case for Xfinity, whose disgruntled customers will come to rue the name as much as they presently do Comcast. Mission accomplished. “I sincerely believe Xfinity will grow on us, just like Altria (the former Philip Morris), Xe (the former Blackwater) and Syfy . . . did,” wrote Simon Dumenco in a recent Advertising Age column, before preceding to comically assail the name in a 10-point list.

Naming companies is big business. Several years ago, Jeff Berner, a Marin County expat now living in Paris, facilitated the naming of a programming language for Sun Microsystems originally known as “Oak.” Ultimately, Berner led a team of 18 to the vastly more dynamic—and now ubiquitous—name “Java.” The then-product manager credited Berner for creating an open relaxed and playful atmosphere. Other companies, however, cloak their creative machinations in processes primed for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Pollywog, a Minneapolis-based branding agency, touts itself as offering “a state-of-the-art naming process and the world’s first patent-pending methodology for brand creation.” How one patents such a thing is the stuff of intellectual property lawyers’ wet dreams; however, it’s clearly more than pulling names out of a hat (just ask companies such as Bebo or Meebo, who sound as if there were named by R2-D2).

“We’ve identified 17 characteristics that combine to give a name its power,” Pollywog crows on its site. What these characteristics are is a secret known only to Pollywog and some file clerk. However, linguist and technologist Christopher Johnson, who blogs at TheNameInspector.com, has identified at least 10 different types of company names. The fourth most popular category is what Johnson describes as a “blend,” in which portions of two or more words are mixed to form another.

Popular examples cited by Johnson are Microsoft (“microcomputer” and “software”), Skype (“sky” and “peer-to-peer”) and Wikipedia (“wiki” and “encyclopedia”). Similar portmanteaux dot our local wine industry. Audelssa Estate Winery takes its unusual name from (Aud)rey, Ch(els)ea and Aly(ssa), the founder’s daughters. Likewise, Viansa Winery is said to be a contraction of its original owners names—(Vi)cky (an)d (Sa)m Sebastiani. Ditto Hanzell Vineyards, which is a contraction Hana Zellerbach.

Perhaps the most famous portmanteau brand is Spam, which, apocryphally, is a blend of “spiced ham.” Hormel, the makers of Spam, only tacitly embraces this as the brand name’s origin, which it sidesteps on its “facts and trivia” page by claiming that it “simply doesn’t paint the right picture of what a can of Spam classic really is.” The question as to what precisely is a can of Spam might best be left to Michael Pollan. What the brand name really is, however, is something of an anomaly in the annals of marketing history. Having been appropriated by online wags in the early days of the internet to describe unwanted junk email, Hormel tried vainly to allay the association and even published an official policy statement entitled “Spam and the Internet.” No one cared.

A decade later, the canned-meat maker now embraces the association or at least its alleged antecedent in the form of Spamalot, Eric Idle’s successful musical retread of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (As oft-repeated, the term’s use is said to have come from a Python sketch in which Vikings disrupt diners by chanting “Spam, spam, spam, spam,” like, you know, the Viagra pitches in one’s inbox).

And how does all that spam get into your inbox? Ask Xfinity.

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