Brand Strategy Insider features an interview with Dr. Carol Moog, a psychologist and consultant to the advertising industry on the psychology of messaging. Her findings support Pollywog’s perspective that brand names should have instant meaning and connect with ideas and emotions that already reside in the customer’s mind. I nodded my head through the entire article until the last paragraph:

You need to know what meanings and associations are intrinsic to verbal and non-verbal language in the name game and either make full, deliberate use of these or discard the name altogether. Do not make the mistake of figuring that a contradictory or negatively charged association would only affect a small minority of your audience. If you pick it up or if your research is sharp enough to point it out, ditch it.

Much depends on the specific “negatively charged association,” of course, but more often than not, negative connotations add to the power of a name by triggering an emotional reaction and causing it to be more memorable.

And because it’s human nature to discard conflicting beliefs, people will retain positive connotations about a brand that they want and dismiss the negative. Take these examples:

Brand

Positioning

Positive Connotations

Negative Connotations

Fossil

Modern Vintage

Rare, prized, museum quality, an enduring piece of the past

Old, dusty, decrepit, dead

Virgin

Innovative Upstart

New, unsullied, fresh thinking

Inexperienced, sexually charged

Wii

The Game Console for Everybody

Inclusive (“we”), group, collaborative, fun (“whee!”)

Small (“wee”), juvenile, potty-related

“Fossil” seems an odd choice for a fashion brand–shouldn’t a brand of watches and accessories have a more hip, younger-sounding name? It could, but then it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable or distinctive.

“Virgin” has been raising eyebrows ever since 1970, when a colleague suggested it to founder Richard Branson as a name for his growing record business, because “we’re all virgins at this.”

“Wii” created a firestorm when it was announced as angry gamers thoroughly trashed it from one side of the Internet to another. They had eagerly awaited the introduction of this new console which they had known by its code name, Revolution.

Suddenly they were overcome with cognitive dissonance (or if you prefer the less technical term, “a WTF? moment”)–the tension caused by holding two conflicting ideas a the same time. “I love this new gaming console and can’t wait to buy one!” “Wii? Wii? That name sucks! I’d never buy anything named Wii!”

When faced with cognitive dissonance, psychologists tell us, we have three options.

  1. Reduce the importance of the conflicting beliefs
  2. Add more comfortable beliefs that outweigh the conflicting beliefs
  3. Change the beliefs so they’re no longer inconsistent

The Wii quickly outsold its two rivals as it attracted a wide audience, including people new to video games. Eventually the negative connotations of “Wii” melted away as people changed their beliefs from “I’d never buy anything named Wii” to “I’d buy a Wii because it’s a great product and the name doesn’t matter” to “”Wii’ means playing together and having fun.”

And that’s typical of brand names that have both good and bad connotations. Marketers try to make brands as attractive as possible. So when a brand name has both negative and positive connotations, it sets up cognitive dissonance that people usually deal with fairly quickly.

To put it simply, when they see an attractive brand message, they want the product, so they adjust their beliefs to reduce the importance of any negative connotations in the name. Meanwhile, those negative connotations have served a valuable purpose. They help a name create buzz, spread like wildfire, stick in the memory banks, and earn incalculable PR value.

So when you’re creating a brand name, don’t be afraid of negative connotations mixed in with the good. Remember that if your offering is attractive, people will dismiss those negative connotations in a name because they don’t support what they want to believe.

Don’t “ditch it.” Embrace it.