Yesterday’s announcement by Rolls-Royce that it will call its newest model the “Ghost” reminds us of the power of names that have both positive and negative connotations.

The name “Ghost” is a slimmed-down version of “Silver Ghost,” the legendary model that Rolls-Royce introduced in 1906. Following in the, er, spirit of supernatural names, the company later produced the Phantom and Wraith.

While this history helps “Ghost” instantly mean “legendary Rolls” to vintage car buffs and those old enough to remember the original, for others the word “ghost,” er, conjures up a host of negative imagery.

But that’s what helps make it such an effective name. It has the power to trigger a reaction.

As I explained in “It’s All Good,” if a brand is desirable, and its name happens to have both positive (“other worldly,” “exciting,” “rare,” “inaccessible except to a few”) and negative connotations (“creepy,” “dangerous,” “evil,” “nonexistent”), cognitive dissonance sets in. The human mind is unable to hold conflicting beliefs for very long, so people will either:

  1. Convince themselves that the negative belief isn’t important (“It’s called a Ghost, but it’s still a Rolls-Royce, so it doesn’t matter.”)
  2. Add more comfortable beliefs that outweigh the negative (“This car isn’t named after a spirit–it’s named after the first Rolls.”)
  3. Or change the beliefs so they’re no longer inconsistent (“Ghosts are powerful and scary–I kind of like it when people think of me that way too.”)

This process is usually not one that people labor over. In fact, it can be done in a Malcolm Gladwell Blink–cognition and decision-making so rapid, it takes place without conscious awareness.

Maybe it was a no-brainer for Rolls-Royce to reach back and, er, resurrect a brand name from its venerable history. On the other hand, naming this model “Ghost” was not without risk of being off-putting for certain customers.

So I have to give Rolls-Royce credit for branding the car with a daring name. From a naming and branding perspective, “Ghost” fires on all cylinders.