Don't be afraid of negative connotations in a brand name.

Nothing scares marketing people more than negative connotations in a brand name under consideration. They imagine the worst: Customers recoiling from the brand. The brand launch fizzling. Ridicule from coworkers. Reprisals from management.

But in reality, rarely do negative connotations in a name result in disaster. In fact, very often, negative connotations actually help the brand by increasing its impact and memorability.

The key is, if a brand name has negatively charged associations, it must have positive connotations as well in order to succeed. And, the brand offering must be attractive and not a complete bomb. (Hopefully, that’s a given or you wouldn’t be introducing it.) Take a look at these brands:

 Successful brand names with negative and positive connotations.

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

Ghost

Comfortable Luxury

Powerful, quiet, smoothly moving, rare

Dead, terrifying, unnatural

iPad

Simple Information Tool

Handheld, easy, familiar, from Apple

Feminine hygiene product, created by a “boy’s club” company

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. To put it simply, when people see an attractive brand message, they want the product, so they adjust their beliefs reduce, reframe or adjust to the 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. The Internet firestorm created by the name “Wii,” for example, helped that brand become the fastest selling game console in most of the world’s gaming markets.

Why didn’t negative connotations sink these brands upon introduction? Because of cognitive dissonance. In terms of how the brain processes information, a brand name is like any other idea. All of these brands communicated the positive traits the branders wanted to convey. The brand was attractive, despite the negative associations in the name.

Science tells us that the human mind is unable to hold conflicting beliefs for very long. When faced with cognitive dissonance, we have three options.

  • Reduce the importance of conflicting beliefs
  • Add more comfortable beliefs that outweigh the conflicting beliefs
  • Change the beliefs so they’re no longer inconsistent

Overcoming cognitive dissonance

Here’s how the audience for the above brands may have changed or adapted to their conflicting beliefs:

Brand

Reduce the importance of conflicting beliefs

Add more comfortable beliefs that outweigh the conflicting beliefs

Change the beliefs so they’re no longer inconsistent

Fossil

Fossils can be cool. Some are really valuable.

Virgin

It’s just a brand name and doesn’t say anything about me personally. I like being edgy.

Wii

The Wii’s a great gaming system and the name just doesn’t matter.

Ghost

It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It’s still a Rolls Royce. This car isn’t named after a spirit—it’s named after the first Rolls. I kind of like being powerful and scary.

iPad

It’s just another “i” name from Apple. I know the name alludes to a “writing pad,” not “feminine pad.”

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. To put it simply, when people see an attractive brand message, they want the product, so they adjust their beliefs reduce, reframe or adjust to the 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. The Internet firestorm created by the name “Wii,” for example, helped that brand become the fastest selling game console in most of the world’s gaming markets.

When you absolutely, positively can’t go there

There are times when negative connotations in a brand name can be disastrous. Always keep these rules in mind:

  1. The name MUST HAVE positive connotations related to the benefit of the brand
  2. The name MUST NOT connote racist or homophobic ideas, or harm to women, children or pets
  3. If a food product, the name must not allude to highly unappetizing things

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.