Why Companies Use Terrible Spelling and Punctuation in Their Brand Names

Language and how we use it.
March 5 2014 3:05 PM

Off Brands

Understanding the terrible spelling and punctuation in corporate names.

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Are traditional, formal rules of spelling and punctuation relevant to branding?

Photo illustration by Slate

The nearly 16-mile stretch of Florida’s Highway 98 that runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico coastline between Camp Helen State Park and the Hathaway Bridge is a prescriptivist consumer’s wonderland. Better known to some as Panama City Beach Parkway, this bustling, beachside thoroughfare has something for every brand of language peever to fuss about and second-guess and question.

There’s a big Publix supermarket (with an x?) at the intersection of Richard Jackson Boulevard, not far from a Dunkin’ Donuts (where’s the ugh in Doughnuts?). Further up the highway you’ll find a shaved ice place called David’s Sno-Balls (what happened to the w?), a WORKOUT ANYTIME gym (that’s at least three words, and why the all-caps shouting?), and Pack-Rat Storage (a place to store pack rats?). Jos. A. Bank (so we’re to pronounce Jos. as Joseph?), LongHorn Steakhouse (an uppercase H?), and Maurices women’s clothing store (no apostrophe?) all do business in the same Highway 98–adjacent outdoor mall. Travel a little further west, and you’ll come across a Pak Mail shipping store (no c?) and a website design shop called CYber SYtes (where to begin?).

That is an impressive group of odd brand names, and yet, all those corporate monikers serve as mere warm-up acts for a battle that takes place every day on Highway 98 between two popular chain restaurants that drive prescriptivists nuts: Chick-fil-A and Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. Sandwich-loving pedants looking for a quick, moderately priced meal accompanied by the opportunity for lots of grousing about brand-naming decisions have an important choice to make when traveling through Panama City Beach. Stop in at the Chick-fil-A next to the Home Depot and bug the person at the cash register about that uppercase A? Or trek a few miles up the road to the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s sports-themed franchise restaurant at Nautilus Station Shopping Center, and grill the server about the odd punctuation surrounding the O in the establishment’s name?

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It’s a tough call for those who enjoy such pursuits. But don’t fret: I recently asked both companies about their names and received responses that should, I hope, simplify your decision. Before we get to that, though, it’s worth exploring the nature of corporate brand naming in this country. While there may be more nonstandard brand names on that stretch of Panama City Beach Parkway than there are in an average American town, our country is jam-packed with shops, restaurants, and products the names of which do not align well with traditional notions of standard written English.

The more persnickety you are, the more deviations you tend to recognize. Surely you know that there’s no fruit in Froot Loops and no cheese in Cheez Whiz. But have you noticed that the Oreo Double Stuf name is short an f? Have you ever wondered why the burger chain Carl’s Jr. isn’t Carl Jr.’s, or what the deal is with Ruth’s Chris Steak House?

There are completely reasonable rationales behind some of these naming decisions. Carl’s Jr., for instance, was given that title because the owner of Carl’s Drive-In Barbeque decided to open a number of smaller restaurants in the 1950s, so that’s where the Jr. comes from. But much of the time it’s about being deliberately different. The classic example is Toys “Я” Us: According to corporate literature, founder Charles Lazarus’ decision to use a backward R “drew ire from parents and teachers alike for its grammatical incorrectness,” but he stuck with the idea because he “knew it was an attention-getter.”

When asked about the extent to which traditional, formal rules of spelling and punctuation are relevant to branding, Bay Area naming and branding consultant Nancy Friedman does not hedge. “Not relevant at all,” she says. “Everything is on the table, and has been for ages.” Friedman adds: “Professional name developers usually advise against spelling or punctuation that requires repeated explanation, won’t translate into print, and doesn’t contribute to actual distinctiveness—but many companies and products are named by entrepreneurs who don’t seek, or follow, professional advice.”

When such advice is sought in naming a new brand, it tends to revolve around three key principles, says Sanjay Sood, a professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management whose scholarship examines what brand names convey to consumers. “One is that you want it to be memorable. So that can be a letter effect, like in the old brands like Xerox and Kodak, using two x’s, two k’s, those are very memorable. Then you want it to be meaningful. So if you do something like Cheez-It, then it describes the product, and it’s meaningful in that context. And the last one, which is becoming really important today, is that you want it to be [legally] protectable.”

In attempting to hit that first target, companies often resort to unique spellings, weird punctuation, gratuitous accent marks, or nontraditional uppercasing, according to Vanitha Swaminathan, an expert on consumer-brand relationships who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. “One way in which brands can be memorable is to kind of switch or change something about the spelling so that it stands out in your memory and it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” she says.

Swaminathan adds that companies often strive to be unique with their names, but not to an extreme. “There’s a famous theory in psychology that says that moderate amounts of incongruity—if it’s just somewhat different, but not too, too different—increase involvement,” she says. “It increases people’s interest, and they want to process the information more. At the same time, when you’re extremely incongruous, which means that you neither are communicating anything about the category you’re in or you’re not communicating anything about the brand attributes, you’re just different for the sake of difference, consumers are unable to figure out what you’re about, and they will just completely reject the information.”

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