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?
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.”
One way contemporary companies have attempted to traverse that line is by dropping a letter from a commonly used word in order to create a unique, but still evocative and somewhat familiar, name. This strategy is especially popular in the tech sector, where, for instance, Flickr and Tumblr have achieved strong brand recognition. That type of naming decision often revolves at least partially around the need to create a corporate identity that lends itself to an available domain name, and Sood predicts that more new brands—especially tech companies—will take the Tumblr approach to naming going forward. For the same reason, he suspects that new brand names with odd punctuation “or even an apostrophe,” may become more rare due to the importance of domain name synergy.
Of course, existing brands such as Chick-fil-A and Beef ‘O’ Brady’s that already include nonstandard punctuation and other breaks from the norm did not have the benefit of that perspective at naming time. They must simply respond on the fly to brand-related tech advances and attempt to placate curious consumers wondering about the origins of their names.
For Chick-fil-A, that means sharing some history about the company and how its name came to be. The CliffsNotes version, according to Chick-fil-A public relations specialist Tiffany Greenway, is that after founder S. Truett Cathy opened a small restaurant in 1946 and was approached by local poultry suppliers looking to sell him large pieces of chicken breast, he put into motion a comprehensive trial-and-error process to create a boneless chicken-breast sandwich based on customer feedback. Cathy’s restaurant had previously served beef, but not chicken, and he initially wanted to call the now-famous Chick-fil-A sandwich the “chicken steak sandwich,” since the fillet was the best cut of a steak. That name was too general to trademark, so he came up with “Chick-fil-A” as a stylized version of “chicken fillet.” “It was important to him,” Greenway notes, “that the A was capitalized so that it signified the grade-A quality of the food.”
As for the two hyphens and the “Chick” instead of “Chicken,” Greenway says that there was nothing beyond a desire for catchiness and visual appeal behind those decisions.
Figuring out the origin story behind the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s name proved more challenging. An initial interview request made via email resulted in this extremely curious form response under the subject heading, “Message from Beef O’ Brady’s”:
Thank you for contacting us.
Please note: that this is an automated response, but we will be contacting you.
-Beef O’ Brady’s Customer Service Team
As if by magic, that first single quote—or backward apostrophe, or whatever it is before the O—the most ridiculous seeming mark of the three, had vanished! Several calls to the corporate headquarters about why that was, and how all those apostrophes came to be in the first place, went unreturned. Could it be that the first mark in the brand’s name was just a mistake that made it through the naming process?
It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
Friedman notes that the apostrophe used in the name of clothing brand Lands’ End resides where it does due to a printing mistake made in 1964 that the company’s founder couldn’t afford to fix at the time. And, more generally, Sood adds that some companies simply don’t spend enough time (and money) on their initial branding efforts. “It can be expensive to hire a firm to help you create that brand name,” he says. Although unintentional spelling errors or punctuation mistakes seldom occur at the national or global brand level, Sood adds that differently terrible naming decisions happen with great regularity. He offers the pharmaceutical industry as an example. “Pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of money going direct to consumer. And quite often they are naming their products after the scientific compound of the active ingredient. When you’re spending all this money to market directly to consumers—and I’m talking hundreds of millions of dollars here—if it takes consumers a really long time to remember the name, then you’re just doing yourself no favors.”
For now, it’s unclear to me whether the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s name includes a mistake, or if it is merely not doing the company any favors. I have no idea what the deal is with that first mark in the name, or what the story is with the space after the ‘O’, or whether the ‘O’ thing is something akin to rock ’n’ roll, such that the name is actually a shortened version of, say, Beef TOM Brady’s. Several questions remain unanswered here.
So, please, by all means, if you’re someone who enjoys focusing on unexplained brand name oddities, and you happen to find yourself in Panama City Beach trying to decide between visiting Chick-fil-A or Beef ‘O’ Brady’s for a prescriptivist peeve session, choose the latter establishment and see if you can get some answers about all those apostrophes, or whatever they are.