“The Principle of Negativity”

All the best names are provocations: Virgin, Yahoo, Spanx, Caterpillar, Pandora, Apple, Oracle, Banana Republic, Hotwire, Crossfire, Typo, et al. To qualify as a provocation, a name must contain what most people would call “negative messages” for the goods and services the name represents.

As long as the name maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just give it greater depth. The negative becomes an engaging positive.

Nothing is more powerful than taking a word with a strong, specific connotation, grabbing a slice of it, mapping that slice to a portion of your positioning, and therefore redefining it. This naming strategy is without question the most powerful one of all.

Caterpillar is the most effective name in the earth-moving equipment sector precisely because it is not “Bull” or “Elephant” or “Workhorse” or anything else that is linear and obvious. Caterpillars are weak and easily squashed, yet Caterpillar is the most engaging name in its industry. And of course the word “Apple” is the antithesis of high tech, and an “Oracle” is not scientific nor reliable.

Here are some of the strong, specific negative images that were instantly overcome by powerful, provocative names:

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