“Vanillacide” Defined

From the book “Shoot the Puppy: A Survival Guide to the Curious Jargon of Modern Life“, by linguist Tony Thorne, Head of the Language Centre at Kings College London:

Vanillacide

Meaning: how radical concepts are destroyed by too much consultation

I first heard this bizword when I shared a microphone recently with a Californian, Steve Manning. The occasion was a BBC radio discussion of the ongoing craze for re-branding companies, something Steve, boss of the US naming agency, Igor (as in the doctor’s assistant in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein), is an expert on.
Vanillacide is an updated version of the old notions of death-by-committee, or the death-of-a-thousand-cuts by which new and creative proposals are diluted and diluted until they become universally acceptable – and wholly unoriginal.
Agencies like Igor pitch new names to companies looking for a change of image. In Steve’s own words, ‘The best way to get 100 people to sign off on a name is to come up with something that has no meaning and offends no one – the surest pathway to vanillacide.’
This example of what used to be called a ‘portmanteau word’, known to linguists as a ‘blend’, is formed by bolting together the suffix of ‘suicide’ (if you think of it as self-destruction) or ‘homicide’ (if you think it’s a crime) and the slang use of ‘vanilla’ meaning insipid, conformist or harmless, which probably began with the gay and feminist movements in the late 1970s.
It’s not only progressives such as Steve Manning who perceive a general tendency in global corporate capitalism towards a deadening uniformity. Insider ironists now refer to ‘blanding’ and ‘blandwidth’. Timid, over-systematised decision-makers are accused scornfully of ‘blanding out’.
Doubts about conformism coincide with growing doubts about the value of using focus groups to test new names, products or services. There is, however, a trick for getting round the play-safe herd instinct displayed by committees or focus groups: it’s sometimes referred to as ‘wild-carding’ and consists of giving your client a list containing your favoured suggestions, plus at least a couple of ultra-radical, even crazy solutions.
In rejecting the most extreme, they are likely to ‘compromise’ on something that is still fairly daring. It might not work for everyone, but the Californian corrective to vanillacide is to junk consensus-seeking and embrace go-with-the-gut antimethodology, or, to use another trendy biz-term, ‘corporate voodoo’.

Brand Naming Survival Guide, Chapter 1: Beware The Literalist.

 

In every naming project, potential names are subject to scrutiny. They should be judged on how well they map to positioning, memorability, stopping power, emotional impact, connections to the collective consciousness, distinction from competitors – the sum of which answers the most important naming question, “Is this name interesting?“.

The literalist will critique names based solely on dictionary definitions, reliably in the form of an objection. Their claim will be that a word’s negative meaning or association(correlation) means that the value of the word as a name will also be negative(causation). The evidence they cite in their efforts to kill a name is irrefutable fact, yet completely irrelevant and counterproductive. A negative definition does not a negative name make – there is no causation from correlation.

Here are some of the known tactics a literalist will use to kill great name:

 

Slack

  • In business, Slack means “characterized by a lack of work or activity; quiet”
  • A Slacker is someone who works as little as possible. A terrible message for our target audience
  • Slack means slow, sluggish, or indolent, not active or busy; dull; not brisk. Moving very slowly, as the tide, wind, or water. Neglect, reduce, tardy

 

lululemon

  • We are an upscale brand for women, lululemon sounds like a character from a 3-year olds’ picture book: “lululemon and her best friends annabanana and sallystrawberry were climbing Gumdrop Hill, when suddenly from behind a rainbow the queen of the unicorns appeared…”

 

Virgin Air

  • Says “we’re new at this”
  • Public wants airlines to be experienced, safe and professional
  • Investors won’t take us seriously
  • Religious people will be offended

 

Hotwire

  • It has one meaning, “to steal a car!”
  • Crime is the last thing we need to be associated with

 

Yahoo!

  • Yahoo!! It’s Mountain Dew!
  • Yoohoo! It’s a chocolate drink in a can!
  • Nobody will take stock quotes and world news seriously from a bunch of “Yahoos”

 

Oracle

  • Unscientific
  • Unreliable
  • Only foretold death and destruction
  • Only fools put their faith in an Oracle
  • Sounds like “orifice” – people will make fun of us

 

LoveSac

  • Do we really need bullet points for this one?

 

 

If you encounter a literalist, keep your distance, maintain eye contact, and take the threat seriously. Do not run in any direction. Don’t bend over, crouch down or go fetal. Wave your arms in an alpha manner. Throw any toxic item you can find – Keurig pods, inspirational posters, focus group data, etc. If attacked, fight back. If this doesn’t work, your last chance for survival is to enlighten the literalist:

These literal objections are not reasons to abandon a name, rather they have demonstrably positive effects on a target audience. Consumers don’t process names literally, they process them emotionally. Getting your committee to acknowledge this difference and to interact as the public does with names, rather than the way the dictionary does, is essential:

 

 

Slack

  • Positioning: naming the problem we solve!
  • Qualities: confident, different, focused on solving the target’s problem.

 

Hotwire

  • Positioning: a travel hack, exciting, fun.
  • Hotwiring a car is a hack, that’s why this name works
  • Qualities: Exciting, different, memorable, viral

 

Virgin

  • Positioning: different, confident, exciting, alive, human, provocative, fun. The innovative name forces people to create a separate box in their head to put it in.
  • Qualities: Self-propelling, Connects Emotionally, Personality, Deep Well.

 

Oracle

  • Positioning: different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking.
  • Qualities: Self-propelling, Connects Emotionally, Personality, Deep Well.

 

 

The ‘common wisdom’ that naming in large groups will discourage a literalist attack is nothing more than urban legend. In fact, the larger the committee, the more likely an attack will be.

Further reading: Outwitting Squirrels

 

 

How To Create Names Like Facebook, Instagram & Snapchat

Instagram and Snapchat are identical constructions. Each simply substitutes new words from an accepted utility name: Instant Message. Insta & Snap are synonyms for Instant, and Gram & Chat are substitutes for Message.

Since Instant Message is already a universally adopted name, you know that Instagram and Snapchat will be accepted as well. If what you’re naming doesn’t map to a two-word generic, break it down into one first.

You can do this by re-purposing an unrelated, well-known compound word, as in Apple’s Wi-Fi base station being called “Airport” – a port accessed through the air. It’s easy to remember and readily embraced because everyone knows the word Airport already.

Proposing a name like Airport to a committee will be met with immediate pushback such as, “Everyone hates the experience of an airport” or, “Last time I was there they cancelled my flight, I had to sleep on the floor and I missed my child’s birthday” or “The first thing I think of is stress, long lines and bad service”- as if any of this will make the name less successful, which of course it doesn’t.

As soon as the name Airport is applied to a Wi-Fi device the primary definition disappears, your audience puts the clever double meaning together in their heads in an “aha!” moment, and they smile at the warmth & humanity you’ve brought to the game. Airport contains all of the ingredients of an unforgettable, best of breed name.

Because this simple concept is inherently difficult for bureaucracies, names like Airport are rare indeed – but they do happen.