Do you remember the first time you ate sushi? I’m not talking about after the Japanese cuisine became a common choice in cities and suburbs but when sushi was still an oddity in the US and you were still a bit squeamish. “What??!! Eat uncooked fish? Me? Are you crazy?”
If your experience was anything like mine, that first taste was weird and slimy and of course very fishy. And even the searing tsunami of wasabi that burned out my sinuses seconds later didn’t do much to make my first bite any less odd.
My next few mouthfuls, and my next few trips to the sushi bar, were equally tentative. It took a while until I was willing to gobble it down and even a few more dinners out until I developed a taste for it and was enthusiastic about eating sushi.
Chances are you were more likely to eat it because of its cool, exotic-sounding Japanese name; sushi. What’s the chance you would have eaten sushi if it went by a clear description of what’s actually on the plate?
Raw dead fish.
Speaking of fish, Patagonia Tooth Fish was considered unsellable over catch until some marketing maven renamed it Chilean Sea Bass.
Although it’s counter intuitive, non-descriptive names often become more powerful brands than their more explanatory counterparts. For example, before 1997 Pierre Omidyar’s online superpower eBay was known by the much more illustrative, yet less successful AuctionWeb.
Did you know that Google’s original name was BackRub?
Did you know Nike was first called Blue Ribbon Sports?
Of course you remember that AOL was America Online but did you know that first it was called Quantam Computer Services?
Some name changes, like Datsun changing to Nissan, are done for organizational reasons and don’t have much effect, other than costing millions of dollars to re-establish. Some name changes, like Federal Express becoming FedEx, make sense in an environment of 140 character tweets and even shorter attention spans. And some names, such as Yahoo, are explained after the fact, with the acronym apocryphally standing for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle or because founders Filo and Yang were fans of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels uncivilized Yahoos.
Some name changes are made because the times demand them – think Ayds Diet Candies, perhaps, or Isis Chocolates. Andersen Consulting spent an estimated $100 million to escape the misdeeds of their past when they switched to Accenture. Kentucky Fried Chicken looked to push the word “fried” out of their name when they rebranded as KFC.
ValueJet became AirTran after slamming a DC-9 so hard and deep into the Everglades there was almost no debris found at the crash site. That unfortunate example makes me wonder when Malaysia Airlines will announce their name change in order to escape the lingering specter of losing two planes in 2014 (one over the vast waters of Asia and a second in Ukraine).
Cereal companies change their names to satisfy consumer demands for healthier eating. Sugar Smacks was switched to Honey Smacks and then just Smacks and then back to Honey Smacks again. Sugar Crisp became Golden Crisp, Sugar Pops was renamed Corn Pops, and Sugar Frosted Flakes is now just Frosted Flakes. Of course the actual sugar content of the cereals was only slightly reduced but the word sugar was cleanly amputated.
In today’s metric-happy world of Internet surveys and copy testing, the critical interplay between names and the products they represent is a chicken-and-egg relationship that’s as much art as science. But the next time you give a back-of-your-hand dismissal to the hard work of naming products, think how much you would have enjoyed your last serving of Toro or Maguro or Ikura or Hamachi if sushi was simply called raw dead fish.