Technology. The Great Verb Twiddler.

New technology, new linguistics.
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With every hark of technology comes a wave of new words. And while brands often create new nouns (like smartphone) or proper nouns (like Samsung Galaxy), little attention is paid to the verbs that describe how we’ll interact with them on a daily basis. A wasted opportunity?

Dialling, texting, surfing, Skyping, Tweeting. It’s no shocker that technology has radically changed our lives in the last 50 years. But one thing you might have missed, is its effect on language. Whether redefining existing words, or creating new ones, eager technologies have a habit of tail-swiping the Scrabble board with every revolution. And while it’s pretty easy to create new nouns, especially if you’re first to market, its much harder to define the way we interact with these technologies without hijacking verbs already in use.

Shiny new product. Same old verbs.

When you’re launching cutting-edge technology, the last thing you want in your CES showcase is to crank out a rusty bucket of verbs from a bygone era. And I’m not talking thrillingly defective verbs like quoth but over-used everyday ones that just don’t sparkle the way they used to.

Syntax error

Like most early(ish) computers, the Commodore 64 had a wealth of commands and programming verbs – including POKE and its companion, PEEK.

While verbs like call, chat, run, charge or post seem to stand the test of time, you can almost see the dust motes dancing over words like click, key, point, rewind or eject. Words like tune seem to change dominant meaning over time. From the noun, to tuning an instrument, to a radio station and currently, back to noun as a musical track.

There are many verbs that straddle several technologies, but even more that evoke very specific products.

Check out these buckets of verbs and guess the technology they came with.

Some verbs are intrinsically linked to a technology, others seem more versatile.

Some verbs are intrinsically linked to a technology, others seem more versatile.

Obviously it helps seeing these sets of verbs clustered together, but even on their own, most will probably evoke one technology over another, until a new use outweighs an existing one.

Understanding vs. Ownership.

As my English teacher always drummed into me at junior school, “verbs are doing words”. So it makes sense that the verbs commonly used in tech strongly relate to the action being taken.

Ctrl C, Ctrl Z.

Some of the more obvious tech verbs are still going strong.

But for every drag and drop or cut, copy, paste, there are more complex verbs like cache, toggle or leech that need a little more understanding of the technology to get what they’re referring to. This also means they often become anchored to something very specific, limiting their use. YouTube for example could never go near the word torrent and spy is very much off the table.

Crazy as it sounds, most manufacturers don’t think much about the verbs people will use to talk about their products, especially as instruction manuals are increasingly sent to the golden shredder in the sky. In 2007’s iPhone launch presentation, Steve Jobs himself talked about hitting icons on the screen of the iPhone. It’s an action most of us would now call tapping. Tapping re-enforces the action as gentle and finger-based, instead of a key that needs a little force to make it trigger (to hit is a verb left-over from an age of typewriters and rickety keys). Steve made a big deal out of slide to unlock, but didn’t use the word swipe as much as we do today. In fact, in this presentation, he said scroll rather a lot, which is one of the oldest sounding verbs around, bringing to mind monks, feathers, ink wells and endless reams of pampas grass pomposity. In terms of new phrases, he used the term ‘rubber band’ to describe the bounce-back effect at the end of a scroll (and source of yet another patent fight with Samsung), yet now the word rubberbanding is used negatively in online gaming when a server lags. Which goes to show, you may own a patent or trademark, but it’s much harder to make a verb your own.

When brands become verbs.

Much as it can pay dividends for a brand to own the language used to describe interactions with its product, problems arise when the brand name itself becomes synonymous with use and starts being used like a verb. Googling, Hoovering, Xeroxing or Tippexing (White Out in the US). We’ve all said it. You’d think a brand would like the free advertising and recognition that they’re number one.

Heroin started life as a brand name created by Bayer for their new pain relief product.

Heroin started life as a brand name created by Bayer for their new pain relief product.

But the problem with using a brand name as a verb is that it actually dilutes the power of the brand, turning it into ‘just a word’, and in a worst-case scenario, have an effect on how they can control the use of their trademark. Zipper, Aspirin, Thermos, Yo-Yo (in the US at least) and even Heroin were all once trademarks that have become generic.

Once a brand name is fixed to a specific product or service, it also becomes much harder for their business to diversify. If Google just meant ‘search’, then mapping, computing, entertainment and wearable technology would feel like much more of a stretch for the brand. Which is why Google work hard to discourage the use of their brand name as a verb. And while googling was declared ‘most useful word of 2002’ by the American Dialect Society, and added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006, the company actually sent out cease and desist letters to the creator of Word Spy for referencing it as a verb.

The official word is that you should only use Google when referring to Google Inc, and not as generic verb for searching. Googling it seems, might be acceptable, as long as the search is made on Google (but certainly never with a lower case ‘G’ – googling). Amusingly, it was Google co-founder Larry Page himself who first used Google as a verb (in lower case) on a 1998 mailing list – “Have fun and keep googling”. Something I’m sure he and the lawyers now regret.

Not all brands resist their product being turned into a verb. When their offering is very specific, it’s a powerful marketing device

Skype, Bump, Swype, Kick Starter, Shazam - some brands don't seem to mind their name being used as a verb.

Some brand names happily get turned into verbs.

Skyping a friend, Kickstarting a fundraiser, Bumping phones to swap files, Shazamming a song or Swyping text are all verbs derived from brand names, and their owners seem only too happy to have them enter the vernacular.

When verbs attack

The 2005 launch of the iPod Shuffle demoted the word random.

The iPod Shuffle did well here too, pretty much killing the word random – a feature long used by CD players – by demoting it to a tagline.

Ultimately, consumers decide the verbs they’ll use. Not brands. So if you want things your way, make it easy for them to use your verbs. The key to success is to decide early on how you want people to talk about what you do and give them a range of natural sounding verbs to use from the off.

Need a new verb? Here are some tips.

If you’re a brand launching a revolutionary new product that will change the way people do things, it’s worth trying to create some ownable verbs to go with it. After all, you spend so much time and money patenting and defending the technology, the costs of trademarking some of the words around it are minimal, even if it can take a lot of marketing to get people using them.

1. Turn a noun into a verb – like phone

Many verbs associated with technology started life as nouns. From the traditional – format, phone, text and scroll, to the modern – flame, troll, DM, spam or pirate. Could there be the perfect new verb bursting to get out of an everyday noun?

2. Invent a verb of your own – like phish

The verbs of Facebook are pretty ubiquitous. Poking may be all but dead, but post, share, comment and like are very much alive. While liking will never truly be ownable by Facebook, Google Plus have pretty much claimed +1ing, turning a specific thing into a verb…even if not that many people use it yet.

My favourite invented verb is for the act of ‘keeping records of the songs you play and uploading the data’ or to scrobble / scrobbling, created by Last.Fm. It’s fresh, intuitive and quite specific.

3. Modify an existing verb – like repin

Much like the words upload and download come from load, some tech verbs are simple modifications of existing words. Instagram uses regram to talk about reposting a shared photo. Pinterest has done well to own ‘pinning’ online and created ‘repin’, which while a new word, makes absolute sense. (As long as Pinterest is popular, it will propbably own these words in the online space.)

4. Own some lesser used verbs – like shuffle

One of the best marriages of brand and verb is Twitter. By taking two little-used existing, yet strongly connected verbs Twitter and Tweet, and making them their own, they have built an incredibly strong lexicon that would be very hard to be used by someone else, probably even decades from now. Tweet is a much sexier verb than update, right? Retweet is of course brand new verb.

Verbing is an evolution.

In an ideal world, brands would be able to choose the verbs people use when talking about their product. In reality, the fluidity of language means consumers will choose the words that work best for them. But give them the chance to ogle or silvertongue some new ones, and they might just adopt them as their own.

What are your favourite tech verbs? Share them in the comments section below.

In my next post: What verbs might the next wave of technology adopt and give new meaning to?

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Naming someone else’s baby.

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Naming a brand. Where do you start?

Choosing a brand name. Where do you start?

How creating an effective brand name is much trickier than naming a child.

It’s a funny thing, naming. Everyone thinks they’re an expert. We’ve all named something at one time or another, even if it’s just the goldfish. But when it  comes to naming a company, product or service, choosing the perfect  name can have many an “expert” flummoxed. Employees, customers, shareholders; how can you inspire everyone in just a word or two? The short answer is, you can’t. Not everyone. But what you can do is have a  very clear idea of your audience and the most important things you want to communicate, and go from there.

To the uninitiated, naming can be a minefield, which probably explains why   so many companies spend months, even years, developing a product only to   discover as the launch date approaches that they’ve yet to agree on a name, let alone secure the trademark.

Cue a last-minute panic and cry for help to the advertising agency, who are often asked to come up with a name as a tiny part of a launch campaign brief, without being given the adequate time or budget to do so.

The agency will often think coming up with a name is a doddle, give the task to a junior copywriter as ‘a nice little job’ and come bounding back with a long list of suggestions, which get knocked out one by one for creative reasons (they’re too obscure), legal reasons (they’re obviously taken) or linguistic ones (sorry, Mist in German means manure – just ask Mercedes). The deadline gets ever closer, but the solution doesn’t.

Luckily for Australia, because of our youth and size, securing a trademark and url for the domestic market is much easier than in Europe or the US, which probably explains why the slap-dash attitude to naming still prevails.

Considering it can take up to two years for a trademark to be registered (although in reality, few companies wait that long), the sooner a name is chosen, the better.

Naming. So where do you start?

Short answer – by knowing what you want to communicate. Defining what your brand is about is where every naming brief should start. Once everyone is looking for a clear expression of the same idea, it makes choosing a name much less subjective.

Can you imagine naming someone else’s child? Creating a name for someone else’s company is just like that. People can get very subjective, especially as everyone has natural associations with certain words. The smaller the company, the higher the personal stakes.

When you name a child, you have no idea what they’re going to be like, yet you have the responsibility to pick a name that will suit them in the future. In theory, creating a brand name should be easy by comparison, as you should know exactly what you want to get across and choose a name that does it.

Thing is, people and brands can often grow into a name, whatever it is. Think of the people in your life, can you imagine them being called anything else now?

The different styles of name; descriptive, associative, abstract.

Whether you’re a company like Unilever launching a new FMCG or a multi-million-dollar enterprise in need of a new name following a merger or acquisition, the first step is to have an idea about what style of name you looking for, something often dictated by geography.

Do you just want a descriptive name that’s very direct and obvious, setting out your stall in a flash, or is it more important to build your brand by creating an associative name rich in personality? More often than not, companies want both.

Names used to be very straight-forward. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Dick Smith Electronics, National Australia Bank… But as companies became more diverse, expanded internationally and saw an increase in competition, the need to create differentiation became much more apparent. What began as a simple way to tell cattle apart with a hot-iron brand has moved into a world of much more complex identity creation.

A brand’s identity has both visual and verbal elements. Design and tone of voice together bring it to life.  The brand name is often the way into both of these as a means of introduction, usually with a strong idea at the heart. For example ‘Apple’ suggests refreshing simplicity or a (Newton) eureka moment, ‘Wii’ togetherness and ‘Google’ has the clever double association of googol (a number with 100 zeros) and goggle – a wide-eyed look of amazement.

In Australia, it seems many of the biggest brands have very traditional names, often taking those of their founder. The brands now stand for far more than the characteristics of the person that created them, which can make them feel very dated and tied to the past. And if you don’t know of that person, the name is abstract anyway. Harvey Norman means nothing to me…but then I guess, so does Calvin Klein, although at least he has a legacy.

It’s often the young upstarts that tend to have the most engaging names. Launching in a crowded market, it’s a great way to get instant cut-through. Just look at how undies maker AussieBum ripped into Bonds’ market share in just a few years. In the beginning, with a limited budget, the cheeky name really helped them get column inches and punch above their weight.

Why it pays to talk nonsense.

Abstract names are the hardest to warm to. Made-up or unfamiliar words can take a lot of work to build meaning into, but ultimately, they are the most distinctive, the easiest to trademark and tend to travel well as you don’t have to worry if people who speak other languages will understand a name – because at first, no one will.

An abstract name is like a blank canvas you can paint with meaning. When done well, they are incredibly strong brands. Kodak, Sony, Viagra, Optus, they’re all essentially abstract names, but you probably carry plenty of association with them now.

Even abstract names can have association. Xstrata is an interesting name in an industry full of bland ones. (Rio Tinto incidentally, comes from the Spanish rivers washed red from all the iron ore.) Xstrata feels quite techie and progressive. It conjures images of multi-layered rock-strata, along with a hint of ‘X marks the spot’ treasure hunting. Even when your product is already valuable, it never hurts to have a strong brand to help build a premium offering.

There’s a great theory – nominative determinism – that people become the names they are given. It might not actually be true for children, but it often is for brands ­– a brand like Nike was always going to be about victory. But playing against type can work wonders too – like Caterpillar, big, powerful, heavy machinery named after a small squishy insect.

Naming is full of contradictions. The only consistent rule seems to be, there are no rules.

The original version of this post was published in The Australian Financial Review - June 2011.

The original version of this post was published in The Australian Financial Review – June 2011.