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Brandtastic - The Subtle Psychology of Name-Brand Marketing

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Viagra. Levitra. Relenza. How do those names make you feel? Invigorated? Levitated? Relieved? Well, that's the idea, and pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars researching and developing such suggestive brand names for their products.

Fundamentally, the concepts behind branding are pretty simple. If you want to sell a drug that treats erectile dysfunction, you give it a name that suggests a condition opposite to that of the disorder: "health," "strength," and "vigor" could come to mind. Then again, you might want to take a more, uh, mechanical view of the subject: cast about for a bit, and the notion of "levitation" might pop up (so to speak).

Settling on the ideal choice — let's say you go with "vigor" — you then have to come up with a slick-sounding name that incorporates aspects of the word without being too overt about it. This is easier said than done — particularly the part about coming up with something that sounds good — but if you can pull it off successfully, you might just see your nom de drogue attached to the next blockbuster pharmaceutical.

A Little Linguistic Alchemy

In an interview with the BBC program Outlook, branding guru James Dettore of Brand Institute Inc. provided a little more insight into the drug-naming process. Speaking in general terms, he noted that pharmaceutical branding efforts seek to "draw on the creative and strategic platforms to evoke a sense of professional and ethical tone, personality, and word make-up in order to effectively communicate to their respective audiences."

Dettore cited Relenza, a drug designed to prevent and treat the flu, as a fairly straightforward example: "This brand name clearly expresses relief or reliability from the prefix root rel, while grounding the brand with the tonality of the influenza category."

In other words, Relenza provides relief from influenza. Or at least that's what the name is intended to suggest. Again, it all seems simple enough, but when you consider the huge amounts of money at stake with some of these products, you can see why companies actually put quite a lot of effort into creating names that may, at first blush, seem pretty uncomplicated. Viagra, for example, "had worldwide sales of $1.6 billion" in 2005, according to the International Herald Tribune. Given those numbers, it's hardly surprising that Pfizer, the drug's producer, has been willing to invest considerable sums in making sure that the branding and marketing of the drug have been as effective as they could possibly be.

Forged in the Fire

Of course, pharmaceuticals are far from the only products for which brand names are of critical importance. In this age of ubiquitous advertising, businesses have attached brand names to everything from staples and stopwatches to apples and oranges to set their products apart from those of their competitors.

According to Wikipedia, the concept of brand names can be traced directly back to the centuries-old practice of using hot iron brands to mark cattle with a sign of ownership. Etymologically speaking, the word "brand" itself is related to the ideas of heat, fire, and burning.

All of this makes sense enough when one considers the fundamental aim of brand marketing. Ultimately, the goal is to sear the product name into the brains of consumers — figuratively speaking, of course. The hope is that when a potential customer thinks "camera," he will then immediately think "Canon," or when another thinks "car," she will then think "Mercedes." Indeed, if the branding effort is successful enough, the line between the generic product and a particular brand may largely disappear: "Coke" means "cola," "Kleenex" means "tissue paper," "Xerox" means "to photocopy."

And of course, the branding effort need not be limited to the aural realm. In a more overt parallel to the practices of their cattle-brand forebears, today's modern brands often rely on a particular visual appeal. Brands such as Nike, Playboy, and MTV, for example, are known worldwide for their distinctive logos.

In any case, whether the appeal is linguistic or visual, the ultimate aim remains the same — make the product unforgettable, or as unforgettable as it can be.

A Potion for Promotion

Coca-Cola may be the ultimate brand name, at least in terms of sheer ubiquity. Though often thought of as a quintessentially American product, the drink is sold in over 200 countries worldwide and is undoubtedly one of the most well-known brand names on the planet. More critically, however, at least for the Coca-Cola Company and its shareholders, the brand may also be one of the most powerful in the world.

But how does one measure the power of a brand? Well, since the age of brands began, it has mostly proven impossible to do so with any certainty, with methods such as phone surveys and focus groups providing only a rough idea, at best, of a product's appeal. A few years ago, however, science offered something far more precise.

In 2003, researchers led by Read Montague at Baylor College of Medicine used an old ad campaign as inspiration for a seminal scientific experiment. They decided to have their test subjects take a Pepsi Challenge of sorts, with one key difference: the subjects' brains would be monitored by a functional MRI machine as they completed the taste test.

The results were remarkable, as summed up in this excerpt from a Frontline report by Mary Carmichael: "Without knowing what they were drinking, about half of [the subjects] said they preferred Pepsi. But once Montague told them which samples were Coke, three-fourths said that drink tasted better, and their brain activity changed too. Coke 'lit up' the medial prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain that controls higher thinking. Montague's hunch was that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product."

In other words, about half of the subjects who said they preferred Pepsi when both drinks were anonymous changed their preference to Coke when the drinks were identified. And when the brands were revealed, the Coke brand actually caused activity in a part of the brain that remained dormant at the mention of Pepsi.

Talk about searing a brand into the brain! Even people who fundamentally thought Coke tasted worse — that is, when taste alone was all they could judge by — changed their preference from Coke's competitor when the brands came into the picture.

This was a pretty astounding result, and Carmichael aptly summed up the implications for advertisers everywhere: "For years, in the face of failed brands and laughably bad ad campaigns, marketers had argued that they could influence consumers' choices. Now, there appeared to be solid neurological proof."

And so, of course, this incipient field of neuromarketing, as it's been called, is bound to only add more fuel to the branding fires. Yes, somewhere out there still more marketers are busily at work, striving to concoct the next potion for promotion, the next Coke or Viagra or Nike, to leave its indelible mark in the minds of consumers everywhere.
On the net:There's a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex

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Popular tags:

 Pfizer  drugs  developments  Coke  relief  visual appeal  psychology  strengths  Coca-Cola

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