To Xfinity and Beyond

The Brand Name Game

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Xfinity, the result of Comcast’s multimillion dollar rebranding effort, has raised eyebrows among critics since its unveiling in February, surely in part because the new name reads as if the cable and internet behemoth is now peddling “infinite porn.” Though this may help the ratings of its recent acquisition of a post-Conan NBC, it also points to the hazards of playing the name game with one’s media empire.

Last year’s switch to Syfy from the Sci Fi Channel (which was bundled in with the NBC acquisition) was a bellwether of sorts for a rash of identity anxiety seemingly sweeping corporate America. At first, punsters riffed on obvious syphilis gags, but eventually the derision gave way to a kind of indifference, which its ad firm surely spun as a form of “acceptance” worthy of their outsized invoice.

This too will likely become the case for Xfinity, whose disgruntled customers will come to rue the name as much as they presently do Comcast. Mission accomplished. “I sincerely believe Xfinity will grow on us, just like Altria (the former Philip Morris), Xe (the former Blackwater) and Syfy . . . did,” wrote Simon Dumenco in a recent Advertising Age column, before preceding to comically assail the name in a 10-point list.

Naming companies is big business. Several years ago, Jeff Berner, a Marin County expat now living in Paris, facilitated the naming of a programming language for Sun Microsystems originally known as “Oak.” Ultimately, Berner led a team of 18 to the vastly more dynamic?and now ubiquitous?name “Java.” The then-product manager credited Berner for creating an open relaxed and playful atmosphere. Other companies, however, cloak their creative machinations in processes primed for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Pollywog, a Minneapolis-based branding agency, touts itself as offering “a state-of-the-art naming process and the world’s first patent-pending methodology for brand creation.” How one patents such a thing is the stuff of intellectual property lawyers’ wet dreams; however, it’s clearly more than pulling names out of a hat (just ask companies such as Bebo or Meebo, who sound as if there were named by R2-D2).

“We’ve identified 17 characteristics that combine to give a name its power,” Pollywog crows on its site. What these characteristics are is a secret known only to Pollywog and some file clerk. However, linguist and technologist Christopher Johnson, who blogs at TheNameInspector.com, has identified at least 10 different types of company names. The fourth most popular category is what Johnson describes as a “blend,” in which portions of two or more words are mixed to form another.

Popular examples cited by Johnson are Microsoft (“microcomputer” and “software”), Skype (“sky” and “peer-to-peer”) and Wikipedia (“wiki” and “encyclopedia”). Similar portmanteaux dot our local wine industry. Audelssa Estate Winery takes its unusual name from (Aud)rey, Ch(els)ea and Aly(ssa), the founder’s daughters. Likewise, Viansa Winery is said to be a contraction of its original owners names?(Vi)cky (an)d (Sa)m Sebastiani. Ditto Hanzell Vineyards, which is a contraction Hana Zellerbach.

Perhaps the most famous portmanteau brand is Spam, which, apocryphally, is a blend of “spiced ham.” Hormel, the makers of Spam, only tacitly embraces this as the brand name’s origin, which it sidesteps on its “facts and trivia” page by claiming that it “simply doesn’t paint the right picture of what a can of Spam classic really is.” The question as to what precisely is a can of Spam might best be left to Michael Pollan. What the brand name really is, however, is something of an anomaly in the annals of marketing history. Having been appropriated by online wags in the early days of the internet to describe unwanted junk email, Hormel tried vainly to allay the association and even published an official policy statement entitled “Spam and the Internet.” No one cared.

A decade later, the canned-meat maker now embraces the association or at least its alleged antecedent in the form of Spamalot, Eric Idle’s successful musical retread of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (As oft-repeated, the term’s use is said to have come from a Python sketch in which Vikings disrupt diners by chanting “Spam, spam, spam, spam,” like, you know, the Viagra pitches in one’s inbox).

And how does all that spam get into your inbox? Ask Xfinity.

To Xfinity and Beyond: The Brand Name Game

Xfinity, the result of Comcast’s multimillion dollar rebranding effort, has raised eyebrows among critics since its unveiling in February, surely in part because the new name reads as if the cable and internet behemoth is now peddling “infinite porn.” Though this may help the ratings of its recent acquisition of a post-Conan NBC, it also points to the hazards of playing the name game with one’s media empire.

Last year’s switch to Syfy from the Sci Fi Channel (which was bundled in with the NBC acquisition) was a bellwether of sorts for a rash of identity anxiety seemingly sweeping corporate America. At first, punsters riffed on obvious syphilis gags, but eventually the derision gave way to a kind of indifference, which its ad firm surely spun as a form of “acceptance” worthy of their outsized invoice.

This too will likely become the case for Xfinity, whose disgruntled customers will come to rue the name as much as they presently do Comcast. Mission accomplished. “I sincerely believe Xfinity will grow on us, just like Altria (the former Philip Morris), Xe (the former Blackwater) and Syfy . . . did,” wrote Simon Dumenco in a recent Advertising Age column, before preceding to comically assail the name in a 10-point list.

Naming companies is big business. Several years ago, Jeff Berner, a Marin County expat now living in Paris, facilitated the naming of a programming language for Sun Microsystems originally known as “Oak.” Ultimately, Berner led a team of 18 to the vastly more dynamic?and now ubiquitous?name “Java.” The then-product manager credited Berner for creating an open relaxed and playful atmosphere. Other companies, however, cloak their creative machinations in processes primed for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Pollywog, a Minneapolis-based branding agency, touts itself as offering “a state-of-the-art naming process and the world’s first patent-pending methodology for brand creation.” How one patents such a thing is the stuff of intellectual property lawyers’ wet dreams; however, it’s clearly more than pulling names out of a hat (just ask companies such as Bebo or Meebo, who sound as if there were named by R2-D2).

“We’ve identified 17 characteristics that combine to give a name its power,” Pollywog crows on its site. What these characteristics are is a secret known only to Pollywog and some file clerk. However, linguist and technologist Christopher Johnson, who blogs at TheNameInspector.com, has identified at least 10 different types of company names. The fourth most popular category is what Johnson describes as a “blend,” in which portions of two or more words are mixed to form another.

Popular examples cited by Johnson are Microsoft (“microcomputer” and “software”), Skype (“sky” and “peer-to-peer”) and Wikipedia (“wiki” and “encyclopedia”). Similar portmanteaux dot our local wine industry. Audelssa Estate Winery takes its unusual name from (Aud)rey, Ch(els)ea and Aly(ssa), the founder’s daughters. Likewise, Viansa Winery is said to be a contraction of its original owners names?(Vi)cky (an)d (Sa)m Sebastiani. Ditto Hanzell Vineyards, which is a contraction Hana Zellerbach.

Perhaps the most famous portmanteau brand is Spam, which, apocryphally, is a blend of “spiced ham.” Hormel, the makers of Spam, only tacitly embraces this as the brand name’s origin, which it sidesteps on its “facts and trivia” page by claiming that it “simply doesn’t paint the right picture of what a can of Spam classic really is.” The question as to what precisely is a can of Spam might best be left to Michael Pollan. What the brand name really is, however, is something of an anomaly in the annals of marketing history. Having been appropriated by online wags in the early days of the internet to describe unwanted junk email, Hormel tried vainly to allay the association and even published an official policy statement entitled “Spam and the Internet.” No one cared.

A decade later, the canned-meat maker now embraces the association or at least its alleged antecedent in the form of Spamalot, Eric Idle’s successful musical retread of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (As oft-repeated, the term’s use is said to have come from a Python sketch in which Vikings disrupt diners by chanting “Spam, spam, spam, spam,” like, you know, the Viagra pitches in one’s inbox).

And how does all that spam get into your inbox? Ask Xfinity.

Friends, fans and followers: Social Media Marketing in Sonoma

Sonoma is overrun with “social media marketers.” It’s a hazard of living in wine country, I suppose, since our namesake industry was one of the first to fully-embrace social media as a means of marketing to “friends,” “fans and “followers” alike. Before nonbelievers misconstrue social media marketing as some sort of digital pyramid scheme, perhaps a primer is in order.

My shorthand: Social Media Marketing is a cocktail party wherein Community and Content are in the corner canoodling. In this metaphor, your brand is either a host or a guest and, if you’re lucky, a canoodler. Your brand provides a forum for others to share their experiences with one another through user-generated content – from blogs, comments, microblogs, videos, podcasts, forums and wikis to all manner of emerging media. Attract the right guests and interesting conversations develop. Attract the wrong ones and the fuzz breaks up the party.

As such, social media marketing goes well beyond merely creating profiles on every new platform (Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, DHowell.com). When conducted properly, it leverages the connectivity these spaces create between you and your brand’s fans. The social web is an opportunity to reach key influencers and managing brand perception while building awareness and supporting your end-users in supporting your brand’s evolution and fostering positive brand equity (sigh). But enough marketing-speak.

Geyserville-based winery Murphy Goode wanted it so bad last year, they held a high-profile contest to recruit social media maven Hardy Wallace and bring him in-house for a $10K a month gig to beat tweets and book face-time on Facebook. It worked and not only brought increased awareness to his employers but also to the possibilities of social media itself. Soon, every wine marketer in town was jonesing to keep up with the Goode, the bad and the fugly.

Several local businesses have sprung up to help in this regard. Most visible, given the tenacity with which they flak for their clients, is the estimable team of Donna Hays and Celeste Winders (who function under the whimsical moniker WordMice). If you so much as looked in the direction of our local film festival last week, you were likely deluged with dozens of updates on a handful of different platforms. When a board-member publicly lamented how the festival operated on “half a shoe string,” WordMice provided the social media equivalent of Croqs – cheap, ubiquitous and deceptively comfortable – and strutted its stuff all over the Internet. Another local entity, CliCKmarkets, will soon be launching its Wide Angle Metrics initiative that will enable a granular snapshot of one’s “buzz and sentiment” as represented online and whether your social media efforts are actually working or if your tweet fell in the forest and nobody heard.

On the other side of the social media paradigm is Valley personality Veronica Torres who’s making a concerted effort to be “The Next Top Spiritual Author,” via a contest co-sponsored by publisher Hampton Roads. Torres has managed to stand apart from the 3,000 other contestants by marshalling a phalanx of supporters, not least of which are her immediate collaborators, who are scattered through the world and kibbitz online media. Her project’s social media strategists offered their services gratis from Chicago, which proves the adage, “Where ever you go, there you are – at least if you’re online.” (Vote for Torres at tinyurl.com/voteforveronica).

Sonoma’s own Jess Poshepny, a.k.a. “Moxie_Lady” on Twitter, runs the social media program for Trione Vineyards and Winery and somehow finds the time to manage Sonoma Valley’s de facto Facebook presence at the pithy url Facebook.com/SonomaIsland. The “friend” count will soon close 1,200, which is well over 10 percent of the City of Sonoma’s population. Now, if every member sent Poshepny a dollar, imagine the amount of Glariffees she could buy at the Swiss? Now, that’s a social media metric worth retweeting.

“Fan” Daedalus Howell at Facebook.com/DHowellTV and “follow” at Twitter.com/DHowellcom. Visit him virtually at DHowell.com.

Writ Large: Will Apple’s new iPad save print’s sorry ass?

There will come a time when the sleek, electronic tablet device known to all as the Apple iPad will look as quaint and anachronistic as an abacus. Until then, we cannot help but marvel at its glory as we once did over squares ping-ponging across the dark void of a cathode ray tube.

The iPad has been heralded as a prospective savior of the ailing publishing industry with particular emphasis put on how it will reel magazines back from the brink and escort institutions like the Gray Lady across the digital divide and into the 21st century. As is oft reported with Nietzschean succinctness, “Print is dead.” However, that does not mean that the New York Times is penning its own obit. On the contrary, it and its brethren are on the eve of a renaissance.

What the arrival of a multimedia device such as the iPad really means to publishing is the emancipation of written content, which, heretofore, has been distributed via ink and paper and, to a lesser degree, cut and pasted onto the web. If the iPad proves as virulent a market maker as the other devices in its gene pool, we will soon consume our media diets with our fingers, pinching and swiping at apps from a radiant touch-screen.

There was a time when the medium and the message were the same, but, alas, Marshall Mcluhan is dead, too. The iPad seeks to make the message the message, and the message is, in the words of Sausalito-based tech visionary Stewart Brand, that “information wants to be free.” Mind you, that’s not “free” in the pecuniary sense but rather in the running-naked-and-bat-shit-crazy-down-the-Infinite-Loop sense of the word.

The connective tissue that links analog and the digital media has always been the information it contained. It’s as if content has gone from a solid (analog media like books and vinyl LPs) to a liquid (the malleable digital media of CDs and DVDs) to a gas (content literally stowed in the “cloud” and downloaded in digital drops). Or how about: books, magazines and newspapers are to rolling papers what the iPad is to a bong. And by “bong,” we mean the kind sold as kits from the nether reaches of the internet and assembled in garages into bubbling, wheezing edifices that outshine their purpose.

Indeed, the iPad’s relationship to content is akin to how the tobacco industry once referred to cigarettes as a “nicotine delivery device.” The quiet hope among media moguls is that we will become addicted to content as never before in its flashy new digs. Of course, Apple is not without its missteps. In its Jurassic period, circa 1993, it rolled out its first tablet device, the Newton. A clunky, chunky so-called personal digital assistant, the Newton cost the equivalent in today’s dollars of $1.5 billion to develop, and its deficiencies relative to its abilities resulted in a product that did little more than function as a pricey paperweight.

Of course, this all went down before Apple’s in-house messiah Steve Jobs returned, bringing with him the era of the lowercase i appended to everything (surely the iBong is being beta-tested in some Silicon Valley bedroom). But what’s in a name?

The Long Tail retail concept, as popularized by Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson in his 2006 tome The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, found expression of sorts when Apple finally revealed the name of its tablet to general derision a few months ago. Somehow, unbeknownst to its marketing department, MadTV had produced a sketch parodying the iPod by linking it to the feminine hygiene aisle, the “iPad,” back in 2005.

The five-year-old sketch enjoyed a brief surge on the YouTube charts (nearly as fast as the rapidly trending Twitter topic “iTampon”) and snagged CNN coverage for its star and lead writer along the way. Who’da thunk Apple would fail to Google its prospective product name? Who cares. It beats sliding beads along a wooden frame.

Sonoma Intl Film Fest Survival Guide

If you are a filmmaker and you’re attending the Sonoma International Film Festival, you are in mortal danger. The extent to which one might enjoy oneself can reach a level of lethality unparalleled on the festival circuit. Oh, and congratulations.

Filmmakers of a certain disposition are advised to write a last will and testament prior to attending the annual event. This is not some proviso ordained by the festival’s legal team (who, I believe is an 18-year-old intern) but rather some advice from a film fest veteran who has popped as many corks as he once had neurons. Twenty-four frames a second looks like slow-motion when compared to the speed with which one can transit from rising star to supernova in the course of a winery mixer. Needless to say, the unbridled boozing that annually occurs here is no more the fault of the festival than civil engineers are responsible for bridge-jumpers. Be that as it may, there would be far less bridge-jumpers if there weren’t any bridges. Just sayin’.

Here, prophylactic measures are best. A colleague suggests ingesting an entire bottle of Pedialite, “an oral electrolyte solution that is specifically designed to replace fluids and minerals that are lost when a child has diarrhea with or without vomiting.” Apparently, it’s just as effective if you’re a 30-something with a mountain of credit debt, a feature film without distribution and a growing grudge against sobriety. You will note the bottle of wine in your swag-bag. This, dear filmmaker, is a preparatory offering meant to ease your liver into its cirrhotic journey toward oblivion. Where you go from there is entirely your choice, however, you’ll likely pass a wine bar on the way. And then another one. And so on.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney famously belched, “I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” For the uninitiated, a film festival set in Sonoma might look like a wine festival with a film problem. This is not entirely true, though there have been recorded instances when it’s become evident the only reason people were sitting in a dark theater was to nurse their hangovers. Or, because they’d woken up there. Though this is a great way to build an audience if you’re film is scheduled early in the day, one shouldn’t take offense if someone yells “Turn off the lights” when your film flickers onto the screen.

This brings to mind another cliche that is often repeated come festival time: “Friends don’t let friends do the Q&A drunk.” That is, unless those friends have films competing in the same category in which case it’s not personal it’s just The Business.

Speaking of the business, permit me to disabuse out-of-town filmmakers of the notion that they’re going to leave Sonoma with a three-picture deal. You’re not. Consider yourself lucky if you leave with a hangover and perhaps a social disease. Deals don’t get made here, so please do not patronize the patrons.

They’ve put a lot of money into the film festival to celebrate your talents and enjoy your company for a weekend. Don’t spoil it by getting greedy. The fact is, they have less money than you think, especially the ones willing to talk with you.

Consider this: if you and your mark are at the same party, chances are neither of you have any dough. See you there.