Lead Balloons: When Negative Brand Names Work
This week, we analyze brand names that should never have worked. While most companies strive for positive names, others succeed with negative ones. Names that suggest the opposite of what the company is offering, or even risk offending the very customers it hopes to attract. We'll look at a band named after one of the biggest air disasters of the 20th century, a restaurant that proudly tries to clog its customers' arteries (and has on occasion) and a rental car company that promises junkers. It's a fine line between memorable and detrimental.
In 1965, the Yardbirds recorded their first top 10 hit:
By 1968, the supergroup was splintering, and guitarists Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had quit. Jimmy Page had joined by that time, and when the group finally broke up, he found himself alone with concert obligations.
He recruited bass player John Paul Jones, then tried to convince a singer and a drummer he knew to join, but they were unavailable.
The singer recommended another vocalist by the name of Robert Plant.
When Page met Plant, he asked him if he knew of any good drummers. Plant recommended John Bonham.
With Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham in tow, the group fulfilled its concert obligations by touring Scandinavia as the "New" Yardbirds.
The foursome soon landed a record deal and recorded their first album in just 30 hours.
But just before it was to be released, the "old" Yardbirds informed the "new" Yardbirds that they had to change their name.
Page remembered back to a time when he considered forming a band with Keith Moon. Moon had said the band would probably go over like a "lead balloon."
Page had a sense of humour, so he took that thought and modified it. He removed the letter "a" from "lead" so it wouldn't be mistaken for "leed" then changed "balloon" to the more dramatic "zeppelin."
It was a risky choice for a name.
First, the only reference most people had to a zeppelin was the horrible Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Not only that, the band chose the actual image of the Hindenburg on fire for their album cover.
Second, "Led Zeppelin" gave music critics a perfect name to bury them with.
If they hated the music, the band's name would give them ready-made headlines if their inaugural album crashed and burned.
The critics didn't like the album – and feasted on the band's name.
But fans loved it and it broke into the top 10 within two months of its release.
Like the Beatles, the name Led Zeppelin has transcended its original meaning.
But it was a name that shouldn't have worked. Its baggage was negative, it harkened back to a historical disaster, and it was a big, fat softball to music critics.
Yet it's become one of the most memorable names in rock history.
In the world of marketing, a brand name is critically important.
Yet with all that marketing firepower at their disposal, many companies have names that should never have worked.
Names that suggested the opposite of what the company was offering, or even risked offending the very customers it hoped to attract.
Yet these same companies became wildly successful.
Suffering absolutely no communication breakdown.
""What's in a name?" Shakespeare once asked.
The answer – a lot.
One of the most critical decisions a company makes is the name it chooses.
Because a name is a marketing decision.
Standing out from the crowd with a striking name is half the battle.
Think about companies like Google or Nike or Xerox.
Absolutely unique and unforgettable.
But what about companies that choose names that already come with a meaning? What happens if that meaning isn't positive?
Some companies have chosen names that should have worked against them.
But somehow those names ended up being the best decision they ever made.
If you were going to travel overseas, would you consider flying with a company named Rookie Airlines?
Yet thousands of people bought tickets with Virgin Airlines.
When Richard Branson wanted to expand his record company back in 1970, he wanted a memorable name.
He considered "Slipped Disc" – but if he wanted to branch out beyond music, that name would become limiting.
Then an employee named Tessa Watts suggested the name "Virgin." Her reasoning behind the name – they were complete virgins at business. They loved it. The name stuck.
Then Branson decided to start an airline.
As a rule, an airline named Virgin should never have worked.
It suggests a company that is inexperienced. And in all the possible categories where inexperience would be a major hindrance, flying airplanes has got to be near the top.
Yet Virgin took off.
Branson gave his company a risqué name back in 1970 because he always believed in standing out from the crowd.
He believes brands aren't built around products, but rather around reputation, quality, price competitiveness and innovation.
The reason Virgin Airlines worked was because the name Virgin had already been established by Branson. Virgin Records, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Books and other Virgin companies had already succeeded.
Branson invested the Virgin brand with his personality – it was edgy, fun, risky, adventurous, unconventional and above all – irreverent.
Edgy, risky and irreverent are three adjectives not normally associated with the conservative airline industry. But those characteristics separated Virgin from competitors with deeper pockets.
Branson has four tips for coming up with brand names:
First – know your audience. Think about who you want to attract and what appeals to them. Virgin's core customer is fun-loving and unconventional.
Second – Keep it simple. The name doesn't have to be obvious. It can be made up or be left of centre. "Virgin" wasn't self-explanatory but it was simple enough that a brand could be poured into it.
Third - Choose something striking. Be distinct. Choose a name that can be recognized far and wide. "Virgin" definitely checked all those boxes.
And fourth – Have fun. Remember Branson created Virgin in the 1970s – it was the age of free love. But the business world at the time was still extremely conservative – so by choosing Virgin they were challenging the establishment and having a lot of fun doing it.
There is no doubt Richard Branson is a master marketer. I looked up the origin of his surname. "Branson" comes from the family name "Brand" – it means "son of Brand."
Virgin Airlines. It was a name that should never have flown.
Back in 1968, Dave Schwartz opened up a used car lot in Los Angeles. He called it "Bundy Very Used Cars."
Two years later, Schwartz sold a woman a used car for $225. It broke down the same day.
When she returned it, she told Schwartz she was only going to be in LA for three months, and wondered if she could rent another car for the full purchase price, then return it three months later.
He agreed – and three months later he was standing there with the full purchase price of the car AND the car.
That's when an idea popped into his head.
Why not rent used cars?
Schwartz calls his new company "Rent A Very Used Car."
Business was brisk and surprisingly good. One of his biggest clienteles comes from the most unlikely source:
The reason they love renting used cars is because it gave them anonymity. As Schwartz would later say, "People don't look at my cars, they look away from them."
His client list included celebs such as Paul Newman and Ringo Starr.
The cars were battered and dented. The fenders were crumpled. The doors were smashed. The upholstery was ripped and torn.
Yet it became one of the most popular car rental companies in Hollywood. Celebrities jokingly referred to Schwartz's company as "Rent-A-Wreck."
One day, one of Schwartz's used rental cars was stolen. When the LA police finally recovered the vehicle, they told Schwartz the car was wrecked.
When Schwartz finally saw the car, he realized it was in exactly the same condition it was when he had rented it the day before!
That's the moment Dave Schwartz decided to change the name of his used car dealership to "Rent-A-Wreck."
The name should never have worked.
After all, who wants to rent a wreck?
But Schwartz had created a revolutionary new concept in the car rental world.
Instead of renting new cars, he was renting used cars.
Instead of high rental rates, he was charging half.
Instead of focussing on airport rentals like his competitors, Rent-A-Wreck zeroed in on neighbourhoods.
More than anything – it was that name. It just garnered so much attention. It was unusual, bold and memorable.
The name Rent-A-Wreck created buzz whenever they opened a new location.
It generated tremendous word-of-mouth advertising.
Almost everyone has heard of Rent-A-Wreck. It has been in hundreds of movies, televisions shows, magazine stories and online articles.
Today, the company focuses on safety – no doubt to overcome the inherent problem with its name – especially in a safety-conscious era.
To that end, it has trademarked the phrase: "Don't let the name fool you."
Low prices, reverse snobbism and a name that should never have worked.
That's the secret sauce that still works for Rent-A-Wreck.
It was the same kind of sauce that worked in the jungle…
Ever shopped at Banana Republic?
Ever wonder why it's called Banana Republic?
It was started by the husband/wife team of Mel and Patricia Ziegler.
Mel was a reporter, and Patricia was an illustrator and they both worked at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Feeling restless and uninspired, they quit on the same day.
Taking on a freelance writing job, Mel Ziegler went on a press trip to Australia. While there, he bought an old British Burma jacket from an army surplus store.
When he wore it back home, both he and his wife loved the style and attitude of the jacket, and decided to start a business selling surplus military clothing – which Patricia often customized with interesting touches.
Knowing nothing about the retail clothing business, they created a store that broke all the rules. It had a jungle theme with a décor that included palm trees, old jeeps and pith helmets. It had life-size giraffes and elephants. The clothing included khaki shorts, cargo pants and paratrooper shirts.
So, in keeping with the theme, the Zieglers came up with the name Banana Republic.
It was an interesting choice. Because it had no positive baggage.
In the 1890s, writer O. Henry escaped to Honduras to avoid embezzlement charges. When he returned to the States in 1904, he wrote a book called Cabbages and Kings, set in the fictitious "Republic of Anchuria."
O. Henry dismissively called it a "banana republic" because it had a crooked government and an economy that teetered on one single export product – bananas.
"Banana republic" entered the lexicon as a slang term for a small corrupt, South American country.
When a friend first heard the name, he told the Zieglers, "Bad choice. You'll be picketed by people from small, hot countries."
But nobody picketed. As a matter of fact, the negative name got a lot of attention.
It did so well, as a matter of fact, that it was bought by the Gap just five years later.
The secret to the success of Banana Republic was the fact it sold a concept, not just clothes. It was "shopvertainment" long before many other retail stores caught on to the trend.
And it succeeded in spite of choosing a name that suggested oppression and corruption.
Today when you walk into a Banana Republic, there is no hint of its past. The jungle theme is gone, as are the safari clothes. The Gap has long ago transitioned the store to feature more sophisticated apparel, feeling it had wrung out everything it could from the metaphor.
The Banana Republic name has no link to its jungle roots whatsoever.
A negative name that became positive that became a non-sequitur.
There is a large chain of grocery stores in Western Canada with the most unusual name.
It is called Overwaitea.
Now why in the world would a food store call itself Overwaitea?
Well, it's an interesting story.
Back in 1915, a man named Robert C. Kidd opened up his first grocery store in New Westminster, B.C.
He was successful because he was a good marketer, and developed some very interesting marketing techniques.
For example, Kidd introduced the concept of "odd penny pricing" in 1915. He would sell four bars of soap for 24 cents instead of a quarter, and two boxes of Corn Flakes cost 13 cents. While other stores rounded up to the nearest nickel, Kidd rounded down to save his customer's some money.
But his best-known marketing strategy involved tea.
Robert Kidd sold Indian and Ceylon tea blends in his store.
One of the ways he stayed ahead of his competition was by including two extra ounces of tea in his one-pound packages: Eighteen ounces for the price of sixteen.
Customers loved that additional free tea so much, they began calling the grocer the "overweight tea store."
The name became so popular that Robert Kidd recognized a marketing advantage when he heard one.
So he adopted the name and shortened it a bit to become "Overwaitea."
The benefit of shopping at his store was now firmly embedded in his name.
And the rest is history.
Today, the Overwaitea Food Group has over 140 stores and 14,000 employees.
It is Canada's largest western-based food store chain, because it is "overweighty" in market share.
Ever had a Fat Bastard?
Lots of people have.
Back in the late '90s, a renowned French winemaker invited his British wine distributor friend, over to his winery to sample a new vintage.
They tasted samples from dozens of barrels, were pleased but not blown away.
Then the French winemaker offered his British friend a taste of an experimental wine that had stayed in a barrel with yeast sediment longer than the other wines.
They noted a dramatic difference - it was an incredibly full-bodied flavour, which prompted the winemaker to exclaim:
"Now zat iz what you call eh phet bast-ard!"
That line made them both laugh out loud.
It would be the only name they ever considered.
Fat Bastard wine was an incredibly unlikely name for a wine back in the '90s, long before quirky names became a trend in wines.
Not only was it kooky, it was borderline offensive in a category known for poetic designations like Chateau Margaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Fat Bastard was a cowbell in a symphony orchestra.
It was launched in 1998. And quickly became the largest selling French Chardonnay in the U.S.
First and foremost – it was the name.
As its winemaker said at the time, most people bought a bottle because of the name, but returned to buy cases because of the quality.
Part of that allure came from the base rudeness of the name. The Fat Bastard winemakers were passionate about wine quality, but didn't appreciate the pretentiousness and intimidation of the wine industry.
Feeling it made wine inaccessible to many potential customers. A feeling I also share about the wine industry, from a marketing point-of-view.
Fat Bastard elbowed its way through the status quo. It was a name that made you smile – it didn't look down its nose at you.
It was simply named after the very expression it evoked on its first tasting.
It was a huge success – except in Iceland. Where a direct mailer for the wine was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority there.
It said the brand name should not have been printed on the front of the mailer where it could cause widespread offence and be seen by children.
But the back of the mailer said it all: "Outrageous name, outrageously good wine."
Maybe you have a hankering for a glass of Fat Bastard at the Heart Attack Grill.
Located in Las Vegas, the Heart Attack Grill aims to be extreme and distasteful.
Founder Jon Basso says they don't want to be popular, they want to be infamous and hated.
The restaurant has a hospital theme, waitresses are dressed like nurses and you are given a hospital gown to wear.
There is a cattle scale in the middle of the restaurant, and if you weight over 350 pounds, you eat free.
The menu is purposely designed to be offensive and as unhealthy as possible, featuring food that is deep-fried in pure lard. You can get the world's thickest milkshakes that are so thick they almost qualify as butter. You can get jello shots from syringes, and wine from intravenous bags.
And now the Heart Attack Grill proudly features the Octuple Burger – with 8 half-pound beef patties and 40 strips of bacon. If you can finish it, a nurse gives you a free wheelchair ride out of the restaurant.
Slogan: A burger to die for.
By the way, if you can't finish what what's on your plate, you get spanked by a nurse in front of the whole restaurant.
Two customers have actually had heart attacks at the grill and were rushed out by paramedics.
Basso says he sells a legal but lethal product. But it's lethal for a reason.
John Basso was once a fitness trainer and started a facility called the "In & Out Workout." Not long after, he was served a serious Cease & Desist letter from the In-N-Out Burger chain for infringing on their trademark. Basso says the company sued him personally, and even went after his house.
The irony of a fitness facility being sued by a burger company wasn't lost on him. He began obsessing over the burger chain's business model of just giving people as much food as they wanted.
That led to an epiphany: Give people what they want but in a way that might actually help them.
That idea became the Heart Attack Grill.
He wanted to open the most unhealthy restaurant in the country to reflect back to society a commentary on its condition.
As Basso says, it's not the nurses and it's not the hamburgers that are the show – it's the customers.
He offers up his restaurant as a kind of "shock therapy."
The more people come, the more people eat, the more people leave feeling uneasy, the more his message about the obesity epidemic gets out.
As founder Basso says on his website:
The Heart Attack Grill rarely advertises because it doesn't have to. It's outrageous name has attracted attention on almost every national media network, it has been the number one trending topic on Twitter, and it has occasionally been ranked by Google as the #1 most searched term on the Internet.
It is a company with a name that should keep people away in droves.
Yet the word-of-mouth has never been greater.
As Basso says, good and evil need each other. That's why the world needs the Heart Attack Grill.
No sane person would buy a ticket on a new airline that proclaims itself to be inexperienced.
No reasonable person would rent a car that promises to be a wreck.
No healthy person would want to buy food from a store that sounds like it promises to make you overweight.
Yet thousands of people fly Virgin, drive Rent-A-Wrecks and do their weekly grocery shopping at Overwaitea.
It takes a fair amount of marketing brinksmanship to make a negative name work - because choosing one places a company well behind the starting line on day one.
But there is a lesson here: A negative name can force a product to be great. It's almost like the name sets a ruthlessly high quality bar the brand must constantly jump over. Kind of a self-induced need to prove otherwise.
Virgin is relentlessly customer-obsessed, Overwaitea strives to be a trusted part of communities, Banana Republic searched the world for excellent clothes and Fat Bastard had to be especially good in a category of fine - and finely named - wines.
Then there's the Heart Attack Grill. Purposely named to be as offensive as possible, letting its grossly unhealthy menu be its statement on obesity.
None of those names should have worked. They broke every marketing rule, no professional naming firm would have recommended them, no focus group would have voted for them.
Yet those companies are successful in a marketplace where thousands of positively named companies have failed.
That's the X factor of a brand name. It just might fly even though it's a lead balloon…
…when you're under the influence.