Conveying Personality While Conveying People

Conveying Personality While Conveying People

An old friend recently asked for advice on a project to find an attractive name for the neighborhood that is the heart of his hometown. This got us to thinking about names in the urban landscape. Do these reflect similar thinking to the brand names we develop at Lexicon for products, companies, and services? For answers we focused on some transit and shuttle services in our region.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s rapid transit system, BART, was a natural choice, standing as it does for Bay Area Rapid Transit. However utilitarian, though, it is anything but prosaic. In fact, it may be the most attractive name for a rapid transit system in the U.S. Like MTA (Los Angeles and New York), MBTA (Boston), CTA (Boston), and RTD  (Denver), BART is an acronym. Yet of these, it’s the only one pronounced as a word rather than as a set of letters. This is also true of MARTA (Atlanta), but BART has the advantage of being just one syllable long, and brevity is a great way to symbolize the rapid in rapid transit – even if that promise isn’t carried out 100% of the time.

BART’s brevity also gives it a one-syllable advantage over the cute name for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation System, the Muni. Like Rapid (Cleveland), BART is already an English word – but the word BART works better than Rapid not just because it’s shorter but also because it’s a familiar first name. This adds a human element to the wheels that move people around the region.

How convenient, too, that the sounds of BART express the system’s mission so effectively, as shown by our studies of sound symbolism at Lexicon. The literally exudes power – it’s the most powerful sounding vowel of English, simply because it’s pronounced with the mouth wide open. The b at the beginning ranks high in Lexicon’s studies for boldness and comfort; the r is also high in comfort, and the crisp final t correlates with speed and efficiency. As a result of all these linguistic properties, BART’s name achieves what many names try for without seeming the least bit contrived.

The tiny town of Emeryville, directly across the bay from San Francisco, has for many years operated a free shuttle that circles the town. The shuttle’s name: Emery Go Round. Its playfulness offsets the dullness of its routine and the blandness of the vans, the same type of lumbering, lunging wagons that take airport passengers to rental car agencies. Related to this is the vans’ color scheme: white with lively blue and yellow trim, a cheery addition to Emeryville’s mostly dreary streets.

Occupying a different position on the cleverness spectrum is the shuttle that connected the UC Berkeley campus to the nearest BART station in the 1970’s, the Humphrey Go-Bart. The play on the name of the actor was overly cute, on the one hand, and puzzling on the other, since there was no apparent connection between the service and either Bogart the actor or the name Humphrey. The name didn’t last long. It was phased out after a challenge from the Bogart estate and replaced by the lackluster Bear Transit.

Stanford University’s shuttle, which began to operate a shuttle around the same time as UC Berkeley, carries the name Marguerite. The name seems odd at first but the explanation – it is named after the favorite horse of Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders – connects with the past, when the university campus was the Stanford family’s “farm.” The French origin of the name Marguerite adds a touch of class – not to say overt elitism. How clever, too, to use the name of a horse to conjure nimbleness in a shuttle bus.

BART, Emery Go Round, and Marguerite reflect wildly different naming strategies, yet all add to the scenery of the Bay Area in a way that good architecture does. Mindless names, like cookie-cutter buildings, merely clutter the landscape. The same goes for brands. Bland, generic names like Easy-Pro and Reddi-Swift huddle in the shadows of creative, evocative names such as Dasani, Febreze, and Scion. Brands which instead strike a blow against the ordinary for our popular culture.