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Punctuation Station: Non-letter Characters in Brand Names

written by MO.com Subject Matter Resource Laurel Sutton

The other day a client asked me about the use of punctuation in company and product names. Until she asked, I hadn’t thought about it all that much, although I’d certainly noticed it when it was staring me in the face.

Take Walmart, for example – and could there be a better example staring you in the face? You can’t get away from their word mark! Although the name is now spelled “Walmart” – no hyphen, all lowercase – from 1992-2008 they used a star to separate the two parts of the name. From what I can find on the web, though, it looks as though they used a hyphen and intercap when writing the name in press releases: Wal-Mart.

Another example is the online stock trader E*TRADE. On their website, they’re pretty fastidious about writing the name in all caps, with the asterisk representing the star: E*TRADE. A quick spin through Google, however, shows it written in every way you can think of: ETrade, E-Trade, E-trade, eTrade, etc. But given the high profile of the brand and the lack of similar names in the space, it probably doesn’t matter how you write it.

Then there’s Toys”R”Us – and I had to look that up to get it right. The logo famously includes the childish backwards R – but how the heck does that translate to print? There’s no backwards R key on my keyboard. (And yes, I am using a Mac.) For their official print name, they’ve taken the backwards R, turned it facing front, capitalized it, put it in double quotes, and gotten rid of the spaces between the words. That’s just too much to remember! And it looks weird. I see what they’re trying to do – calling out the R as different, making sure you remember that it’s all one phrase – but that’s tough to do correctly. It doesn’t help that their domain is toysrus.com and that they use the backwards R as their favicon (the little image that appears in the address bar of your browser). In my opinion, there’s just too much going on.

Lest you think I’m down on the idea of punctuation in names, I want to be clear that I like what E*TRADE has done; I also like the latest version of Siegel+Gale (formerly Siegel & Gale, then Siegelgale, then Siegel & Gale again, and now with 100% more plus sign). It’s short, snappy, and their logo design is very smooth and designery-looking.

Google+ is the newest example of a non-letter character in a name. Unlike their suite of very descriptive product names, such as Google Maps, Google Mail, and Google Apps, they’ve tried to do something more “brand-y” and, in my opinion, only halfway succeeded. Google is counting on you to pronounce the symbol “+” as “plus”, so that the name is actually “Google Plus”, and in fact that’s the web address (http://plus.google.com). That’s a bit of confusion already, since “+” in English could just as easily be interpreted as the word “and”, as in “salt + pepper” (no one on earth has actually uttered the phrase “salt plus pepper”, to my knowledge).

I took a quick look through the US trademark database and there are thousands of marks that use non-standard punctuation and characters. And while there are many brand names that use hyphens, very few use asterisks, plus signs, or other less-expected punctuation. So while there are certainly some challenges with using punctuation in a name, we feel that a company can gain a tremendous advantage by having a unique name with graphic impact – as long as you can easily and consistently translate it to plain text.

Punctuate responsibly!

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