Girdle Revival: The Foundations of Good Brand Naming

By Beth Gerber

March 31, 2011

If you ever asked me for evidence of how far good brand naming can take a company, my Exhibit A would be Spanx. For those of you who live under a rock or aren’t women (or both), Spanx is the hip underwear company that’s been smoothing the thighs, middles and other flab-alanche prone areas of the female anatomy since 2000. (They’ve also recently launched a men’s line.)

Now I don’t wear Spanx. And I may never wear Spanx. But if ever there was a brand name that might tempt me to consider the notion of (let’s use the proper term here) girdling my body in tight, uncomfortable material, Spanx would be said name. Exuberant and slightly naughty (could spandex have gotten a saucier makeover?) the name is as far from the notion of your grandmother’s girdle as you could possibly get. And that’s precisely what’s engaging about it. Spanx has actually made one of the symbols of old-fashioned, constricted womanhood sound positively sexy and adventurous. To a large number of women! (Spanx’s retail sales topped $750 million globally in 2008 alone.)

Apparently, the company has engineered a number of improvements over the old-fashioned girdle with its body-shapers. But even if they hadn’t, I venture the packaging alone would have gotten a fair number of women to try something from their product lines—if only once. As it is, the quality of the undergarments, supported by the company’s subversive marketing, has managed to revive a whole category of products in the fashion industry. And I call that brilliant. Simply brilliant.

Not so brilliant (or simple) is the way Spanx has handled the naming of its burgeoning offerings—what we in the naming business call its naming architecture.

This month, for instance, Spanx released its Bra-Cha-Cha, the strapless bra that promises to stay in place (no small feat, as any woman who’s worn a strapless bra can attest). So far, so good. In tonality the name matches the tongue-in-cheekiness of the mother brand, and it cleverly evokes the bra’s key benefit (you can dance ‘til the cows come home without worrying about exposing your bust). But wait, Spanx also offers a group of Bra-llelujah! bras—and it’s not so clear what these bras have in common or why they’re different from the other bras in the Spanx arsenal. (Or what makes them worthy of hosannas, for that matter.) And then there are the proprietary names for each of Spanx’s collections of body shapers…. Slim Cognito. Slimplicity. Hide & Sleek. Haute Contour. Skinny Britches. Mama Spanx….You get the idea.

I don’t want to be a spoilsport. I love these names! They’re clever, they’ve got attitude, they showcase the mother brand’s premise. But with the exception of Haute Contour (Spanx’s lacy lingerie collection) and Mama Spanx, they don’t get at what distinguishes one collection from another. Or why there are different collections at all. Here’s an instance where an overgrowth of clever, proprietary names actually obscures distinctions that are meaningful to consumers, rather than showcasing them. What’s needed is a dispassionate eye and a firm hand to whip things into shape: streamlining the naming architecture and employing more descriptive, transparent terminology in certain instances, to make it easier for consumers to find what they want.

Bottom line: with brand names, as with body shape, sometimes less is more.

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