Generally, when you think about the types of people involved in branding, copy writing or marketing, you probably don’t think of linguists. Instead you, like me, probably think of ‘creative types’ – whatever that may mean. But actually, linguistics, and in particular corpus analysis, can play a valuable role in decisions about wording.
Imagine that you want to rename your company. With the help of a creative agency you have probably created a shortlist of candidate names, all of which you would be happy with. What can you base your final decision on? You can of course google each of the words and see if they are being used by other companies. This is an important step. But suppose you’ve come up with three really great words that have not been used by similar companies before. What next?
One thing you could do is try to understand the connotations and association of the three words in everyday usage, perhaps even in specific contexts. Words all have ‘baggage’ in that they carry multiple meanings and associations derived from the contexts and co-texts in which they are used. The word ‘crusty’ for example is quite specific and not used in too many contexts. Mostly it is used in the context of fresh bread. This is quite an obvious and a positive association.
However, can you be sure that this is the only association? You could ask a few people what they associate with the word and you may get a few different answers. But a more efficient and reliable way of doing this is to look the word up in a corpus.
A corpus is a large collection of language organised in a systematic way and stored digitally. It can be written language or transcribed spoken language. One of the most well-known corpora (plural of corpus) is the British National Corpus (BNC). It consists of 100 million words of “samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of British English from the later part of the 20th century” (http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/corpus/). A newer and much larger (1.9 billion words) corpus is the Corpus of Global Web-based English (GloWbE). It consists of language collected from 1.8 million web pages in 20 different English-speaking countries.
These and other corpora allow you to search for a particular word or phrase that you are interested in and look at hundreds of examples of how it is used. You can also ask the software that holds the corpus to give you information about which words frequently occur within, say 4 words of your search term (i.e. look for ‘collocates’). In this way you can easily make an educated judgement about the suitability of the word for your purposes.
Going back to ‘crusty’: if you search for it in GloWbE, you’ll find that aside from the obvious and positive association with fresh bread, there are also a few negative associations when it is used with words such as ‘skin’, ‘feet’ and ‘hippies’. You’ll also be able to tell that although these links exist, they are relatively weak. Now you have something concrete to go on when deciding whether to use ‘crusty’ in your company name or not (My suggestion: if you’re selling bread, then go for it – see the success of Upper Crust; but if not, you may want to reconsider). If you have several alternative words or phrases, these can each be explored in turn and compared for their relative advantages and disadvantages.
I wouldn’t suggest in any way that corpus analysis can replace more common branding and marketing techniques. But I would argue that it can be helpful and complementary to other strategies, often giving tangible support for ‘intuitions’.