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Writers Unite! Workshop: Those Pesky Brand Names

Recently an author published a story on Amazon.com that included a brand name in the title. With the investigative algorithms that they utilize, Amazon caught it and politely asked the author, who complied immediately, to correct the error. Much effort ensued to change titles, ISBN numbers, and cross-references across the author’s extensive body of work.  

In this case, it was a simple matter of oversight. The author never considered there was an issue. The brand name was so commonplace, it never occurred that using it would be a problem. A lesson that illustrates the care needed to be taken when writing.

This is not to say you can’t use brand names. You can. However, the context that you use them in is essential.

In an article written by Michy and posted on the “Accentuated Authors Services” website, she notes the following:

•    If you have a character crying in your story, she should ask for a tissue, not a Kleenex.
•    If a person is cleaning the bathroom, they should be using bleach and not Clorox.
•    Babies should be wearing diapers, not Pampers.
•    When you order a soft drink, it should be cola not Coke.
•    If cleaning ears, one should use a cotton swab, not a Q-tip.    

The point is that brand names should not be used in describing a generic product that may have numerous other brand identities. However, don’t despair, brand names can be used when identifying something specific. Michy writes that if you are in a football stadium and the Goodyear Blimp flies overhead, it is perfectly acceptable to use its correct name. For a mystery writer like me, she also mentions that if you are identifying evidence in a crime, it is okay to use the brand name and type of a tire or an automobile or other items because it is unique to the situation.

What you must not do is use a brand name in a title. As we learned at the beginning of this discussion, algorithms exist to find such occurrences, and usage will be caught by the company or publisher through Internet searches.

There are times, however, when you can use brand names. If you mention that a character drove a Ford Thunderbird as a young man and loved the car, that is acceptable, but make sure it relates to the plot. The most important thing to remember is never to use a brand name in a derogatory way. Bad-mouthing a company or product is one quick way to receive a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney.

Another critical factor to remember is that brands are fleeting and can date your story quickly. That is why choosing the generic word for a product, if one exists, is essential. You want your reader to relate to the product more than the brand. The fact is using too many brands can lead to your story reading like a commercial. Brands can be distracting, so use them wisely and infrequently.

There is one other area where company names and brands are important. World building is not just a tool of the science-fiction or fantasy writer. All writers build their world, and it is essential to be accurate about location when setting your story in an existing town or city. Remember, some of your readers could live there, so be precise with places and street names, and especially business names. 

I tend to be quite careful about the names of individual businesses when I write. I often set my novels in New Orleans, and I will mention Jackson Square, Café du Monde, Preservation Hall, and other iconic landmarks or businesses but set the action of my story in fictitious locations. Again, this is to keep the possibility of any negative connotation being associated with a real business or brand. You should not, however, use the names of private companies. If your scene calls for action at a restaurant which is in a specific area and there is an actual restaurant there, make up a name for it.

Using the real names of well-known landmarks provides realism to your stories and enhances the reader’s experience. I once had a reader tell me that my description of a small town in California was exactly how she remembered it from growing up. She knew the town square, the ice cream shop I mentioned, and the corner drugstore, and said I must have spent a lot of time in her hometown. The fact is I had never been there, but I utilized Google Map’s street-level view to provide the ambiance and setting for that scene. Her reaction shows that an accurate representation to your reader brings them into your story.

Writing can be a challenge. With so many factors to consider, we must remain cognizant of the issues that can harm our stories. If you do, you will not have to worry about those pesky brand names.  

Resources:
http://accentuateservices.com/archives/567

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