– Nancy Friedman, Wordworking
In mid-June JetBlue, which since its first flights in 2000 had been a single-class “value” airline, introduced its version of first-class service. To signal this departure—forgive the pun—it didn’t give the service a category name such as JetBlue Business. Nor did it follow its own naming conventions and build on the parent name, as with TrueBlue, the airline’s rewards program. Instead it chose a metaphorical, one-word route and named the new “premium coast-to-coast experience” Mint. The logo is a stylized mint leaf; the web copy and press release are full of minty wordplay—refresh-mint, entertain-mint, Mintroducing.
JetBlue isn’t the first or only airline to pick a name from the produce aisle. Last year, AirAsia Japan rebranded as Vanilla Air, a name intended to convey purity and innocence as well as “emotional excitement.” In 2011, a new budget airline called Peach made its debut, also in Japan. SpiceJet operates domestic and international flights from India; Mango is a state-owned South African budget carrier.
These botanical names are miles away, stylistically and semantically, from traditional airline names, which were derived from their origin (Delta, Alaska, Air France), their range (Pan American, Trans World, Southwest), or their pedigree (KLM is the Dutch initialism for Royal Dutch Air; Lufthansa combines the German words for “air” and “Hanseatic League,” the confederation of Northern European merchant guilds that formed in the late Middle Ages).
Old-style airline names, in other words, told passengers where they were going. The new, evocative names tell passengers how the journey will feel.
The shift actually began three decades ago, with Virgin Atlantic (and later Virgin America). An airline whose name suggested inexperience? Shocking! The very boldness of the name said “We’re completely different from the competition.” JetBlue’s name, while less cheeky, also signals a break with convention and an appeal to the senses; “blue” connotes sky and serenity rather than a specific point on the map.
It’s probably not a coincidence that as airline names have evolved to be more playful and appetizing, most people’s experience of air travel has become the opposite: long, grim lines; manhandling by security agents; shrinking cabin space; surcharges for “amenities” that used to be standard features. The names, by contrast, are the verbal equivalent of air freshener. Inhale that Mint aroma! Take a whiff of Vanilla!
It isn’t only the airline industry that’s finding names in the farmers’ market. Earlier this year ING Direct, which had been bought by Canada’s Scotiabank in 2012, rebranded as Tangerine. (The new name was developed by Sausalito, California, branding agency Lexicon, which has some experience with out-of-context fruit: in 1998 it developed the BlackBerry name.) Southern California–based TomatoBank, which serves wealthy Chinese immigrants, has a red tomato logo. When TomatoBank’s chairman changed the name from InterBusiness Bank in 2006, he explained the decision thus: “It is an attractive brand name that brings to mind images of growth, multi-culture and health, all characteristics that represent who we are and what we strive to achieve. But most importantly, it is a brand that is recognizable and hard to forget. If there can be an Apple Computer—why not a TomatoBank? Try to forget it. You can’t!”
And there’s a veritable orchard of “plum” names: American Express’s deep-purple Plum card; the RedPlum shopping-coupon company; Plum, a magazine for pregnant women over 35; and Freshplum, which enables online retailers to offer exclusive discounts to customers.
Fruity, evocative names have long been commonplace in style-driven industries. Think of the non-airline Mango, a global chain of fashion boutiques; or Juicy Couture, the upscale casual-wear brand. And a stroll through a paint store can make you downright hungry: right now I’m looking at color chips labeled Pineapple, Cool Cucumber, Crème Caramel, Cake Crumbs, Almond Sugar, and Banana Split.
But unlike fashion and home décor, air travel and banking long ago stopped seeming glamorous or gracious. Names like Mint, Tangerine, and Plum represent attempts to bring the fun back. By making ordinary or anxiety-producing activities seem yummy—and even exotic—the new fruit names distract us, tempt us, and fill our brains with appetizing sensory associations.
Is it too much to hope that the brands behind those names will deliver on those tasty promises?