Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Brand Names and World Building

I write book length fantasy and near future SF in short story length, so I build worlds. It will sound nerdy but I love it. I love reading about history and sociology. The study of linguistics for instance and how language can not only define your place in the world, but how you see the world fascinates me.

Because I write science fiction and fantasy, I don't write much that is set in our contemporary world. But recently I've been reading books from the incredibly popular Dark Urban Fantasy genre (DUF). These have been fun and easy to read, with good pacing and likable characters.

Coming fresh to the DUF genre, one of the things I noticed was the use of brand names in the narrative. In theory it is like writing in short hand. The author doesn't need to explain what the car/watch looks like, they just give the brand. This brand name will tell the reader the character's social status and wealth or lack of it.

As long as the reader knows the brands. I don't.

I found some of the books so heavy on brand name usage that it was like reading an SF book, where the author introduces a lot of invented nouns. At least in an SF book the author will plant clues in the narrative to explain the meaning of the invented nouns. With brand names the author assumes you know all the associations.

Brand names in contemporary narratives. What do you think of this?


John Lambshead said...

I think it depends on the market. Shopping &, um, Fondling novels were all about brand names.

Brand names do immediately socially place a character and tell you something about their character.

He wears: Levi, Armani, Saville Row, shorts.

He drives: Mini, Ford, Lotus, Mercedes, Trabat.

He eats: organic food, pate de foie gras, KFC.

He votes: Liberal, Tory, Labour, Loony Party.

He reads: Chekhov, Waugh, Lambshead.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi John,

I'm Ok with someone eating organic food, reading Chekhov, or driving a Mercedes. The food is descriptive, and everyone's heard of Chekhov and Mercedes.

But I don't know what an Escalade looks like. Apparently, it is a fancy US car.

Kate said...

Aha! That list of voting preferences would have a completely different context in the US, too, John.

There's a kind of cultural blindness to brand-name tagging: it assumes that the audience actually knows the brands in question and has the same brand associations as the writer.

That can have some... interesting results in places where the brand isn't know, or has a totally different association.

More detail tonight, when I'm not sneaking time from work.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, this "branding" is one of the things that bothers me about a number of books these days. Don't get me wrong. I might have a character in my UF who drinks a Coke, goes to Starbucks or drives a Mustang. But I try not to get too heavy with it because it seems like cutting corners to me. By relying on branding -- and on the readers' ability to recognize the branding and know exactly what I'm referring to -- I'm not fully setting the scene.

I love a writer who can tell me their character just had a cup of fitlia (okay, it's morning and I haven't had coffee yet) and I know by the end of the paragraph what it tastes like, smells like, looks like, if it's served hot or cold, what sort of cup it's served in, etc. That weaving of words with sensation is lost when you say Joe drank his morning can of Coke.

So, I guess as long as you don't overdo the branding, it's okay. But when the book becomes a commercial for various brands, it's too much, imo.

C Kelsey said...

This is one of those things that those of us here in the US are especially blind too.

Just FYI Rowena, an Escalade is a long running type of Cadillac car here in the US. It is generally considered to be the equivalent of a Mercedes. Built by our wonderfully failing GM. :)

But you make the point very well. Escalade draws a very clear image of status, personality, perhaps even hinting at what the characters job is and where he lives when I hear the word. And that cultural blindness means I wouldn't have batted an eye describing something to you that way.

Here's an interesting concept that I've recently encountered in real life. Someone told me that a specific group of people could generally be taken as having a fifth grade education (so they are equivalent in education to those in the fifth year of primary schooling, if that means anything). That draws a fuzzy image in my head of what this person may or may not know. But when you try to nail down specifics (can they read a map, what sort of math do they know, what's their knowledge of history, etc.) it becomes almost meaningless. The education will be different in Australia, the UK, and it is even different between states here.

So on a whole, brand names (or common titles/names/uses) have a great use when the audience knows precisely what they are, but if there is any doubt then it is probably best to go with a brand name *and* the explicit details necessary to paint the image.

Dave Freer said...

The big problem with brand names - besides the fact that I am abysmal at them - What do I care if the heroine smokes manolo blahniks and wears peep-toe black russian Sobranies (my natural fur is best I tell you. To smoke too) is that they date (he got into his new De Soto Firedome and drove off into the night listening to Ellis in Wonderland on his Bakelite radio...) and have local context as often as not.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Yes, Amanda, it's short cut writing that relies on shared cultural references.

If the guy picked up an open can of warm flat coke and drank it along with last night's cold pizza, that would be more evocative, telling us more about him and his life style.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey. I take your point about a fifth grade education. In Australia we have a show where public people/celebrities are pitted against clever 10 year olds. It's called something like 'Are you brighter than a 5th grader?'

It's probably based on a US show. But even within Australia, some stated start their children a year later than the state I live in.We have a standardised test to assess how the kids are going with maths and english. It's held in grades 3, 3, 7 and 9. My state always does worse than the southern states because our children are all a year younger in these grades.

And here is another difference. In Australia, the further north you go and the hotter it is and the more 'red neck' people are considered.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, like you I know nothing about brand names. They don't register on my radar.

If I buy shoes or clothes it is because they are what I need. Brand means so little to my family that my daughter was going out with a guy for two months when he said, he liked driving the BMW and she said, Oh, is your red car a BMW?

C Kelsey said...

We do have a show here in the US called "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?" The show is hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy is known all over the US for his very popular "you might be a redneck if..." comedy routine.

KylieQ said...

To an extent, brand names jolt me out of the world. I'm left sitting there, either wondering what on earth an obviouslyexclusivebrandI'veneverheardof is or wondering whether the writer had to pay to include that reference.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kylie, I wondered if I was the only one who was suspicious if brand names appeared in a best selling book.

The other thing that gets to me, is that it makes me wonder about people who judge/describe others, even characters in books, by the kind of car they drive and the brand on their clothing.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. The use of brand names always gives me a vaguely uneasy feeling. I start to squirm and begin to experience an undefined sort of annoyance with the writer. Maybe I'm just not into status - or at least not into the typically recognised versions of it.

Just because a protagonist wears a beGizmo watch does not make me like him - probably the opposite.

I can't help but think its a bit of a cop out. Plus I don't know most of the brands used in typical thriller type books, so its incomprehensible anyway.

I guess its probably down to the market. I'm sure these names have a magic 'ting' sound to people who read this stuff avidly.

Kate said...

The biggest issue I have with scattering brand names around is that it's usually done as a cheat. Instead of actual character development Author X drops in the brand name, which is supposed to tell readers all we need to know about that person.

He drives a BMW, she uses Chanel No 5, etc... Except his BMW could be the antique he lovingly restored and poured his heart and soul into and he mourns every scratch - or maybe it's the closest to a luxury car he can afford. And so forth.

Shortcutting character development by dropping brand names like rats jumping the Titanic ultimately doesn't say anything about the character, and yes, it irritates me even when I do know the brands.

Actually using common brands - or creating your own - by having a character who does judge by brand name do exactly that is, of course, a different beast.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, it annoys me too.

I don't know most of the brands mentioned and I feel like there's a club I'm not part of with a secret language.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, good point about the BMW.

If it has nostalgic value, then it tells us something about the character and his relationship with Aunt Agatha, who the car belonged to.

Anonymous said...

This tendency annoys the living daylights out of me. Not just brand names (which is a sneaky form of advertising to boot), but other cultural references as well. I wrote a post about that last week:
In short: I wish writers would stop doing it.

Nyssa said...

I had a problem a few weeks back with a book that mentioned a medicine brand and I had no idea what it was. After I finished the book I looked it up and it turned out to be similar to Buscopan (an Aussie name for a medicine that helps sore stomachs).

I'm not sure if the book is available in other languages, but how would it translate if even in the English speaking world I have no idea what it is?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Great post. Good points, especially the one about having a large immigrant population. We have that in Australia.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Nyssa, I've come across this, too.

Something happens, the writer's character tosses off a comment, 'Wish I'd taken some XXX'.

This is no help. I have to guess that XXX is a medicine to help settle queasy stomachs which leads me to deduce that what has happened has made the character feel unsettled and nauseous.

By the time I've done this, I've been thrown out of the story.

I wondered if I'd been feeling unnecessarily annoyed by the use of brand names, now I know it isn't just me!

Anonymous said...

I don't mind brand names - they do date, but that's half the fun. I do mind them being used as pure shorthand - "He drove an Escalade" is potentially (and inevitably probably) meaningless for many people. "He drove a sleek black Escalade", or "She wore professionally-torn, pre-battered, custom-bleached blue Levis" is a lot more meaningful and combines actual description with the handy reference of a brand name.

Anyway, saying "he wore levis" reminds me of the skit where people walk in, are asked where they got a piece of clothing they are wearing and answer "From David Jones", followed at last by a (semi) nude person who answers "Who are you?!" with "I'm David Jones!"

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Tanaudel -- I remember that skit!

Do they have David Jones in the US and the UK?

Kate said...


No David Jones in the US. None of the department store or grocery chains are the same - and neither are most of the "everyday" clothing brands.

Jason Cordova said...

There's nothing like naming your city "Tako Bel" to see people have conniptions...

Anonymous said...

Jason: flashbacks of "Demolition Man" ensue :-D