It used to be the case that, when it came to brand names, words with any kind of negative associations were persona non grata. That’s why you don’t see them attached to many – or really any – companies founded over a decade or two ago. However, as the discipline of creative commercial storytelling developed, brands began to experiment with how to use the “glare” and edge surrounding traditionally negative language to their advantage. And when done right, it really paid off.

But what does “doing it right” look like when it comes to making your brand synonymous with a piece of language known to make people frown, fret or flee in the other direction?

Champion a different mindset.

It’s imperative that any negative language applied in a name be done so in service of championing a different type of product, a different type of mindset or, ideally, both. Take Urban Decay, a makeup brand launched in the mid-90s. During that time, the cosmetics industry was, by and large, defined by a traditional and non-inclusive interpretation of beauty. It was saturated with pretty pinks, sensual reds, soft beiges, and an overwhelmingly feminine tone.

The founders of Urban Decay saw this as an opportunity to really disrupt this segment of the market. The brand launched with a handful of nail polishes and lipsticks in colors reflective of the grit of an urban landscape. With products like Smog, Roach and Oil Slick, these beauty essentials favored greens, grays and browns, and were designed to starkly contrast the Dusty Roses and Cherry Blossoms seen in spades on every corner of the cosmetics counter. What Urban Decay did was shocking. But it was also extremely insightful.

And the name they chose reflected both sides of that coin by celebrating a belief that beauty can be found in the historically overlooked. By connecting language often related to the idea of disgust with the notion of glamour and style, Urban Decay was effectively challenging the marketplace to rethink the norms and standards surrounding what beauty “looks like” as well as who can possess it. Which required a name that would stun people into sitting up and taking notice.

Engulf the name with reinforcing content.

It’s just as important you support such a name with an abundance – if not an over-abundance – of rich and strategically rigorous content that mirrors its tone and sensibility.

Look at Liquid Death, a company that sells canned water. The brand was created because its founder believed something was missing from the category. Water that is fun. Water that is “punk rock”. Water with a vibe that is diametrically opposed to the image of luxury and purity almost all other packaged water brands were striving to achieve. Because why shouldn’t drinking water be as hardcore as slamming back a whiskey, or as amusing as pounding a beer?

With that in mind, the brand was launched with a name that caricaturized the notion of being a hard-core party animal. And it immediately and consistently unleashed an immersive world of messaging, merchandise, and multi-media experiences that shared the same cheeky, rebellious, ridiculously fun attitude. The result? The brand quickly developed a cult-like following and was able to grow its annual revenue to over $125 million in just 5 years, all while selling a fully commoditized good.

There’s no arguing that crafting a name using language that carries negative connotations is a bit of a risky business. But the strategy shouldn’t be immediately discounted. If your product, mindset and marketplace circumstances are right, and you’re willing and able to make the necessary level of investment to thoughtfully and creatively build your brand in a disciplined way, that “negative” name may be just the x-factor you need to stand out and start all the right conversations

– By Tanya Gustafson