The Genuine Article: A Word About Brand Names

Before I get into how to use brand names, I want you to ask yourself whether you actually need to use brand names in your fiction. There are really only a couple of reasons to include them in the first place. Typically, the actual brand is less important than the way your characters feel about the object you’re talking about. Your purpose is to show the reader the world as your character sees it, right? Unless he’s focused on the brand name, why include one?

It might be crucial to include the make of car your character drives if he derives some part of his identity from that sort of thing, and if that detail is important to the story. If he has come down firmly on the Ford side in the pickup truck wars, and if that’s part of the story, then by all means include it. If that doesn’t turn up in the story, then it’s not a necessary detail for your reader’s purposes, and you should consider cutting it. There might be a reason (other than brevity) that you have to say Ferrari instead of “low-slung Italian sports car,” but you’re going to have to convince me that reason exists.

Regardless of how important the details are, name-dropping is a bad idea. Every so often, I see manuscripts laden with brand names tacked to almost everything the character touches. It looks a bit like product placement. It’s clunky and unnecessary.  Inevitably, I end up cutting a great many of those names.

Often, a deft description eliminates the necessity for name dropping. If I mentioned the flash of red visible at the sole of my character’s shoe, I’ve described the way she’s moving and hinted that she’s wearing Louboutins at the same time. I’ve shown you Louboutin without telling you. But be careful. The mark I’m using belongs to Louboutin, so I can’t make up some other brand with that signature sole.

That paragraph, by the way, is an argument for ducking the brand name altogether if you can. See how cumbersome it gets toward the end? Trust your reader. If she doesn’t pick up that you’re talking about the Louboutin brand, she will get from your description that your character is wearing something expensive. On the other hand, if you say Louboutin, and she doesn’t know what a Louboutin is, that’s going to be a problem, right?

If I haven’t talked you out of using the brand name yet, here’s what you need to do with them.

Your primary concern is to get the name right. Get the apostrophe in the right place for Jack Daniel’s. Hyphenate the Crock-Pot. Capitalize Coke. You may have to spend a little time double checking these, but I tried to talk you out of doing this in the first place, remember?

Now that you’ve locked yourself in to that one brand name, you’ll need to get the details right. Does that car actually come in a hybrid? Does that shoe come with an ankle strap? If the answer’s no, and you insisted on a brand, now you have to find another brand. People notice details like that, and no one’s happy when you get them wrong.

There are a couple of legal issues to consider, too. It is my specific intention not to discuss them here because such a discussion is awfully close to legal advice. I do recommend (in a non-lawyerly way) Mark Fowler’s blog post entitled “Can I Mention Brand Name Products in My Fiction?” His treatment of these issues is concise and well written.

Consider your alternatives. Be careful. And remember, if there’s a way for you to get out of this without name-dropping, it’s okay to go for it.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

3 thoughts on “The Genuine Article: A Word About Brand Names

  • Great advice, Lexi. Readers have told me that using generic terms is a cop-out, like “a toaster pastry that’s filled with brown sugar and cinnamon.” We all know we mean Pop-Tarts, right? (And by the way, is there any better flavor Pop-Tart than brown sugar cinnamon? I actually prefer the unfrosted variety.)

    Anyway, why not just say “Pop-Tarts”?

    Your explanation, as always, is clear and understandable. Even now, as I write this comment, I’m wondering if I have to add the (R) symbol behind “Pop-Tarts.” And I had to take five minutes to search the Kellogg’s site to make sure of the hyphen.

    Is it worth it? I suppose I’d have to try to put myself in the reader’s position, to figure out if the use of a generic term will bump the reader out of the story to either figure out what I mean, or in frustration with my avoidance of the brand name.

    Interesting topic!

    • Hey, Leah!

      This is a great example. You need to say ‘Pop-Tarts’ here. The alternative is, as you’ve noted, the awkward, inelegant, and fairly obvious effort to avoid using the brand name that will irritate and frustrate the reader. Brevity is generally a good reason to use the brand name instead of leaving your reader (and your editor) that lengthy mouthful of words to chew on. I would ask you to verify that you could get the brown sugar cinnamon ones and that they look like what you’re saying they look like, and then we’d be good to go.

      (Those were good ones, too, by the way — an American classic! I prefer the frosted cherry ones myself.)

      What I would ding you for is this:

      “She pushed two Pop-Tarts into her Toastmaster Pop-Up Toaster and leaned against the Sub-Zero integrated refrigerator. Sunday morning came around too quickly these days. Should she wash down her breakfast with some Minute Maid Country Style Orange Juice or with another hit of Smirnoff Whipped Cream vodka? She rubbed her eyes, hoping clearer thought would come with clearer vision, and noticed her OPI Nail Lacquer was chipped.”

      There’s no reason for all that when you could do the job just as easily thus:

      “She pushed two Pop-Tarts into the toaster and leaned against the fridge. Sunday morning came around too quickly these days. Should she wash down her breakfast with some nice, pulpy OJ or take another hit of whipped cream vodka? She rubbed her eyes, hoping clearer thought would come with clearer vision, and noticed a hefty chip in her nail polish.”

      I just think that reads more easily, although I might consider putting the Smirnoff back.

      You can keep whipped cream vodka without the brand name because Smirnoff isn’t the only company making it. If you want to get at the elegance of the kitchen, make the fridge stainless steel and upgrade the floor. If it’s not so pricey, downgrade the fridge so that the handle’s sticking into her back and put linoleum on the floor.

      You don’t have to put in the (R) unless your character or your narrator actually said “Pop-Tarts Arr.” I can think of a couple of reasons you might want to do that, but they’re pretty isolated cases.

      That’s a great question. Thanks!

  • Lot’s to consider here, and I’ve heard your brand name advice before. I think twice about using one now, and if I don’t want to stop at that point, I’ll attempt to find an alternative when editing (See? Some people listen to you). What was interesting to me in your article is the importance of not assuming your reader has the same vocabulary as the writer; as with your example of the Louboutin .I agree, and it has been an uphill battle (after graduate school) to write in simpler terms, and still convey what I see in my head.

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