Marvel vs. DC: May the Best Names Win!

Superman vs. Batman. Captain America: Civil War. 2016 is the year of epic battles. There’s a battle that isn’t getting press this summer—the decades old battle between Marvel and DC comics.

Identical Super-Powers, Different Names

Since the 1930’s the behemoth comic book publishers have been in a race to capture the attention of readers young and old, but their tactics have been suspect. When one publisher released a character with unique powers, the other released a similar character with nearly identical powers and different names. The result—each character seemingly has a doppelganger in a parallel universe. These equivalents are almost everywhere you look: for Deadpool it’s Deathstroke, for Catwoman it’s Black Cat, and for Magneto it was Dr. Polaris. But while their powers could be used for good or evil, we’re more interested in the power of their names.

What makes a great superhero name anyway? Is it the same as what makes a great product name? Can we compare superhero names as we would competing brands like Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb? This is the comparison we recently completed, studying characters from both the Marvel Comics and DC Comics worlds. Whether it’s about branding or superheroes, good naming is always about the power of suggestion, depth of character and the role the name plays in the bigger story. When it comes to competitive run-ups, one name is always superior to another. Let’s be honest, Lyft, as a name, when compared to Uber, isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling. A Lyft is just a lift. An Uber is a better way. This is true for superhero names too. Electro isn’t nearly as compelling or powerful sounding as Black Lightning.

A Superhero by Any Other Name

In the spirit of epic battles, we pitted the most notable superheroes from both universes against each other. As a template of scrutiny, we used the same kind of criteria we’d use to create product brand names. The winner isn’t the hero who is faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, but the hero with the name that, from a brand perspective is:

  1. More than just a label or sound-alike name
  2. Viscerally or emotionally compelling in and of itself
  3. Able to paint a dramatically compelling and expansive picture in people’s minds
  4. Highly memorable
  5. Linguistically advantageous, when applicable

Let the Battle Begin

Captain America (Marvel) vs. Commander Steel (DC)
The term captain always pulls rank on commander. Captain America is also more memorable and moving than Commander Steel, because it offers more specific imagery and richer and more diverse associations. In red, white and blue, Captain America paints a dramatically rich picture in your mind. Though the image of steel is vivid, it’s more abstract, cold and two-dimensional. The Marvel name takes the prize.

Ant-Man (Marvel) vs. Atom (DC)
Both names play off the idea that a lot of power can come in a small package. But associations with the word ant are weak in comparison to associations with the word atom. When it comes to super-powers, which name paints the most dramatically compelling picture in your mind? I bet it’s Atom. Nothing like an atomic blast to blow your enemies away! The DC name prevails.

Dark Knight (aka Batman, DC) vs. Moon Knight (Marvel)
The clear winner here is Dark Knight. Talk about a compelling name. His name is a measure of his bad attitude, which is his greatest and most feared strength. Dark Knight is more hard-hitting than Moon Knight, because dark is the more ominous, bold word. The word moon has a softer sound than dark, so it’s less effective, linguistically. The word knight when paired with dark, offers richer, more expansive imagery than moon. All said, Moon Knight just sounds like a cheap knock-off of Dark Knight. The DC name wins.

Flash (DC) vs. Quicksilver (Marvel)
Both names are solid, but Flash is better. Both mean fast, but linguistically and semantically, Flash is fastest. Also, the simple, suggestive nature of the name Flash is more elegant and more dramatically engaging than Quicksilver, which feels forced in comparison. The DC names gets the gold star.

Aquaman (DC) vs. Namor (Marvel)
As a name, Namor (no pun intended) crushes Aquaman. Yes, being a water man may be compelling to some, but there’s just no drama in this ho-hum name. Namor, though we may not know exactly what it means, intrinsically sounds more powerful, foreboding and mysterious than Aquaman. The only downside to Namor is that it’s not as memorable as Aquaman, which paints a more vivid and specific image in your mind. But Marvel still takes this naming trophy.

Cyborg (DC) vs. Deathlok (Marvel)
Cyborg. If you want to be a superhero, or have one on your side, Cyborg instantly provokes the more desirable and tangible image in your mind. His name is a well defined, well understood, image-rich word. It not only suggests power, as Deathlock does in a more primitive way, but it also suggests advanced technology. This implies that Cyborg’s power is smarter and more sophisticated than Deathlock’s. Score another win for a DC name.

Hawkeye (Marvel) vs. Green Arrow (DC)
Hawkeye. His name is more dramatically compelling. As mere humans, we would much rather have the super-powerful vision of a hawk than an arrow. Plus, arrows are pretty lame when fighting aliens, mutants, and humans with super powers or the best weapons money can buy (Batman). The Marvel name triumphs.

Superman (DC) vs. Hyperion (Marvel)
And last, but not least, Superman is best! There’s no drama in the name Hyperion. It’s just not compelling. If you’re going to be a super hero with the ability to fly, see through walls, shoot heat rays from your eyes, and have superhuman strength, you can’t get much better than an apex name like Superman. Except maybe super, superman. The DC name overpowers the Marvel name.

Naming Victory for DC

When it comes to creating super-hero brand names, DC delivers a crushing 5 to 3 win based on our naming criteria. The question is, can DC effectively leverage the power of their superhero brand names to turn the tide of the ongoing war to win over audiences.

Post by Nik Contis

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