Why the + Is Everywhere

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The plus sign is everywhere in the world of branding. It’s cool (sort of), capacious, and wholly unoriginal. At least it’s difficult to mock.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


The Power of the Plus

The other day, while reading an article in The Wall Street Journal about 23andMe’s glamorous rise and disappointing fall, I came across one line that I couldn’t stop thinking about: “As media companies launched streaming ‘+’ channels, [Anne] Wojcicki rolled out 23andMe+.” This detail gave me pause—here, too? But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the CEO of a biotech company had tacked on the symbol. The humble plus sign has become a hallmark branding tool in tech, media, TV streaming, and beyond.

Streaming in particular is an industry overrun by the trend. At this point, nearly every streaming service has a plus sign at the end of its name: Apple TV+, AMC+, ESPN+, BET+, Disney+, Paramount+. The symbol apparently has roots as far back as the 1980s, with a French TV channel called Canal+. (Hulu, one of the holdouts, actually ditched its plus—from 2010 to 2015, the service was known as Hulu Plus before becoming just Hulu.) As I wrote earlier this week, streaming companies are struggling to mature and trying to gain revenue wherever they can, often by copying one another. In a competitive streaming market, adopting the plus is an easy bet.

The plus sign is stark and clean, not stiff like the ampersand. It has apparent operational benefits too: The sign can be relatively easy to get through legal red tape. The visual experience of the sign calls to mind a crossroads, and the symmetry and right angles are pleasing, suggesting harmony and balance, Marcel Danesi, a semiotician at the University of Toronto, told me. Unlike a word, which might serve to delimit a product’s meaning in the eyes of consumers, the plus is an open, capacious sign, he said. When placed at the end of a name, it can be a helpful way to signal, without getting too specific or wordy, that a service is providing added value.

Tech companies have lately demonstrated the challenge of finding the right words when naming new products. Consider Google—the company’s AI models are named Gemini Ultra, Gemini Nano, and Gemini Pro. As Casey Newton said recently on the podcast Hard Fork, “The fact that we’re living in a world where there is something called Google Assistant with Bard, powered by Gemini Pro, does make me want to lie down.” Google has its own fraught history with the plus: The company struggled for years to make its social-media site Google+, sometimes called G+, catch on. After launching it, in 2011, Google quietly wound it down in 2019. Though people found fault with Google+ early and often, the symbol itself wasn’t the problem. One appeal of the plus sign is that there’s not much there to mock. Other names, meanwhile, open themselves up to more risk: The name Max was met with online ridicule when HBO rolled out its new branding—even from its competitor Peacock, which tweeted something surprisingly crude about the name.

The + can be a way for a company to zhuzh up an existing product or to try to encourage consumers to pay more for an exclusive tier. But a plus sign, of course, can’t save a company if customers don’t want what it’s offering or find it too expensive. The subscriber-only + venture from 23andme, for example, apparently didn’t do very well: Asked about lower-than-projected subscriber numbers, Wojcicki told the Journal, “There’s nothing else to say other than that we were wrong.”

Using the sign has many pluses (sorry). But eventually, after seeing any sign too many times, people tend to become habituated and start to ignore it, Danesi warned: What was once grabby and punchy “seeps below the threshold level of awareness.” In other words, plus-sign overload is coming, if it’s not already here.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The U.S. military carried out air and missile strikes in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for a recent drone attack that killed three American service members in Jordan.
  2. U.S. employers added 353,000 jobs last month, more than December’s gain and roughly double the number that economists had predicted.
  3. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Nathan Wade, a prosecutor on her Georgia criminal case against Donald Trump, admitted to having a “personal” relationship but rebuffed calls for her to remove herself from the case.

Dispatches

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

A hand holding a wooden trident
Matt Chase for The Atlantic

The New Luddites Aren’t Backing Down

By Brian Merchant

In 2023, the biggest story in tech was the rise of OpenAI and Silicon Valley’s embrace of generative AI. This year, the technology may grow only further entrenched: OpenAI is attempting to make its flagship product, ChatGPT, a stickier part of daily life with the launch of a new app store, and the company has inked deals with institutions such as Axel Springer and Arizona State University to broaden its reach. But in contrast to many previous tech trends, this story includes a grassroots movement amassing to resist the change … many of those who have joined proudly embrace the mantle of Luddite. Yes, the industry continues on its march, collecting huge investments to rapidly accelerate the development of this controversial technology. But the events of the past several months have demonstrated that, on some key fronts, the Luddites are winning.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

An image of firefighters putting out a wildfire
Ken Steinhardt / The Orange County Register / AP

Read. In a new memoir, The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History, Manjula Martin wonders what it will be like to live through the end of California.

Watch. Argylle (out now in theaters) borrows from a lot of very recent spy-thriller history, David Sims writes.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Naming has never been tech’s strongest suit: For the past decade+, consumers have had to put up with egregious misspellings of common words, inelegant portmanteaus, and consonant-heavy mouthfuls. But I didn’t realize until coming across Erin Griffith’s 2020 report on the matter just how many tech companies have had names that indicate speed: Zoom, Zumi, Zum, Zoomforth … The list goes on!

— Lora


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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