The Name Game

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Take a guess what products or services these marketers provide: Avaya, Spherion and Venator.

While an informal consumer poll brought out answers such as "a Spanish travel company," a "ball company" and "blinds and window treatment" manufacturer, respectively, their actual businesses are: networking and business communications, employment agency, and the operator of retail outlets such as Footlocker.

These organizations join Verizon and Lucent in the realm of made-up monikers. With a bevy of mergers and a frenzy of start-ups changing the business landscape, the need for new company names is more prevalent than ever. But how important is the meaning?

Branding experts agree that although still relevant, the overall value of a company's name has diminished.

Previously "the name could do more of the business basics, it can't do that anymore," said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, San Francisco. "Now the name, at best, can get one dimension of something about the company across. It can't get an entire value proposition across."

In the past, companies focused on a who (Barnes & Noble, Ford Motor Co., Walt Disney Co.,); what (General Electric Corp., Burger King Corp., International Business Machines Corp.); and where (American Telephone & Telegraph, Texas Instruments, Northwest Airlines) approach when it came to branding, explained Mark Speece, director of verbal branding and naming at Landor. Now the latest move is toward nonsensical names which appear cutting edge.


Mr. Speece points to convergence, globalization and the dot-com influx as the cause for the shift in branding strategy. The vast majority of the words in the "Oxford English Dictionary have been registered and trademarked," he said. "We have to get really creative."

That creativity has led to the influx of ever more creative company names, such as Cingular Wireless, Novartis and Bcom3 Group. And contrary to conventional wisdom, these new names aren't only for companies in the new media arena.

The telecommunications industry is chockful of recent creations. SBC Communications and Bell South earlier this month named their combined unit Cingular Wireless. This summer, Bell Atlantic rebranded itself as Verizon. Lucent, a made-up name itself, spun off Avaya earlier this year. The ad community boasts names such as Omnicom Group, Bcom3 Group and Cordiant Communications, while the pharmaceutical industry sports Novartis and Aventis.

Although catchy, these nebulous names can sometimes water down a company's image.

"Suppose it's a real frivolous name and the company couldn't pull it off?" said John Diefenbach, a partner with New York branding consultancy Wolff Olins. "There's a lighter side that worries me -- a good company can buy into a name that's too light, too promotional, a name that should be a discotheque."

With so many new companies in the marketplace and so few descriptive names to choose from, a name, while important, can only do so much for branding.

"A new name is sort of an empty vessel that you fill with what you say and show and ultimately, the experience," James Bell, senior partner with brand consultants Lippincott & Margulies, New York.

Case in point: SBC and Bell South charged ad agencies to create a new brand campaign months before they decided on the new name Cingular Wireless. The ad shops used the code name NewCo. for their prep work.

The name emerged from a list of 6,000 or so suggestions, according to Virginia Vann, senior VP-marketing for Cingular Wireless, who worked with Chicago-based strategic design and creative branding consultancy VSA Partners. The company wanted to find a name that was close to a real word. "We really felt if we could get something that was a neutral piece of clay," the marketing team could make it work, Ms. Vann said. Staffing company Spherion, similarly, aimed for a broad appeal when it changed its name from Interim.

"The former company name was a descriptive that had served the organization beautifully when it was primarily a commercial staffing organization," said Jose Aragon, Spherion's VP-marketing.

Since 1991, however, the company acquired 30 properties, many global. Now less than half of its revenue comes from commercial staffing. While the company's primary business is consulting on human resources issues, including recruiting, Spherion also has expanded into legal and technology consulting. "The name no longer reflected the space the company had carved out in the market: human capital management," Mr. Aragon said.


The company hired Landor for branding assistance. They sifted through 900 name possibilities before deciding on Spherion last July. "We tested across constituencies [and asked] what does this name mean to you?" Mr. Aragon said. Spherion won out because it "evoked imagery of a fast, nimble modern company."

The need for modernization has also spurred companies to update their names following a merger. Rather than just jamming the existing company names together -- a la J.P. Morgan Chase and PricewaterhouseCoopers -- branding experts advise companies to consider other options.

"In the last couple of years of large mergers, companies [often] take two names and stick them together," Mr. Bell said. "It's a way of dealing with things without dealing with the future. For the long term, they need to make a decision to simplify things. Coming up with a brand new name has its benefits instead of putting two things together that are kind of clunky."

For example, the 1998 merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand, resulting in PricewaterhouseCoopers "is just a mess," he said. However, the company's spokesman defended the name change. "There was substantial equity and value with both names and they didn't feel it made any sense to throw out this vast reservoir of reputations," he said.

Mr. Bell and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers hit upon a valid point: there's a fine line to walk in a name change.

"You have to study your situation," said Bridget Levin, founding partner of Nametag International, Minneapolis. "If your name has a liability, you should entertain a new name. If it has brand equity, you need to maximize that. I often see the abandonment of brand names with equity . . . lying by the roadside as litter. That's a big waste."

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