BBC Shop Talk

October 22, 2002

What's in a Name?

There was a time when names gave you a hint of what their owners did, like British Steel or the Post Office. But these days that's all changed and companies today are just as likely to have a name that bears little or no relation to what they actually do, promoting themselves with made-up, Latinate names.

And it's not just business either, but public services, education, and politics have jumped on the bandwagon too. So why this fashion for renaming? And does it actually work?



Transcript from the Radio Broadcast:

Intro – Heather Payton: Hello and welcome. Now here's a game to help while away the coming dark evenings. Who are – or were – Signet, Accenture, Uniq, Altria, Corus, and Elementis? Now look away if you don't want to know the answers, because they're the new names of [unintelligible] Jewelers, Anderson's Management Consultanting, Unigate, Philip Morris, British Steel, and Harrisons's and Crossfield. Oh and Monday – my favorite – that was almost the consulting arm of the accountants Price Waterhouse Cooper – seriously.

They're all of it daft aren't they though, the daftest of all must be the Post Office's two million pound name change to Consignia, such a fiasco that they're now consignieering it to history and reverting to Royal Mail. Now there's a name with a nice ring to it.

It does though rather make you long for the good old days when company names gave you a hint as to what their owners did – when unions all had sensible names like the Transport and General Workers Union rather than Amicus, Unison and Prospect.

Sometimes of course dotty names work – Orange, Egg, Smile, Yahoo!, even Kodak and Sony, and sometimes company name changes are eminently sensible. The University of Northumbria at Newcastle became just plain old Northumbria University and you wish 'em luck.

But all this fuss about names does underline their importance, that fact that companies at any rate think we're influenced by them and that they could mean a change in fortune. So, what IS in a name? Well joining me Tony Thorne, head of the Language Center at King's College, London, and from California Steve Manning of Igor, one of the companies that comes up with all these amazing names.

Steve, in Britain at any rate, we tend to treat some of these company name changes with a little bit of derision, but do you think a new name really can have a big effect on a company's fortunes?

Steve Manning: It depends. I think it's on a case-by-case basis. In the case of the Royal Mail it was a huge mistake. And in the case of something like Philip Morris changing its name to Altria, I don't think it's going to make any difference one way or the other – I think everybody sees it for what it is, it's just a fresh coat of paint and they're trying to get people to forget what they really do.

Heather Payton: What's your favorite of the ones you've come up with yourself and what are you most proud of?

Steve Manning: About a year ago we named a mobile company in the States Seven. One of the reasons we were proud of it was that it was addressing a problem in the industry that nobody could get the industry language, which is SS7, to communicate with web-based information. And rather than hide from it, they decided to confront the problem head-on, and just confidently name themselves Seven, which was the thing everybody was afraid of.

Heather Payton: Tony, as a linguist, you must have an absolute field day with some of these names.

Tony Thorne: I'm very, very cynical – I mean I tend to hate most of the company names that I hear, either because they're pretentious, or phony, or because they're too timid, they're too boring – things like "Logical Network Solutions," there are millions of companies called things like that, so that doesn't inspire. But I particularly dislike this rash of fake Latinate names –

Heather Payton: Yes.

Tony Thorne: – which has been so trendy. You know, Navigant, Conixant, Candesant, Veriton, Vivident – and of course I don't react like a normal person, I suppose, being a linguist, but I think that a lot of normal customers/clients/partners react very negatively to these company names because they think they're somehow patronizing.

Heather Payton: Why do you think companies go for these pseudo-Latin names?

Tony Thorne: The two good reasons are that most of the normal names have been taken – by 1961 in fact there were more trade names registered than words in the English language – so there is a great shortage of real words that you can trademark, that's one thing. The other thing is people think – and I think they're probably right – that Latin names are generally easy to pronounce, that most people speaking most European languages anyway find them easy to pronounce. But they have other negative connotations, I think. Latin tends to be the pretentious part of our language, unlike the Anglo-Saxon part. A lot of these words which are invented look like misspelled words, they look like a word that somebody's written wrong, and that's the reaction a lot of people have to them, and that just irritates people.

Heather Payton: Is the look of a word important?

Tony Thorne: Not so much I think the spelling, but certainly the typography – an enormous amount of money is spent not just on the inventing or re-inventing of names themselves, but – the British Council, and organization I work for sometimes has done the same think this year, they changed their name from The British Council to British Council at some cost and they also changed the typography, but so minimally that most people cannot even se the difference. Obviously, it's thought to be tremendously important.

Heather Payton: In the old days of course companies were either named after their founders or they gave you a fairly obvious hint about what sort of companies they were. Tony when did things start getting more complicated and why?

Tony Thorne: Oh this started a long time ago, I mean, right back in the '50s and '60s people were coming up with grandiose Latinate names like "Regalian" and "Halcyon." And then there was the trend the '60s and '70s for acronyms – "Viacom." Then we had these wonderful meaningless company names, things like "Federal Consolidated" that just conjure up huge, anonymous corporations – which indeed they were, many of them.

Heather Payton: Is it happening everywhere in the world?

Tony Thorne: No. There are around 250 company name changes a year over the last couple of years in the U.K., which is way ahead of anywhere else in Europe. I think the U.S. and the U.K. again are operating together, probably the U.S. fads trigger-off a reaction in the U.K. We mustn't patronize the Russians, but when capitalism really hit, which was only a few years ago, they used to have shops in Moscow with names like "Shoes" and "Beer" and "Food" and that's what they were used to dealing with. And now of course they've got all these bizarre – and mainly foreign – company names and they had an enormous amount of trouble negotiating what these people actually sold.

---[Taped interview insert here with British author John O'Farrell discussing political re-branding not transcribed.]---

Heather Payton: Steve as a non-Brit you can probably answer this one with impunity. Do you think re-branding the Royal Family might help?

Steve Manning: Well I don't suppose it could hurt. I mean –

Heather Payton: You can't think of a good name for them?

Steve Manning: Well I can – I don't know if I can say it.

Heather Payton: Fair enough, perhaps you shouldn't. Now one perfectly valid reason for companies to change their name is that the nature of their business has changed and they have to under law. Sometimes, of course, it's also a great excuse – Philip Morris may have diversified away from tobacco, but their new name, Altria, also sounds a good deal more healthy than the old one. And the change for Anderson's consulting arm into Accenture turned out to have been a real gift when the auditing arm got tainted by Enron.

So what about the name change by Bass the brewers to Six Continents? Mark Rigby of Six Continents joins us. Mark, why did you change? Because of course Bass was a name we all knew – "pint of Bass," you know?

Mark Rigby: Well we of course had to change our name when we sold the brewing business which had the name Bass, and given that brewing was less than a fifth of our main business, it was appropriate that we should change to reflect the business that we then in, which was hotels, restaurants and pubs.

Heather Payton: And you don't brew Bass beer anymore.

Mark Rigby: We don't, no.

Heather Payton: Would you like to have held on to the old name, because it had huge recognition, didn't it?

Mark Rigby: Huge recognition – a great name. Two hundred odd years of tradition and history, it's a name that when you pronounce it people immediately conjure up an image, whether it's stability or tradition or whatever, therefore it's much easier to get recognition from that. So with the change to Six Continents we were looking for a name that really reflected that business and one that was protectable.

Heather Payton: Did you try other names before you settled on Six Continents?

Mark Rigby: We actually looked at over ten thousand names.

Heather Payton: Oh heavens.

Mark Rigby: And the way we found our Six Continents was to go through two routes, one of which was an employee competition and the other was an agency. The employee competition was fun, and it was also designed to get people thinking about the change and what was coming. It was won by two people, so it was quite a well-fought contest.

Heather Payton: Did they actually suggest Six Continents?

Mark Rigby: They did.

Heather Payton: They did? So you got your company name from your employees rather than from an expensive agency.

Mark Rigby: Absolutely. And the reason for the agency is then that you need to check that name across all the various cultures and languages worldwide to make sure that it doesn't mean something terrible in a particular place.

Heather Payton: Did that part cost an enormous amount of money?

Mark Rigby: The actual name itself and getting the identity right – relatively reasonable we thought with just about a third of a million. The real cost of company name changes comes into changing signs, stationary and everything that goes with that.

Heather Payton: Who actually decided, I mean you had all these names – millions, thousands of names – in front of you, who actually made the decision in the end?

Mark Rigby: Well ultimately it's the shareholders, because it has to go before shareholders to vote on the name.

Heather Payton: They voted on it?

Mark Rigby: Oh indeed, yes. An extra general meeting, that is the law.

Heather Payton: And how many names did you put before them?

Mark Rigby: We actually put one before them.

Heather Payton: Oh right, so it was a "yes" or a "no"?

Mark Rigby: It was, because prior to that we put a selection of names to the board of the company, and prior to that a selection of names to a panel of people who have been working on it from across the group. So all in all I should think there must be at least two or three dozen people who really had to sift through and drop down the name that was going to work.

Heather Payton: Was that difficult, because you can imagine a few dozen people, a few different answers?

Mark Rigby: Um, a year of our lives. And I think at the time it was nothing other than the name change – making sure it was right.

Heather Payton: Steve Manning, as someone who comes up with company names, what do you think of Six Continents?

Steve Manning: I think it's fine, I mean, the first image that comes to my mind is something out of maybe, you know, in the Ian Fleming novels it's always that sort of "Six Continents Importing" that's stenciled on the door, then you walk through the door there's a whole control center there.

Heather Payton: That's quite nice, isn't it?

Steve Manning: So I kind of like it.

Heather Payton: Tony Thorne, what do you think?

Tony Thorne: Well I like it. I like the fact that it's global and as Steve says is does have this kind of 1960s super-villain quality to it. I'd be slightly worried that it's two words and it's four syllables – that does make it a bit cumbersome. That's my only reservation really.

Heather Payton: Mark?

Mark Rigby: That's a very, very valid point, but when you know that people are already beginning to refer to the company as "Six-C," they are beginning to understand that Six-C is a world of hotel brands – Holiday Inn, and [unintelligible] – if you want to see where to get the best price/best rate, then those two letters open up a whole world of hospitality.

Heather Payton: Mark, thanks for that. Steve Manning, how do you go about deciding what a company should call itself, I mean how do you actually do it?

Steve Manning: It's really about taking a look at the competition that's out there, looking at the language they are using, the kind of names they have, the attitudes and personalities they're putting forward, and coming up with something a little more interesting. And once you form that personality and that angle, it points you in the direction of the name.

Then there's also all sorts of considerations, and when Tony was saying that a lot of these Latinate names are driven by trademark – and URL as well – I would also add that most of these decisions are made by officers and they want to be CEO or an officer of "Important Sounding Company Limited." And the other thing is consensus – try to get thirty people to agree on what movie to go see. And when it's something this important, it gets very emotional, it gets very politicized, and all it really takes is one person to object, and fear resonates throughout room and they go to a more generic choice or something Latinate.

Heather Payton: You need to be a bit of a psychologist, don't you?

Steve Manning: Oh, in a big way.

Heather Payton: Do you present them with a choice? Do you, say, give them a final list of three or four or five or something like that?

Steve Manning: It's important to put a bunch of choices out there, and psychologically it's also important to put choices in front of them that frighten them, that are beyond where you want them to go. Because they're never going to choose the most interesting, challenging thing that you put in front of them, so if you want them to choose that, you have to put something more frightening out there, and they're all relieved that it's not that one.

Heather Payton: Where do you get names from, I mean do you go through books or dictionaries?

Steve Manning: Everywhere. I mean it's like anything, you know, we're constantly writing them down – conversations, menus, books, articles, anywhere.

Heather Payton: So you wake up in the middle of the night and you think, "that's it!"

Steve Manning: [laughing] Yeah...

Heather Payton: Why do you think it is that names like Virgin, Apple, Yahoo!, Orange that I mentioned before, why do you think they work so well? Because they're mostly names – they're mostly words – but they don't really necessarily have anything to do whatsoever with the company.

Steve Manning: I would say that they do. They don't have anything directly to do with the business, but they certainly map to the attitude and personality that the company is putting forth. Virgin works obviously exceptionally well on an airline, because before Virgin, all the airlines basically had the same name – they were all sort of very stodgy and very professional and buttoned-up, and when you have a name like "Virgin," it forces people to put you in a different box in their head than everyone else.

Heather Payton: What about the name of your own company, I mean where on earth does Igor come from?

Steve Manning: [laughing] Well, besides the character in literature that I've always most identified with, [here comes an attempt at transcontinental humor] my old company was five syllables and this one's two.

Heather Payton: The last one was "Monkeys," wasn't it?

Steve Manning: A Hundred Monkeys. It was from the old writers' joke, you know, that if you put a hundred monkeys with a hundred typewriters eventually they'll type sonnets of Shakespearian quality. So we were making fun of ourselves, you know, that it wasn't writing it was typing as the old joke goes.

Heather Payton: So you're allowed to have jokes in names?

Steve Manning: Absolutely.

Heather Payton: Or it's compulsory?

Steve Manning: I think so, I mean you've got to stir some sort of emotion, and if you're in a creative field you have a lot more license.

Heather Payton: Let's look at one company that's steadfastly refused to change its name despite a nightmare image. Skoda, the Czech car manufacturers, were at one time the butt of countless jokes. What do you call a Skoda with a sunroof? A skip. Why do Skoda's have heated rear windows? To keep your hands warm when you're pushing them. I'm sure you've heard them all.

Well someone else who's heard them all is Rob Tracey, Managing Director of Skoda U.K. Rob, Skoda as we know was taken over by Volkswagen in the early '90s and since then it's experienced a quite extraordinary reversal of fortune. So how did you do that – you've still got the same company name?

Rob Tracey: Well first of all, thank you for reminding everybody of the jokes if they've forgot them.

Heather Payton: Sorry about that.

Rob Tracey: Well what we had to do when we started the new company in 1992 was to just be very realistic about the bad image, because it really was awful. The level of entrenched prejudice against the brand was just staggering. We did a lot of research at the time and came to the conclusion that it was second only in fear factor to going to the dentist.

Heather Payton: Oh my God.

Rob Tracey: So we came out with an approach that we needed to be open, honest, straightforward, and we crystallized this into what we called "the human touch." And actually those are the brand values that Skoda has today, and when you attach that to fantastic product, which we now have, that's the way that we've managed to turn this brand around.

Heather Payton: You must have been tempted to change the name though?

Rob Tracey: That was never on the agenda. Skoda is a very, very famous name, and in the Czech Republic it's almost a national institution. Skoda is the third oldest car company in the world, and not many people know that. The company began in 1895.

Heather Payton: It's interesting that you've capitalized on the bad image in the advertising – I mean you have customers fleeing from showrooms, for some people it's still a problem, all that sort of thing – isn't that a little bit dangerous given that cars are so much an image thing?

Rob Tracey: Well we had to confront the bad image, we couldn't just pretend it hadn't happened. What we were trying to do was say to people, look, we know how you might feel about our brand, or perhaps might have felt in the past, but look at this – the more recent batch of ads with people running away was really head-on right in your face to say, "Look, isn't it silly?" That we've got people here who are right on the cusp of buying the car, and then something illogical happens that makes them say "Oh no, I can't do it," but they couldn't actually explain what it was.

Heather Payton: So how is it actually changing now? I mean when you do surveys now for how many people is Skoda still a negative image?

Rob Tracey: Every car brand has a level of rejection where people will just not consider buying that brand, and most car brands fall in the mid-twenty percents to the mid-thirty percents. We when we started out actually had ours measured at sixty-six percent, so that was back in '93.

Heather Payton: So sixty-six percent of people hated Skoda?

Rob Tracey: Not hated it, but just wouldn't –

Heather Payton: Well they certainly wouldn't buy it.

Rob Tracey: Wouldn't consider buying it.

Heather Payton: And what is it now?

Rob Tracey: It's down to just over forty percent now.

Heather Payton: That's a big change though isn't it?

Rob Tracey: It is a big change – half the police forces in the U.K. now drive Skodas, so if you're caught for speeding on the motorway it's more than likely to be one of our cars.

Heather Payton: I'm not quite sure what that says about Skodas, but ok, it certainly says something. Tony Thorne, I know you've got some quite strong opinions about car names, I mean they can be a bit odd. Skoda have got some interesting ones – Octavia, Felicia, Fabia, things like that – what about some of the other car brands? Everyone was very rude about the [VW] Sharon for example, weren't they?

Tony Thorne: Only in Britain, where "Sharon" conjures up somebody wearing white stilettos dancing around a handbag, to offend quite a lot of people. I mean obviously names of cars are very, very visible, because they are catering for a very big public. I should say as a little footnote that Skoda actually triumphed right from the beginning, even in the Czech Republic, because the word "Skoda" in Czech means "pity" or "shame" as in "it's a pity, it's a shame."

So right from the start they were triumphing over a brand handicap. We often laugh at foreign manufacturers trying to sell into the English-speaking market and making boobs, but when we tried to sell the Rolls Royce Silver Mist in Northern Europe, "mist" means "crap." The Chevy Nova entered Latin America where "no va" means "won't go." Or the Pinto – you'd think the U.S. manufacturers would have known that in Mexican Spanish "pinto" means "small penis."

Heather Payton: [laughing]

Tony Thorne: So there are these very famous – of course the ones you can always get a cheap laugh out of are the Japanese – the Mazda Secret Hideout; the Suzuki Van Van, which isn't a van; the Mazda Bongo Frendi; and the Suzuki Afternoon Tea and the Mini Urban Sandal – of course they're easy to laugh at, but they're mainly sold into Southeast Asia where the mere fact that it's English and it's pronounceable makes it trendy.

Heather Payton: Rob, what are your car names – Octavia, Felicia, Fabia, things like that – what do they say about who you see as your customers?

Rob Tracey: You might think it's appealing to women, which obviously we would like to do, but Octavia was the eighth model that the company ever made, so unfortunately it's not as romantic as you might think. Felicia however is, because Felicia was one of the two daughters of the original Mr. Skoda.

Heather Payton: Oh that's nice.

Rob Tracey: But we now have a car called the Skoda Superb, which is a very brave name indeed, especially with our brand.

Heather Payton: Ok, well at least your not falling into some of those really horrible pitfalls.

Rob Tracey: No.

Heather Payton: Rob, thanks very much. Now no good look at company names would be complete without the wondrous forays into linguistics provided by the Internet. But have you ever wondered where those names come from and who controls them? Well Nominet U.K. is a not-for-profit organization that acts as a registry for domain names and a trustee for the "dot-UK" addresses, and Dr. Willie Black, its Executive Chairman, joins us. Willie, when did the first domain names appear? It must have been quite a long time ago.

Willie Black: It was into the mid-'80s when we started devising a hierarchical structure with .uk and .com and various other suffixes like that, so they've been around for a long time.

Heather Payton: How long did it take for companies and organizations to grasp just how important it was to have a domain name, to own a domain name?

Willie Black: I think the growth really started when the World Wide Web was devised. It was devised around about '93, '94. The advertising people started to realize this was a new mechanism for getting the message across, and that's when businesses started to get really serious about getting their names on the 'Net. We had to take steps to make it managed very professionally, and it was '95, '96 when we created Nominet, another Latin creation by the way.

Heather Payton: Yes it is. How did you come up with that name? [laughing]

Willie Black: I thought about "name" – nomen – and "net" and joined the two together and I thought it sounded nice.

Heather Payton: Yeah, it does actually. I bet the whole thing's grown fast actually. Have have the numbers grown?

Willie Black: From '96 until today we've gone from twenty-five thousand to three-and-a-half million in .uk. About two years ago it leveled-off, and two years ago –

Heather Payton: This is when nasty things started happening to .coms.

Willie Black: Well, yes, it was the warehousing as well. We saw a lot of people who could register domains very cheaply, and they thought, if we register a few of these very interesting names, people will come and buy them from us, for vast amounts of money, and people made a big profit. But it was a bit like the lottery, you know, one in a million made something out of it.

Heather Payton: We've just about got used to a lot of these suffixes – the .com, .net, .org – but there are these new ones though – .biz, .info – does that mean it's because you're running out of names?

Willie Black: I think folk thought that there was a lack of names, of course there were something like twenty to thirty million .coms and folk imagined that we're running out of names. There is one problem with the Internet of course that you don't get in real life, and that is that you can't have the same name used in different categories. We're all aware of Apple Records, Apple Computers, and of course the apple growers would use that name as well. Lloyd's the bank, Lloyd's the chemist – they can coexist because they recognize each other in different business sectors, but only one of them can have the domain name.

Also, you can have Johns the plumber in Cardiff, Johns the plumber in Aberdeen, and they can quite happily trade in the real world, but only one of them can have So there is that conflict, and that's where I think folk thought that they were running out, but the new ones – the .biz, .aeros, .infos – haven't really made a big impact. And .biz is just an alternative in some ways to .com, so why would you want that one when .com is a stronger brand, or why would you want it rather than a which is a strong brand in the U.K.? So there seems to be a kind of lack of interest there – maybe .aero would be more specialized –

Heather Payton: What is that? Is that for airlines?

Willie Black: For airlines, but I haven't seen any airline advertising a .aero yet. That was the intention that there'd be some specialist top level domains for niche business like .ship or .aero or something like that, but they haven't really been popular.

Heather Payton: It's fascinating stuff, Willie, thank you very much for that. Steve, do you think this craze for renaming, the general craze for renaming companies, do you think it's going to continue?

Steve Manning: There's sort of been a backlash. Branding was put on the back-burner for awhile during the whole .com phase. Everything was just, you know, as quick as you can get it to market, a lot of conventional companies jumped on the bandwagon, and I think now the're just sorting-out their mistakes, and realizing the importance of a brand once again.

Heather Payton: Tony what do you think? Do you think it's going to go on?

Tony Thorne: First of all, if you look at the name changes, which are going on, there is a great move back, first of all, not surprisingly perhaps, companies divesting themselves of names which include ".com," which include the "e" prefix – eDistrict changes to umedia; eCentric changes to Capital Management – so there's a kind of reverse name-changing now away from names which are identified with the Internet.

There was this great fad which I think was partly triggered by the millennium itself – people wanting to rebrand themselves for the new millennium, partly triggered by the .com bubble, and has been carried on if you like by a lack of confidence about the whole business ethics problem. All of these are factors which I think have sort of overheated the rebranding. So I would think it would level-off. Stanley Gibbons the stamp company – very old fashioned, old name – have moved back to their old company name. DeBeers the diamond people this year decided not to change their company name. So there's sort of a re-alignment, re-settling going on at the moment I think.

Heather Payton: Fascinating stuff. Thank you then to everyone, to the linguist Tony Thorne and Steve Manning of Igor in California especially, and to our other guests Mark Rigby of Six Continents, Rob Tracey of Skoda, and Willie Black of Nominet....Don't forget our website – – nice sensible name, that.

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