October 17, 2006
By Robert Manor
Peoples Energy Corp. has a new name coming, and like many corporate monikers it is not a word you will find in a dictionary.
The corporate parent of Peoples Gas soon will be known as Integrys (pronounced in-TEG-ris) after the completion of its merger with a Wisconsin gas and electric utility.
"Integrity was the core idea here," said James Uehling, a partner with name-consulting firm of Kass Uehling Inc. Uehling worked with a committee of staff from Peoples Energy and merger partner WPS Resources Corp. to pick Integrys from about 1,000 possible names.
Peoples Energy has had serious run-ins with consumer advocates, the Illinois attorney general's office and some members of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates the company.
"It is an attempt to turn over a new leaf," Uehling said of the new name. "It is a new day."
Some naming and branding consultants see Integrys in a different light.
"Stupid," said Danny Altman, creative director for A Hundred Monkeys, a Mill Valley, Calif., naming firm.
"Talk about going downhill fast," Altman said, adding, "It seems like they had a really cool name."
He said Integrys fails because it tries too hard without saying much about the company.
"Here, the name doesn't really reflect anything except a hunger to be taken seriously," he said.
Peoples Energy is not the first company to change its name to a created word that sounds positive, a practice sometimes called coining.
Cigarette-maker Phillip Morris coined Altria, which sounds a bit like altruistic and not at all like a seller of tobacco products.
Exelon Corp., corporate parent of Commonwealth Edison, sounds something like excellent. The utility holding company previously was known as Unicom, which sounds a good deal more generic.
Sometimes coined names fail.
The corporate parent of United Airlines, now known as UAL Corp., was for a time in the 1980s named Allegis. That name was dropped when the company decided to get out of the car rental and other travel businesses to focus on its airline.
And some names contract to form a new and synthesized word.
It has been 20 years since United Information Systems shrank to become Unisys. And for decades Unocal has been a strong brand of gasoline in the markets the company serves, with few people remembering it was once the Union Oil Company of California
Don't worry about recognizing the name of your gas company after Peoples Energy becomes Integrys sometime early next year. The Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas names will remain in use on bills and other public correspondence.
Peoples Energy has raised the ire of state regulators in the past.
This year, for example, Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas customers received a $100 million refund after the company was found to have overcharged consumers through a secret deal with Enron Corp.
Suresh Ramanathan, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, said a name change can help a company's reputation.
"If people have either ambiguous or negative opinions, it helps if this is a new name that has positive associations," Ramanathan said. He said Integrys "suggest some qualities of honesty and integrity."
When Peoples switches to Integrys, it won't be the only company that has used the name.
Integrys Holdings LLC is an investment firm in South Carolina, and Integrys Limited is a computer technology company in Canada. Executives at the two companies could not be reached for comment.
Steve Manning is managing director of a naming and branding agency in San Francisco and no fan of Integrys.
He does not like coined names in general, and his firm does not offer them to its clients.
"These names are impossible to remember," he said. "They are very cold and inhuman."
Manning's company is named Igor. He said [people don't take it literally that] Igor sounds like a hunchback who robs graves. He said the name is memorable.
Not surprisingly, Peoples spokesman Rod Sierra thinks Integrys is a winning name and critics are missing the point.
"I don't think integrity is a bad thing to stand for," Sierra said. "It is a strong and positive name."