November 28, 2001

Even pros struggle with corporate re-naming game

NEW YORK, Nov 28 (Reuters) – Cingular, Sensient, Verizon, and Diageo are nowhere in the dictionary but the words are lighting up billboards, televisions and stadiums as names of multinational corporations.

The explanation for the unconventional spellings? In the recent rush of companies changing their images, corporate naming specialists are facing a dilemma: No more names.

In the latest makeover, Philip Morris Cos Inc. (nyse: MO - news - people) is shedding its cigarette-puffing past identity and becoming "Altria." The new name, which has gotten mixed reviews from analysts and branding firms, is loosely derived from "altus," the Latin word for "high."

Such made-up names are chosen because it's virtually impossible to find a combination of existing words that has not already been trademarked, or whose Internet domain name has not been snapped up, according to firms like Landor Associates, which helped Philip Morris come up with the name Altria on November 16.

"The problem with using real words is almost every real word is registered somewhere," said Clay Timon, chairman and chief executive of Landor, part of WPP Group's Young & Rubicam unit.

In addition, an entirely new name lets a company own it totally and unambiguously, making it easier to defend against upstarts, companies say.

"It is a very complex and -- if you do it incorrectly -- costly process," Timon added. "Someone bringing suit because you used their name, that can be millions and millions of dollars."

Trademarks aren't the only problem.

Some notable naming failures and near-disasters include General Motors' Nova car, which translates to "doesn't go" in Spanish, and Enron, which was very nearly named Enteron -- the medical term for entrails.


The recent spate of mergers, spin-offs and newly-formed dot-coms have sent naming firms scrambling for their word histories and Scrabble tiles, searching for evocative neologisms like Lucent and Accenture.

The only problem? As firms scrape the bottom of the barrel, consumers often hate the new names.

"We tell our clients to prepare for the backlash," said Steven Addis, chief executive of the San Francisco-based branding firm Addis.

"You ignore it," said Tony Spaeth, an independent identity consultant. "Companies are forced to settle for names that take some getting used to. The best names sound bad at first because they're distinctive."

He cited computer services firm Unisys Corp (nyse: UIS - news - people) -- formed by the merger of Sperry and Burroughs -- as a "coined name" that seemed awkward at first, but has eventually gained acceptance.

"The chief executive fell in love with the idea of 'United Information Systems, or UIS, which would have been a terrible corporate name," Spaeth said. "But eventually the creative acronym Unisys proved to be available."


The problem may be that naming firms, which often depend on heavy doses of focus-group testing, are choosing names that are not distinctive enough.

"Focus-group testing is a complete waste of time," said Steve Manning, managing director of A Hundred Monkeys [now Managing Director of Igor], a branding and naming firm. "I would take whatever name comes in dead last in the focus group and choose that one."

Manning, whose firm most famously created the name for wireless infrastructure firm Seven, thinks most corporate rebranding efforts are focused on selling the name to an internal committee instead of the audience that matters: the public.

"Any time you put something on the table that has meaning, somebody will object, so the easy route is to pick something that doesn't mean anything," he said. "We believe you're better off using words and images that already exist in the collective subconscious."

What do you get for not playing it safe? Some of the other names created by A Hundred Monkeys include Raindance (Web conferencing), Jamcracker (information technology) and Ironweed (venture capital fund).

A Hundred Monkeys' own name, incidentally, is a self-depreciating reference to the fact that a hundred monkeys with a hundred typewriters may come up with the best names of all.


And how is Altria, nee Philip Morris, doing with its name change?

"The public will accept the logic of Altria instantly," said Spaeth. "The only question there is, what took them so long?"

"The backlash has been really harsh, and I have a problem that it sounds very health care," said Addis. Indeed, a firm called Altria Healthcare already exists, and the company has expressed concern that its name will be forever linked with the world's biggest tobacco firm.

"I would harken it to the 'It's not your father's Oldsmobile campaign,'" said Addis. "If you protest so much, it must be true."

"It's got Landor's prints all over it ... they've come up with a cold, corporate, nonhuman name " said Manning. "The idea is to distinguish yourself from the competition, and what Philip Morris has done is become another tree in the forest."

Copyright 2001, Reuters News Service.

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