December 6 , 2005
By Brian Millar
It's going to be a bad month for rainforests. Last week, the owner of the largest wireless phone network in the US announced it was changing its name from Cingular back to AT&T Wireless.
Just imagine the countless tons of stationery, junk mail, posters and shelf wobblers that are heading straight for the pulping mill. Not to mention the boxes of Kleenex used by the board and shareholders. All that money they gave to those nicely dressed people at the branding agency. All that talk about the added value a new name would bring.
It didn't always work like this. Once upon a time, people didn't really think too hard about names. Look at a list of the most valuable brands in the world, and you'll see what I mean. Think of General Electric, General Motors and -my favourite - Standard & Poor's. Standard? Poor's? What kind of signals do these names give out?
Yet somehow these companies turned themselves into global giants, dragging their uninspiring, un-aspirational names along with them.
Then along came a new wave of entrepreneur who didn't aspire to be another ICI. They wanted to express themselves as individuals. They were, after all, the Me Generation.
They created Virgin, Body Shop and Apple. Where they led, others were inspired to follow. The results were Yahoo! and Google and Snapple and Innocent and a whole shelfload of other evocatively named brands.
Of course, some people just have a flair for names, like Paula Yates. But not many of them seem to work for large corporations. So the suits turned to their smart pals in ad agencies for help.
This must have led to some good conversations, considering the kind of names ad agencies give themselves: "We need a snappy name. Call the guys at Messner, Vetere, Berger, McNamee and Schmetterer!"
To the admen, naming was old rope that wasn't worth a lot of money. In its heyday, JWT named After Eight Mints and Mr Kipling Cakes, but gave the names away for free. In the case of Mr Kipling, they were actually forced to pitch for the advertising. Mr K drives an exceedingly hard bargain, it seems.
In the 1990s, the professionals moved in. The company-names-are-a-serious-business business was spearheaded by Landor Associates, a San Francisco-based design group that was so cool its headquarters were a ship. Landor brought "methodologies" with them. Rigorous, mysterious methodologies.
If you ever wondered where those bizarre unpronounceable company names come from, look to the Landor crew. Avolar, Midea, Avaya, Spherion, Onity, Lucent. And Lucent's rival, Agilient. You know, like Lucent - but agile! Nice. Soon lots of big branding companies were picking up briefs and now our world is littered with Arrivas, Aptivas, Achievas and Avandas.
How did they persuade boards to part with vast sums of money for something that had always been free, and was better when it was? Here's an answer from Interbrand's website: "The chosen name, Xingux, is derived from a word with many positive connotations by using 'signo' (sign) with the abstract device of starting and ending with a letter X. The visual identity communicates the dynamism of the group's business."
Browsing these explanations is like reading the minute scrawls of a lunatic obsessive recluse: "Qarana originated from an Indian language called Jain meaning 'to cause'… Hospira… is an abstract of the words hospital, spirit and inspire and the Latin word spero meaning hope."
So that's the important Jain and ancient Roman markets sewn up then.
Why do supposedly rational boards buy this new age semantic twaddle and saddle themselves with names which are unmemorable at best and unpronounceable at worst? Maybe Steve Manning has the answer. He's worked with the likes of Apple, Nike, Gap and MTV. His portfolio of names is simple and resonant: Tickle, Zounds and his own company, which is called Igor.
"Naming is messy, political and emotional," says Manning. "Whenever a name stands out, someone will find a reason to object. I bet nobody had anything bad to say about Cingular or Consignia, because they don't mean anything specific. But the trouble with meaningless names is that you have to spend millions making them mean something."
So are we doomed to a semantically challenged future of driving to Accenture in our Alteras? Steve isn't completely pessimistic. Take the Crossfire, one of Chrysler's most successful recent products.
"Crossfire is a great name. It captures the mentality of the driver, an accountant who fantasises that he lives a James Bond-style double life. But imagine the meetings.
"'Crossfire: gunfire that kills non-combatants. Death. War. Loss of control. Is this what we want folks to think about our car?'
"The Crossfire shows that some marketers still have the vision and fortitude to get a name like that through a big corporation."
Maybe things will improve. Maybe names simply don't matter. After all, Sir Martin Sorrell runs the biggest branding company on earth, and he's in no hurry to change its name. It's called WPP, which stands for Wire and Plastics Products.
Brian Millar is creative director of Brand Tacticians, a company which is doing very nicely in spite of its boring name.