June 19, 2002
Unlike Shakespeare's rose, a company by any other name can end up the butt of consumers' jokes and media ridicule. As finding an original name becomes more important, and more difficult, companies are spending vast amounts of time -- and money -- in their search for the perfect moniker.
In March 2001, the U.K.'s Post Office Group rebranded itself as Consignia PLC. The new name, it said, came from the verb "to consign" and would underline its international role in e-commerce as well as traditional postal services. The company was panned for the move and the new name was ridiculed. Just 15 months later the company is changing its name again, to Royal Mail Group PLC. That pattern may be repeated many more times as firms reassess the trendy but vacuous naming conventions that have dominated recently.
In the 1970s, with relatively few companies competing, firms were likely to go for straightforward, descriptive names like International Business Machines Corp. and Digital Equipment Corp. Today, however, start-ups are under pressure to think up something that will not only pass trademark rules but also make a catchy global Internet URL, distinguish the firm from rivals in an intensely competitive sector, and not be offensive in foreign languages. The result has been progressively wilder names.
Odd word compounds (Red Hat Software) and strange punctuation (E.piphany) are common, and, of course, many Internet firms have the suddenly archaic .com suffix. Fashion retailer Boo.com and the like may have failed but many of the new names are deeply embedded in the consciousness of users even if -- think of Yahoo! and Monster.com -- they once appeared off the wall.
Desperate to Be Different
Desperate for differentiation, many recent ventures such as Ocado, Opodo, Scient, Viant and Accenture have favored made-up names. The companies themselves claim that they are based on hard research but they can lead to confusion at a very basic level. Accenture receives many calls for Adventure while Opodo, a Web-based travel booking service, maintains that its name can be said as OPodo or OpODO. Skeptics say such names are watered-down attempts to avoid legal issues or controversy.
"There's no emotion, [the new, made-up names] mean nothing to anybody," says Steve Manning, managing director of A Hundred Monkeys [now Managing Director of Igor], a naming company based in Sausalito, California. "If I suggested a name like [database software giant] Oracle today it could never happen. If there were 10 executives in the room, you can bet somebody would say 'we're about scientific analytical stuff -- oracles used to only ever forecast death and destruction and we can't be associated with that."'
A Hundred Monkeys is one of a generation of naming firms that are paid tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros to develop company names and brands. These firms research the company and attempt to think up a name that is novel, attractive and memorable in many languages. Increasingly, the demand is for names that trip off the tongue and linger in the mind, while avoiding the pitfalls of trademark legislation.
"There has been a great proliferation of coined words and part of that is down to the simple clutter of trademarks and URLs in the high-tech industry," says Anthony Shore, senior director for naming and writing expertise at Landor Associates, one of the biggest naming groups. "They are less likely to be descriptive and they are more expansive."
For example, Dow Corning Corp.'s spin-off Xiameter -- a Web-based marketplace selling silicon products. The name "has real roots in real meanings for efficiency and speed," says Mr. Shore. Its proximity to the word diameter suggests a connection between company and customers, he adds.
This won't wash with A Hundred Monkeys' [now Igor's] Mr. Manning, who rails against what he calls "constructed morphemic monstrosities" that create company names like Xiameter and Lucent Technologies Inc. spin-off Agere Systems Inc. Agere, pronounced a-GEAR, has roots in the Latin verb "ago," meaning to lead, according to the firm, which selected the name based on feedback from staff, focus groups and industry analysts. "They're doing a great job of appealing to Greeks and Latins," quips Mr. Manning. Companies all want to sound cool, he adds, "but they don't want to sound stupid and it's all done by committee so they end up with neutered names."
One thing all experts agree on is that the Internet-specific names must be avoided at all costs, especially those once prized generics such as Pets.com that limit a company's area of activity. Also, like dot-com names, many high-tech naming conventions now appear dated.
"Nobody wants to be called dot-com anymore and now we stay away from little i or e, or 'cyber' or 'digital' anything," says Jim Singer, president and creative director of Namebase, a naming agency in Cardiff by the Sea, California.
But while companies spend thousands on coming up with the perfect name, which is often prefigured for months or even years by a codename, some people at the sharp end of the information technology industry's forays into new names and brands are more skeptical. Who really cares what the company is called if the product works?
"I don't understand why they can't just keep the codenames," says Mike Magee, editor of The Inquirer, a Web-based publication that often satirizes high-tech absurdity. "Intel has all these lovely names of lakes, rivers and mountains like Merced and McKinley for its chips but when they come to market it's Pentium and Itanium. A lot of it is pretty daft. I have a Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook laptop. It's a nice computer but, I mean, what's a Lifebook?"
Despite the technicalities, naming decisions can often be pretty prosaic. "The short answer is that if you're a tech business with a hot new service then the chances of coining a good name that is not in use are virtually zero," says Chris Buckham, marketing director of U.K. information-technology services firm Sanderson Group. Mr. Buckham was once on the committee that named Apricot Computers Ltd., one of the U.K.'s most successful computer companies in the 1980s.
"The project code-name was Apricot but we paid a company to come up with a name and top of the list was Rascal, which I quite liked," recalls Mr. Buckham. But Apricot founder Roger Foster "said at the beginning of the meeting that if anybody thought Rascal was a good idea they had no future at the company ... so that was that."