Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Once, when something was brilliant, it really was brilliant. It was splendid, magnificent.

A George Best goal was brilliant. Peter Sellers was brilliant. An Aston Martin DB6 was brilliant.

Lives were brilliant. In his book “Brilliant Creatures” author Howard Jacobson traces the footsteps of Australians Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes and their influence on the cultural revolution in 1960s Britain. It was a time when “every life became a brilliant breaking of the bank” according to Philip Larkin in Annus Mirabilis.

The brilliance of brilliant has since dimmed. Over use has reduced the word to mean any mildly pleasing or underwhelming news — “are you ready with your order? Brilliant!” Laced with sarcasm it conveys disbelief. Basil says in exasperation to Sybil in Fawlty Towers: ‘Oh, brilliant!! Brilliant!! Is that what made Britain great? ‘

So it makes one wonder why ‘brilliant’ is currently enjoying such voguish popularity in the world of branding and advertising.

It started a few years ago when HTC, the Taiwanese mobile phone maker, launched a new brand campaign to noisily tell the world how “Quietly Brilliant” it is.

Marriott Hotels followed up with a rebranding campaign created by Grey urging us to “Travel Brilliantly”.

Harman, the audio technology company, is now warning us to “Expect Brilliance”.

And Hyundai has joined the parade with “Live Brilliant”.

With all this sudden brilliance it feels like I’m living in a Harry Potter movie.

BrilliantLess than.

Vwls R so ystrdy.

Vowel free, apparently, connotes cool and modern.

The race to capture that Zeitgeist spawned Motorola’s SLVR in an attempt to emulate the success of its RAZR phone.  There’s Flickr, the image hosting and video hosting website, and MBLM, the self-styled brand intimacy company, and numerous others.

The latest is MVMT, a watch company that combines “classic design, quality construction, and styled minimalism”. The name is Movement, as in Swiss watch, the brand is MVMT. I saw MVMT and read ‘Movement’, so I suppose it works.

It’s a naming trend referenced by Fritinancy in her blog post Vowel Obstruction‘. and stems, in my view, from the growing acceptance of shorthand in text-messaging and instant messaging, communication that encourages users to get as much said in as little time and space possible.

Glick

“We’re in a hurry, so who needs the vowels?” says James Gleick (or, as the book jacket has him, ‘Jms Glck’) in his book “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything”.

The popularity of the vowel evisceration approach to names may be that it eases somewhat the practical problem of URL availability, but unfortunately for MVMT, MVMT.com belongs to a media production house, and movement.com is a mortgage company. MVMT the watch company has to make do with http://www.mvmtwatches.com, which is less than optimal. 

This phenomenon was previewed a few years ago in this Internet post that did the rounds:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr theltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

Intrstng.

MVMT

Tck tck.

Who was Oscar?

The Oscars are upon us again. Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally take home the coveted statuette for his role in the dreary “The Revenant” or will “Brooklyn” steal the limelight, as I suspect it will?

Regardless, the burning question for Namedropper is the identity of Oscar. Who was Oscar?

Officially, the statuette is called the Academy Award of Merit, but everyone in Hollywood has known it as Oscar since at least 1934. The Academy itself adopted the nickname in 1939. The most likely story is that when the Academy’s librarian, Margaret Herrick, first saw the statuette, she said it looked like her Uncle Oscar. There were other claims to the name at the time – including the rumor that Bette Davis had named it after her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson – but whatever its uncertain provenance, it was to stick as firmly as superglue.

The BBC goes into the history of the awards and the story of Oscar  here.

The R S Owen Oscar Statuette factory in Chicago, America - 1994
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Araldo di Crollalanza/REX/Shutterstock (642981d) Polished but unplated statues await the next part of the process The R S Owen Oscar Statuette factory in Chicago, America – 1994

 

Best Western and Westin – brand tales from the wild frontier

Best Western has always been a bit of a me-too brand.

The company’s recent attempt to fix its problematic name and confused economy brand image follows the well-trodden path of Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn with a ‘basic, plus, premium’ segmentation strategy.

But then there’s BW Premier Collection, Best Western Plus Executive Residency and – just for the millennials – two new concepts named ViB (Vibe) and Glo (Glow) — how are they supposed to fit in to our consciousness?

It’s still confusing, it has to be said, and oddly reminiscent of Oldsmobile’s panicky attempt to overcome its failing brand by pretending it didn’t exist and pouring money instead into models with names such as the Alero, Bravada and Firenza. But all credit to CEO David Kong — for the first time in the 69-year history of Best Western the company has really tried to address the problem of the Best Western brand.

Screen shot 2015-10-03 at 1.56.34 PM

The name, as you might well imagine, has its origins in the American West, which is loosely defined as the territory west of the Mississippi River.

The company was founded after the Second World War when a network of independent hotel operators in California began making referrals of each other to travelers. The informal network eventually grew and in 1946 it was decided to formalize the arrangement. With a singular lack of imagination they named the new company ‘The Best Western Motels’.

Why ‘Best’? Most likely it had something to do with a chance meeting that took place 16 years earlier in a small town to the north of California in Washington State. Two hotel competitors found themselves having breakfast at the same diner in Yakima. They struck up a conversation and decided to band together and form an alliance, which they named ‘Western Hotels’.

The folks down in California were surely aware of Western Hotels when they were thinking about a name for their company. Given where they were operating, ‘western’ must have seemed a natural. Not to be outdone by Western Hotels they found what they assumed to be an easy way round that problem by going up the superlative scale –not just Western, but Best Western.

In 1964, Best Western bumped into the geographic limitations of its name when it decided to expand east of the Mississippi. Extending the same ‘territory as brand” logic the properties were named — you guessed it —  ‘Best Eastern’. It didn’t last long. By 1967 the Best Eastern name was dropped and all motels from coast-to-coast got the Best Western name and logo, a move that would substantiate its claim to be the “World’s Largest Hotel Chain” by the 1970s.

Western Hotels, meanwhile, had taken a different route to growth with service innovations such as the first guest credit card, a state-of-the-art reservation system and the first hotel to offer 24-hour room service.

westin
Positioned for global growth

With expansion into Canada in 1954 the company changed its name to Western International. And then, in what was a truly inspired rebranding exercise, Western International morphed its name into ‘Westin’ in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Westin Hotels & Spas is now a brand cornerstone of the Starwood Group. The addition of the Westin bird logo by Landor in San Francisco gave the brand a luxury caché that was much admired in the hotel industry.

Unlike Westin, Best Western never got to grips with the evolution of its brand as the business grew. It wasn’t until quite recently it actually came to understand that Best Western is a brand – albeit, a brand with baggage – and not just a name. I am reliably informed that, at one time not too long ago, a branding agency seriously suggested to Best Western that it build a brand around ‘Best’ and drop the western part. No takers at Best Western.

A hint of what might be ahead for the Best Western brand is the introduction of a BW monogram in the new, modernized Best Western logo. A good move although still too tentative. David Kong should have seized the opportunity and gone the whole hog with BW as the main hotel brand and corporate name and ring-fenced Best Western as its economy brand.

And what of ViB and Glo? One thing I do know about millenials – they don’t like being sold to, especially by their grandfather.

Google and the ABC of creative destruction

I know, it’s been done to death. But I think it’s time to call BS on Alphabet.

The most remarkable thing about the announcement of Google’s restructuring was not the news itself but the rapturous praise that was heaped upon it. The branding community was quite giddy with excitement.

“Without a doubt the biggest rebrand in the 21st century.”

“One of the most incredible pieces of corporate brand communication I can remember.”

“A brilliant branding move.”

“A strategy at the opposite of what is typically recommended by consultants or advisors.”

 

The outpouring of adulation gave me pause for thought… had I missed something?

As a business story, Google’s creation of Alphabet, a holding company, is remarkable, not so much for what it is but for what it will make possible; as a branding story, it’s really old hat.

There is nothing in the creation of Alphabet that hasn’t been done many times before and equally as well by many other companies in the cause of business reconstruction and renewal.

At its most mundane, Google has turned itself into an unfashionable conglomerate. It’s a familiar tale, one told by such unglamorous conglomerates as ITW, Manitowoc and Textron. And it’s hard to forget the disastrous attempt by UAL Corp to bind together Hertz, Westin and Sheraton Hotels under a holding company called Allegis. This is a story I’d recommend as further reading for all brand strategists. If Alphabet is the branding road less traveled then Allegis is the reason why.

“The next world-class disease” according to Donald Trump

More worthy exemplars of the genre are to be found among the energy companies such as Constellation, NextEra Energy, Exelon. They grew exponentially beyond their regulated core utility origins by creating a holding company, à la Alphabet, so they could offer enhanced services and products in the competitive energy market, satisfying both shareholders and regulators.

The energy giant Exelon, for example, has its origins in two very humble regional utilities – PECO (Pennsylvania Electric Company), and Commonwealth Edison, which are now operating divisions of Exelon – just as Google will become an operating division of Alphabet.

For some reason we accept Amazon in all its sprawling vastness as it attempts to become the world’s retailer, even though it makes most of its money from its web services business, AWS. Google had become impossible to define. To most people, Google is a search engine; as a business, it is much more. And there, in that dynamic, is the tension that created Alphabet.

Google had grown into an opaque, messy hotchpotch of businesses, some speculative, such as driverless cars and life extension technology, and all financed by the phenomenon of Google itself, the financial nuclear reactor.

In decline: This Fortune cover appeared before Google was even created
In decline: This Fortune cover appeared before Google was even created

Branding Google is like trying to brand an explosion. What the new structure provides is maximum flexibility together with investor transparency, discipline and financial accountability as the company makes big bets on the future.

Google’s founders, Messrs. Brin and Page, have handed over the reins of Google to Sundar Pichai who, by all accounts, will do a good steady job. For them, Google is done. The new more enticing future is spelled out by Alphabet, which, as a name, is about exciting as cold rice pudding.

No mind, they have spun a nice story around it and, as a holding company, it will work just fine. It has no other role to play other than that of a name for a legal entity that places the big bets. What’s interesting is what will happen underneath Alphabet in the operating divisions.

Is this the branding story of the century? No, far from it. But it does provide a glimpse into the future intent of one of the world’s great companies.

The truly brave thing about the creation of Alphabet is in its invocation of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction, ‘the essential fact about capitalism’. It is the spirit of Schumpeter that will push the company far beyond its origins and the Google brand.

I can’t help thinking such an approach might have saved two other iconic American brands that found it impossible to escape the gravitational pull of their brand’s heritage and an addiction to the cash they threw off.

Kodak missed its chance several times to evolve beyond the failing Kodak brand and determine its own future as a business. It met its inevitable end in one form of creative destruction, Chapter 11,  to be reborn as something else entirely.

And then there is always Levis: as it seeks salvation with cheerleader CEOs who endlessly try to revive a commoditized brand by dressing from head to foot in the product, it keeps coming back to the same product conundrum of heritage versus innovation as it continues on the long, remorseless slide towards business oblivion.

DuPont misfires with Chemours

I. E. du Pont de Nemours and Company. This impressively aristocratic name is better known as plain DuPont, the world’s fourth largest chemical company.

Founded in July 1802 as a gundowder mill by one Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, it supplied the Union Army in the Civil War and went on to specialize in the poylmers that made it famous.

dupont logo

Du Pont was born in Paris in 1771. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, was a political economist who had been elevated to the nobility in 1784 by King Louis XVI, allowing him to carry the honorable de Nemours suffix, Nemours being a picturesque ‘commune’ in the Île-de-France region in north-central France.

Little wonder then the company should look fondly on Nemours as the name for the spinoff of its performance chemicals business, embedded as it is in the heritage of the company and the duPont family’s noble French origins.

Nemours was a natural, except that the duPont family had already endowed the name to The Nemours Foundation, a pediatric health system operating in the Delaware Valley and in Florida.

The problem was neatly side-stepped by the creation of Chemours, a sound-alike name that also invokes French place names à la Cherbourg, Chantilly, Chartres, Charmant, Chambery and Chinon.

ChemoursA nice idea, but it’s not at all what DuPont had in mind; it wants to be sure that people know the performance chemicals business is a performance chemicals business and has, therefore, declared Chemours be pronounced ‘Kem-oars’, with a ‘k’ for chemicals and not a ‘schh’ for château.

Sad. My mistake. I got carried away by the romance of it all. I just thought… a company with such a flair for naming its inventions – Vespel, Corian, Teflon, Freon, Mylar, Kevlar, Zemdrain, Nomex, Tyvek, Sorona and Lycra – might have been more inventive with an historic spin-off dedicated to “applying great chemistry to make a colorful, capable, and cleaner world.”

Corporate name changes: from prey to predator

All successful companies grow and evolve. They acquire other businesses and expand into new markets and product areas. Technology transforms how they deliver value. Non-core processes are outsourced. Cyclical, low-growth business lines are divested to refocus the company on growth markets.

As they so evolve many reach the point at which the corporate name becomes an issue. Every day there’s a stream of news announcements about companies changing their names for most of the above reasons.

The daily bulletin
The daily bulletin

You can’t fault HickoryTech Corporation, for example, changing its name to Enventis. HickoryTech began life as Mankato Citizen’s Telephone Company (MCTC) in 1898 and through a series of astute acquisitions over the intervening century, including Enventis Telecom in 2005. The company dropped the HickoryTech name and morphed into Enventis earlier this year, tidying up a ragbag of acronyms and legacy names in the process.

The logic of Darling International’s name change to Darling Ingredients is less clear.

Darling describes itself as “one of the world’s leading companies for converting edible/non-edible bio-nutrient streams into sustainable natural ingredients and specialty products.”

Darling CEO Randall Stuewe explained the name change thus: “Our new name, Darling Ingredients Inc., better reflects our global presence and focus on creating sustainable food, feed and fuel ingredients for a growing population.”

I can’t help thinking he could have achieved that objective far more effectively without a name change. Whatever the corporate name (Darling International or Darling Ingredients) the brand name is clearly ‘Darling’. By utilizing a simple tagline with the Darling name, CEO Stuewe could have communicated his company’s mission much more effectively, as in: Darling – Ingredients for a growing world.

From prey to predator
That looks tasty.

The prize for corporate chutzpah in naming has to go to Innocent, Inc. Innocent is an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Texas. It recently added new “industry leaders” to its advisory board who are clearly advocating a more aggressive brand posture.

Not for them a passive name like Innocent. Bystanders and victims are innocent. Something more predatory would seem in order. So hello Panther Energy. Goodbye Innocent.