The ABC of creative destruction

August 18, 2015

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 Trumo

“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

March 23, 2015

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

August 7, 2014

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.


ING’s Tangerine Dream

June 22, 2014

I used to think ING was one of the cleverest of brand names.

Here was a name that was completed according to whatever you wanted to do – live, build, spend, create, plan, save, retire, raise, invest, etc. ING smartly provided the participle (‘ing’) that turned the verb into a noun. Live becomes livING, plan becomes plannING, invest becomes investING. Whatever you need is made active by ING. See what I mean?

Screen shot 2014-08-02 at 10.24.00 AM

OK, maybe it was more a case of wishful thinking and projection on my part. ING is just three initials that stand for the mundane ‘Internationale Nederlanden Groep’ — a big financial services conglomerate based in Amsterdam. But some interesting brand developments are taking place around this otherwise quirky letter string.

The ING name dates from 1991 when a Dutch bank and an insurer merged to form the Internationale Nederlanden Groep. Over the intervening years more than fifty different brands have ben acquired and consolidated into the ING worldwide brand.

The great financial meltdown of 2008 brought an abrupt halt to their global ambitions. ING received €10bn in capital support from the Dutch government. In return, ING and the Dutch government reached an agreement with the European Commission to restructure the company in a ‘back-to-basics’ strategy, separating its banking, insurance, and investment management operations.

Out of turmoil springs creativity. The big break up of ING is spawning some interesting new brand names.

In the US the ING brand, with its disturbing Oz-like Cowardly Lion logo, first appeared in 2001 when multiple investment and life insurance acquisitions dating back to the 1970s were rolled up into what became ING US.

As part of the restructuring plan it will be divested through an IPO to be completed by September 1. Its new name will be Voya Financial.

ING2

Given the scope and scale of the rebranding, introduction will be staggered. The Voya name is already in use in some parts of the organization.

In a well scripted announcement, chief marketing officer Ann Glover made good use of the allusion to voyage, of which voya is a word part, that the name nicely evokes.

“Voya is an abstract name coined from the word ‘voyage’…the name reminds us that a secure financial future is more than simply reaching a destination; it’s about a positive journey to financial empowerment, and knowing that Voya can help you take control along the way.”

And don’t overlook orange, it has to be a big factor in the brand, no?  “It also associates well with the color orange, which remains a distinctive attribute of our brand.” Thanks for clearing that up Ann.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, ING Direct is also going through a similar exercise.

ING Direct first entered the Canadian market in 1997 as a telephone banking service offering savings accounts. It was the first test market for ING Group’s direct banking business model, where the aim was to offer more favorable rates to customers by avoiding the costs of running a network of branches.

Operating without traditional bank branches, it instead opened a small network of ING Direct Cafes for its face-to-face contact points. As the bank expanded into online banking it also grew to offer mortgages, mutual funds and a no-fee checking account.

In November 2012 Scotiabank, one of the ‘big 5’ Canadian banks, completed the acquisition of ING Direct from ING Groep. As part of the terms of the deal the bank was required to change its name from ING Direct before May 2014.

Lexicon Branding, the firm that created the name Blackberry for Research in Motion (another Canadian company), got the call to handle the name change. And, yes, they again came up with another fruit.

After research among 10,000 people, 1,500 customers and 5,000 employees it was established that simplicity, innovation and the color orange (just as Voya concluded) were the attributes to build on with a name. Orange Bank was, in fact, on the shortlist. Whether or not the fact that Orange is also the name of a global telecommunications company colored their thinking about orange is unknown, but it had to be a consideration in the legal due diligence stage of name evaluation.

CEO Peter Aceto thought orange was “too safe or obvious of a choice”. Easy to say when someone else thought of it first. Instead he plumped for a close citrus relative – the tangerine. Tangerine makes reference to ING Direct’s orange history, he said, while also being significantly different. “Significantly different” is stretching it a bit. After all, we are not comparing apples with oranges. A tangerine is an orange citrus fruit.

While there will be no reference to the fruit in brand communications it’s hard to avoid the reality that the word tangerine is used almost exclusively in reference to the fruit. As a color, tangerine is classified as a shade of orange.

tangerine_logo

But Tangerine it is for ING Direct and good luck to them.

In Europe, ING Insurance is taking a much more conservative route than its North American cousins.

It, too, is being spun off as a standalone company and is changing its name. It will be known as NN, taken from the initials of Nationale-Nederlanden, one of its constituent businesses. NN may look pithy and modern, but on first hearing it will likely sound incomprehensible to people unfamiliar with the name.

BP, BT and GE get away with the initial brevity because of the distinctive plosives that distinguish the letter sounds. Try saying NN out loud without sounding slightly deranged.

Still, two out of three isn’t bad. And NN, too, is orange. Or tangerine if you prefer.

NN

NN…Never mind


Ampersands and, per se, and

April 21, 2014

ampersandTalking of Strategy& and the use of ampersands as we were below, the ampersand today is used primarily in business names — Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.

The elegant symbol in fact dates from the days when Roman scribes wrote the Latin word et, which means “and”, with a ligature to blend the two letters into a single letter form.

The actual word “ampersand” came into being many years later. The “&” had become such a standard part of the English alphabet over the centuries that by the early 1800s school children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the “&”, the 27th letter.

As it would have been confusing to say just “X, Y, Z, and”, students said: “X, Y, Z and, per se, and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and, by itself, and.” Over time the “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand.

Reference: Dictionary.com

 


Strategy & Mondays

April 17, 2014

It was inevitable that the announcement of Booz & Company’s new name, Strategy&, would be accompianed by derisory references to “Monday”.

The tone of the coverage has been one of “here we go again – what is PwC thinking? First the Monday disaster and now Strategy&.”

Monday, as you will recall, was the name for the planned spinoff of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting business. It was 2002, the era of Sarbannes-Oxley. Arthur Andersen had just gone down in flames after being implicated in the Enron scandal.

The day day that never dawned

The day that never dawned

The remaining “Big Four” accounting firms (PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young and KPMG) were under pressure from investors, regulators and clients to separate audit from consulting work to prevent future conflicts of interest.

In what must go down as a miracle of timing and good fortune, Andersen Consulting had been involved in an acrimonious split from Arthur Andersen in 2000 and was forced to change its name. It became Accenture on January 1, 2001.

Ernst & Young sold its consulting practice to Cap Gemini of France and KPMG’s consulting services operations were demerged and renamed BearingPoint in October 2002 following an IPO.

Meanwhile, Deloitte was trying to whistle past the graveyard with Braxton, a firm it acquired in 1984, as the name for its consulting business spin off.  Braxton scarcely registered a blip on the media radar, which was probably the point. It has all the personality of an old tweed jacket.

It’s one thing dig up name candidates from the vaults, but quite another to turn what is basically a timid,  play safe strategy into a self-congratulatory blow for common sense, as it did on its website when it said: “Braxton represents a welcome return to common sense and a departure from the increasingly predictable tendency toward coined, invented, and whimsical corporate names.” Humbug.

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 8.24.25 PM

PricewaterhouseCoopers (now PwC) turned to Wolff Olins, the London company that created “Orange”, a mobile phone network named after a color that went on to disrupt the entire market. Presumably, PwC knew what it was in for and Wolff Olins did not disappoint.

Monday was no less iconoclastic. It drew the predicable gasps of disbelief, although the worst thing its detractors could level at the name was that “I don’t like Mondays” was the title of a hit song by the Boomtown Rats.

CEO Greg Brenneman said what was expected of him: “Monday is exactly what we want it to be as we create our new business: a real word, concise, recognizable, global and the right fit for a company that works hard to deliver results.”

It was left to spokeswoman Sehra Eusufzai to make the more telling and perceptive point: “With any new name introduction, there’s bound to be a wide range of reactions, and over time it will come to mean what people want it to mean.”

Whether or not Monday could have been the Orange of the consulting world we shall never know as IBM snapped up the business from PwC before the IPO happened and swallowed it wholesale, regurgitating it as IBM Consulting Services.

Still, even though that particular Monday never saw the light of day, it hasn’t stopped publications such as the Financial Times (which should know better) referring to Monday as a ‘miss-step’ and ‘ill-fated’ on the basis of no evidence at all.

Now, twelve years later with Enron receding in the rear-view mirror and audit revenues flattening, the Big Four are once again looking at consulting for growth. Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young have been investing heavily. Last year, PwC acquired Booz & Co, which was spun-off by its parent Booz Allen Hamilton in 2008 after it sold itself to the Carlyle Group.

All of which brings us back to Strategy&.

A condition of Booz’s spin-off was that it could no longer use founder Edwin Booz’s name if the consultancy lost its independence. So PwC found itself with another naming challenge on its books for its consulting business.

Far from being another attempt to break the consulting industry mold with an edgy new name, Strategy& (pronounced Strategyand) is as close as they could get to changing the name while making no change at all.

Booz

Consider: in the Booz & Co logo (also the handiwork of Wolff Olins) the ampersand is a prominent design feature. If the Booz part of the name had to go, which it did, the ampersand could be retained as a strong visual link of continuity. And then, simply by replacing “Booz” in Booz&Co with the innocuous word “strategy”, you have achieved the necessary change without the rebranding controversy.

Strategy&Co would have been an elegant solution. Unfortunately, if this was indeed the logic, they soon encountered a problem: Strategy&Co is already in use by another organization. Clipping off the “Co” gets round the problem but what PwC is left with in “Strategy&” is a name that is bizarrely incomplete. The snarks have duly had their field day, calling it the “worst marketing choice since Coke II.”

Cesare Mainardi, chief executive of Booz & Company makes a nice point in saying the name “invites a discussion about what we’re about and what we’re thinking and how we can help our clients transform.”

Yes it does. But that conversation is better left to a brand campaign rather than a name. And this is exactly what Strategy& feels like – a campaign. It has the same catchy, transitory quality of something dreamed up in an advertising agency.

Like small talk at a cocktail party the Strategy& conversation will soon grow stale, and then what? It will run its course until it is finally absorbed into PwC as PwC Strategy. Which may be the whole point of the exercise.

Footnote:

Deloitte backed off launching Braxton in 2003 as the credit markets tightened. Under heavy acquisition debts BearingPoint filed for Chapter 11 on February 18, 2009 and was liquidated.  Accenture went on to become one of the world’s most successful multinational firms, with approximately 289,000 people serving clients in more than 120 countries. The company generated net revenues of $28.6 billion in 2013 and yet, for some reason that has never been made clear, Accenture has figured in numerous lists of “rebranding disasters”. Go figure.

See also: Accenture, accent on the negative here.


Time for a name change at Time Warner

March 2, 2014

Screen shot 2014-03-01 at 11.07.12 AM

Time Warner, the media conglomerate that bears the title of once-great magazine in its name, is getting out of the publishing business.

The plan to spin off its Time Inc. magazine division is part of the great unraveling of a conglomerate that came into being in 1990 with the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications.  It will complete Time Warner’s evolution into a pure cable television and movie production company from what was once a colossus that included dominant cable and Internet companies, a book publisher and music unit.

It also redresses the lingering fallout of Time Warner’s recent corporate marriages, most notably AOL’s $103.5 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2000 that created the monstrous AOL Time Warner.  That debacle became a case study in M.B.A. programs on how not to run a company.

For one brief shining moment

For one brief shining moment

With the departure of Time Inc. from its stable it would be an ideal time for Time Warner to resolve the confusion that has surrounded its name for years, the chief culprit in this being Time Warner Cable.

It is no minor issue. Time Warner Cable was a division of Time Warner Inc. up until 2009 when it was spun off… as Time Warner Cable. Since the separation it’s been commonplace to see their names confused.

Time Warner Inc. regularly gets complaints from Time Warner Cable customers about its apparently terrible service. Time Warner Cable, for its part, gets complaints from people about programming of Time Warner-owned cable channels such as CNN and HBO.

Executives at Time Warner Cable did make a run at a name change in 2010. The search was voluntary; the company was under no contractual obligation to find a new name. Dubbed ‘Project Mercury’ the name search involved the combined might of WPP’s Ogilvy and its various branding agencies, all to no avail. In the end, the folks at Time Warner Cable couldn’t wean themselves off the seductive familiarity of the Time Warner name, or even the word ‘cable’, so they made do with a logo change and a new ad campaign to create ‘distance’.

Is this far enough?

Is this far enough?

They also might have been glancing over their shoulders at the naming travails of its sister company, Time Warner Telecom, which had to change its name under a license agreement that expired in 2006. It made a complete hash of the job and after two license extensions the company finally surrendered with the name ‘TW Telecom’ in 2008.

Now, along comes Comcast to the rescue. It’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable will likely do Time Warner Inc. a favor by burying the Time Warner Cable name.

A possible option for Comcast is to rename the combined company Xfinity, the current name for its TV, phone and Internet service. Nobody likes their cable company, but Comcast and Time Warner Cable are particularly reviled, both consistently ranking at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys. While it’s not a lovely name, Xfinity is free of the cable company service stigma. Still, that will be Comcast’s call.

Meanwhile, Time Warner Inc. has some soul searching of its own to do. The spin off of Time Inc. will mean there will be two companies with similar names traded on the stock market: Time Warner Inc. and Time Inc.

With no ‘Time’ in Time Warner will the company simply lop off Time from its name, as it did so unceremoniously with AOL in 2003, and become plain Warner Inc., or Warner Media? Even that would be problematic as there is the Warner Music Group, a closely held music company whose sale by Time Warner began the great unraveling.

Time Warner is beginning to look a lot like Viacom. It needs to find a similar kind of brand name that makes strategic sense of the whole, rather than passively drawing its identity from acquired properties that come and go. While time might not be running out for Time Warner, Time is no longer on its side.

See also: Time Warner’s naming twavails


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