Leonardo, Tesla and the genius syndrome of corporate naming

IN THE SUMMER OF 1974 a pregnant young woman was gazing at a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi Gallery. At that moment she felt the baby kick and, so the story goes, Imelin DiCaprio decided, then and there, to call her first-born child Leonardo.

A nice story if you believe it. Her son, Leonardo DiCaprio, has certainly been blessed with a talent that has earned him fame and fortune. To what extent Leonardo da Vinci’s namesake can ascribe his success to his name has to remain the stuff of romantic speculation.

Not so for Mauro Moretti, CEO of the Italian aerospace company Finmeccanica. He has no doubt at all about the power of Leonardo’s name.

Mr. Moretti had a tough job ahead of him on his appointment in 2014. 

Finmeccanica was then a sprawling industrial company partly owned by the Italian government. He launched a dramatic restructuring plan to transform performance and upgrade the reputation of a company dogged by corruption.

By all accounts he has done a good job streamlining the company and unifying its multiple brands into a coherent organizational whole around a ‘one company’ brand strategy that fits the business vision of a more cohesive, homogeneous and efficient group focused on aerospace.

Mr. Moretti has talked openly over the last year about his intention to abandon the Finmeccanica name, which roughly translates as “Financial Mechanics”, for something more inspiring, something with “the sense of deep roots and a great future.” Obviously heavily pregnant with ideas about names, he received a metaphorical kick in the stomach while contemplating Leonardo da Vinci’s genius for invention and the future of Finmeccanica.

So, on January 1, 2017, Finmeccanica will become Leonardo SpA.

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“We looked for something that would reflect the history of our evolution in space and security,” Moretti said at a press conference in Milan’s Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci, which hosts a collection of the Italian master’s models and drawings. “Luckily we have this genius Leonardo. We think that this will be the basis of our future motto: genius at your service.” *

Mr. Moretti is said to be moving on to greater things and is now in the running for the post of Italy’s industry minister.

What will become of Leonardo? It remains to be seen what the company will do with its presumptuous new name and whether it can build a brand for the future beyond the backward-looking museum piece references of the Vitruvian Man and Leonardo’s sketches of machines.

Moretti had a much better name available to him in Alenia Aerospace, which part of the Finmeccanica group. Far too mundane, though, for a renaissance man on the move who wants to leave his personal stamp on the company.

Genius for sale.

It’s not the first time a company will have draped itself in the borrowed robes of a dead genius in hopes of reviving its fortunes. The names of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and Albert Einstein have all been invoked in the cause of capitalism.

If the notion appeals to your conceit it is possible to license the Einstein name for your business, albeit with stringent conditions.

And with some legitimacy there are many US utilities that use the Edison name; Southern California Edison, Consolidated Edison, Detroit Edison, Boston Edison and Ohio Edison, to mention a few, all operated happily together and independently under an original agreement in which Thomas Edison allowed electric utilities to use his patents if they used his name.

George Westinghouse, Edison’s great rival, has not been so lucky with his brand trustees. Westinghouse Electric once bestrode the industrial landscape of the world producing amazing technical inventions in defense electronics, power generation, refrigerated transport, nuclear engineering and so on. By the mid-1990s the company was a shadow of its former self, having diversified almost to the point of oblivion. In 1995 Westinghouse purchased CBS, the broadcasting company, and in a kind of ‘reverse brand merger’ morphed itself into the CBS Corporation in 1997.

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The Einstein licensing website

The company sold its remaining manufacturing asset, the nuclear energy business, to British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), along with rights to the Westinghouse name. BNFL, in turn, sold it to Toshiba in 2006 and it still operates to this day as Westinghouse Electric Company.

CBS also created a new subsidiary to manage the Westinghouse brand. What “managing” means in this case is licensing. The famous W logo, designed by Paul Rand in 1960, along with the Westinghouse name and the slogan “You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse” is yours to use for a price. It has been licensed to a ragbag of upstart crows now called Westinghouse each hoping to be raised from obscurity by association with a genius (Westinghouse, the undead brand).

westinghouse-logo
For sale: one previous owner.

At the center of the power struggle between Edison and Westinghouse was the commercialization of electricity and the two different technologies used to transmit it from plant to user. Edison was a proponent of DC power (Direct Current) although he recognized its limitations; it was very difficult to transmit over distances without a significant loss of energy. He turned to a young Serbian mathematician and engineer whom he’d recently hired at Edison Machine Works for help. His name was Nikola Tesla.

Tesla accepted the challenge and set out to redesign Edison’s DC generators. The future of electric distribution, Tesla told Edison, was in Alternating Current (AC) —where high-voltage energy could be transmitted over long distances using lower current—miles beyond generating plants, allowing a much more efficient delivery system.

“Splendid” but “utterly impractical” was Edison’s verdict. Tesla was crushed and left Edison in 1885 to raise capital for his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. George Westinghouse was a believer in AC power and bought some of Tesla’s patents and set about commercializing the system to make electric light available to all.

Tesla went on to become celebrated as a ‘mad scientist’ showman, renown for his achievements and displays with electricity. Using his Tesla coil to conjure thunderbolts on stage he would enthrall audiences and speak like a sorcerer. Despite the fame he achieved in his lifetime, the name Tesla would be largely forgotten today were it not for another industrial genius of the 21st Century.

Tesla
Tesla: Electrifying

Elon Musk is the CEO and public face of Tesla Motors, the first new American auto company to turn profit in decades (the company was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, Elon Musk joined soon after it was incorporated).

Tesla Motors acknowledges its debt to Nikola Tesla and has drawn on the inspiration of his name and work to shape the Tesla brand into something beautiful and original with its own vision and brilliance. For Tesla Motors, the name was a starting point, not an end point.

And here’s the challenge with “Leonardo Strategy” of naming in general: such borrowed brands have a seductive appeal, they are chocolate clichés with creamy fillings, tasty but gone in a bite.

For Finmeccanica the Leonardo name can either delude the company into believing it’s branding work is done, that the brand comes as a complete ‘off-the-shelf’ package with the name, or, like Tesla Motors, the company can use Leonardo as a starting point for its own renaissance in true tribute to a genius without equal.

Footnote: Leonardo DiCaprio’s first agent believed Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio was “too ethnic” to work and, at first, refused to sign him unless he changed his name to Lenny Williams.

Lenny SpA Mr. Moretti?

* Financial Times: Finmeccanica turns to Leonardo for rennaisance.

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.

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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.