To Xfinity, and beyond: The new laws of naming

Newspapers and magazines love lists. They are easy copy, as they need little or no research apart from the elicitation of a few expert opinions on the subject in question. And readers love them, if only to disagree.

Time magazine has a whole section on its website devoted to Top 10 lists. It includes compulsively irrelevant topics such as the Top 10 Internet Blunders, and the Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah.

This week Time rushed out a list of the Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes in honor of Xfinity, the new name from Comcast, the cable company, for its service offerings.

In a rush to judgment Time put Xfinity at the top of the list that included Accenture, SyFy, Consignia, Xe, Altria, WWE, Spike TV, AirTran, and the Willis Tower.

It’s a curious list. The criteria seems to be that if a name change is in any way controversial, then it’s bad.

Take the Willis Tower in Chicago, for instance. It was the Sears Tower for decades, a famous Chicago landmark. Unfortunately, Sears is not the company it once was and the building has been acquired by Willis Group Holdings, a London-based insurance company. Willis, understandably, wants its own name on the building. It has upset Chicagoans no end, but all’s fair in love, war and naming rights. When it comes down to it, why is Sears a better a name for a building than Willis? Nothing more than familiarity and a large dose of sentiment, I would say.

The map of the world in my school atlas was mostly pink, denoting the reach of the British Empire. Back then, Mumbai was Bombay, Beijing was Peking and  Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. The world moves on. It disturbed me more when San Francisco’s legendary Candlestick Park became 3Com Park, which then became Monster Park before the city mandated that it shall be Candlestick Park for ever more.

Spike TV is on the list because Spike Lee claimed that people might connect the TV network with Spike Lee. He won an injunction to prevent The National Network changing its name to Spike TV. The case was settled soon after in the network’s favor. Case closed.

How does this minor spat warrant Spike TV’s inclusion on Time magazine’s Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes – because Spike Lee was upset?

The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had to change its name to the World Wrestling Entertainment following a disagreement with the World Wildlife Fund, so WWF became WWE. What’s the problem?

Andersen Consulting was required to change its name as part of its acrimonious separation agreement with Arthur Andersen. Accenture is not a lovely name, to me it sounds like a sneeze, but to say it was “regarded as one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history” is stretching it just a bit. Accenture today is very successful, unlike its misbegotten counterpart at KPMG that became BearingPoint. It sank without trace and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. And not to forget PwC’s consulting arm, which was primped and dressed as ‘Monday’ by Wolff Olins before IBM came along to save the day. 

Consignia is rightly on the list. Its sin was not so much the name itself, as naff as it was, but the ineptitude with which the proposed change was handled. Renaming a British institution like the Royal Mail was always going to be highly controversial. Well, controversial it was. And the name became the focal point for torrent of fear and loathing that eventually sank it and the CEO of the company.

Consigned to the scrap heap

Which brings us to Xfinity, the name that clearly inspired Time’s hastily compiled list in the first place.  The negative energy around the introduction of Xfinity seems to be generated by a perception of poor service from Comcast.

William Lozito of Strategic Name Development says Comcast is “trying to put lipstick on a pig” by instituting a name change as a way to cover up service complaints.

But things are changing at Comcast. It recently acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal for $13.75 billion, giving it control of the Peacock network, an array of cable channels and a major movie studio. Advances in broadband digital technology also mean faster Internet speeds and more high-definition channels. The acquisition puts Comcast in the position of being both a content producer—through NBC and its subsidiaries—as well as a media distributor.

This is a long way from what the traditional cable company offered. As lazy and clichéd as the name Xfinity might be, it is the beginning of a campaign to convey this new world of myriad content and delivery quality, and change minds about what Comcast is. Whatever Xfinity may remind people of today, Comcast is going to spend a huge amount of money to get that brand to mean what it wants it to mean.

Today, naming is as much about PR strategy as it is about brand strategy. Accordingly, I offer these Seven New Laws of Naming:

1. All name changes of any consequence will be controversial.

2. Controversy is good for newspaper articles and circulation figures. There will always be people who don’t like a name change for whatever reason, and reporters will always find them for a quote. Be prepared.

4. New names will always remind people of something more familiar to begin with. They have to be given a context in which to understand the name.

5. People will get used to new names over time as long as they are free from negative connotations that can not be overcome (plain dumb names not withstanding).

6. Corporate name changes are politically charged. They have to be managed aggressively and proactively.

7. Social media is important. The urls xfinitysucks.com, and xfinitysucks.org are not available. Someone at Comcast is thinking ahead.

12 thoughts on “To Xfinity, and beyond: The new laws of naming

  1. Alan,

    Thanks for spelling out exactly what’s wrong with Time’s list. It goes to show that whoever developed that list of the worst name changes hasn’t a clue.

    There are two names on the list that might deserve dishonorable mentions: Xe and AirTran. The first name is a disappointment given the awesome Blackwater name it replaced. Maybe a name change was in order (maaaaybe), but surely they could have chosen something that arrived with more meaning.

    A name change for ValueJet was indeed deserved, but to go from one lame name to another lame name is just…lame. Perhaps they are shy and wouldn’t like the attention that a great, distinctive name could fetch?

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