More than 30 years ago Donald Trump managed to bring a visionary $2.3billion enterprise to its knees with a single withering remark. It wasn’t about the competence of the CEO, or the virtue of his problematic strategy. It was about the name of the company.
It was February 1987: Richard Ferris, CEO of UAL Corp., fatefully announced his company would, henceforth, be known as Allegis.
The name change was intended to reflect the broadened scope of the expensively constructed travel enterprise that included Hertz Car Rental, Westin and Hilton International hotel chains, as well as United Airlines.
“We are a travel company, not just a transportation company”, said Ferris. “Allegis clearly identifies us as the only corporation that can offer travelers door-to-door service.”
Investor activist Donald Trump saw things differently. ”It sounds like the next world-class disease,” was his biased diagnosis.
It was the beginning of the end for Ferris and Allegis. Investor discontent coalesced around the name change and within six months Ferris was gone and his grand plan was being dismantled.
What was not so easily quelled was the fear and loathing Allegis had generated about corporate names. More than three decades later the fallout still swirled around the corners of boardrooms like a toxic mist. “Don’t give us an Allegis” was the joke, and behind it there was real fear.
The chaotic creativity of the Internet age has eased the anxiety. The likes of Google, Hulu, Zoomba, Skype and Zoosk have, out of necessity, attuned our ears to exotic and unfamiliar nomenclature but not enough to prevent the occasional atavistic twitch from sections of the media over what they characterize gleefully as “disastrous corporate rebrandings”.
There are signs of a real thaw, however. Recently, the conglomerate now known as ITT decided to split itself into three, spinning off its water treatment business and its military business. After much deliberation by Lippincott, the same branding company that gave the world Allegis, they brought forth “Xylem” and “Exelis” as the names for the two new entities. They were met with the dull thud of indifference.
Only a botanist would know that Xylem is a Greek-derived word that refers to vascular tissue that carries water and nutrients through plants. Likewise, it would take a lepidopterist to know that Exelis is a genus of moth, but one can hazard a guess at the intended meaning. In reality both names are, to all intents and purposes, gloriously meaningless.
Where is the outrage, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth? There is none.
Admittedly, Qwikster has been given up by Netflix as a juicy sacrificial offering to placate the Rebranding Disaster Gods but Xylem may be the miracle drug it sounds like it should be.
Could Xylem be the cure for Allegis — that most pernicious of name-aversion diseases first exhibited by Donald Trump 34 years ago?