Hibu, corporate names, and the search for meaning

Overlook, if you can, the name ‘Hibu’ for a moment and focus on the wording of these headlines from two national UK newspapers.

They are classic ‘gotcha’ headlines.

What this obnoxious form of journalism implies is concealment, as though an executive has been caught out by a diligent media while attempting to launch a ‘meaningless’ name  on an unsuspecting public.

The CEO in question, Mike Pocock, is a thoughtful American executive of considerable experience in the technology industry. The business challenge he is faced with is formidable. Briefly, it is this:

The UK publisher of the Yellow Pages directory, of which Mike Pocock is CEO, is desperately trying to jolt itself out of a death spiral.

The digital revolution is taking no prisoners. Print-based businesses are dying. The future of content is on the web and brands that don’t connect with that future, no matter how revered, are dead or moribund. Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders Books and Tower Records have already fallen.

Yellow Pages is one of those brands. It clearly doesn’t connect with the digital future the company is trying to build.

The writing has been on the wall for years. Up until 2001 the Yellow Pages directory print business was a stodgy division of BT (British Telecom as was). It was sold to a private equity buyer as Yell Group – yell.com being the name of its UK local search engine.

Yell Group was floated on London’s FTSE in 2003 and after a decade-long acquisition splurge combined with declining revenues the company found itself in bad financial shape. A new management team was drafted in under the leadership of Mike Pocock.

He quickly came to the conclusion that none of the existing brands in the Yell Group stable had what it takes to move the company into a new digital future. Yell, with its dictionary definition of “a sharp, loud, hideous outcry”, was particularly inappropriate.

Like it or not, Hibu is an attempt to draw a line under Yell’s “dinosaur” status with a fresh name, a brand better positioned to carry the business forward as a local search engine and marketplace that links shoppers with the businesses nearest to them.

The business logic and brand strategy are sound enough. What Mike Pocock didn’t reckon with was the British press’s appetite for juicy rebranding stories that involve national institutions and what they regard as ‘meaningless corporate names’.

With the scent of the Consignia savaging still fresh in their nostrils the assembled hacks smelled blood again, and they pounced.

Ripping apart new corporate names is much more entertaining for outraged readers than detailing a CEO’s strategy for business recovery. And judging by the intemperate comments online the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail know their readers well.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the name itself, Mike Pocock should have been better advised and more thoroughly prepared to deal with the matter.

At a time when he should have been selling hard his strategy for recovery he was wrong-footed and forced to engage in a distracting conversation about the meaning, or lack of, of the name Hibu.

It is the nature of the news beast you are dealing with in the UK.

There is unreasonable belief that, in order to be ‘real’, a name should possess a traceable semantic lineage back to an ancient source.

And so the question was bound to come: Mr. Pocock, what does Hibu mean?

‘It’s a word’, he said. ‘If you go back 15 to 20 years, Google and Yahoo didn’t mean anything. It’s how you support the brands.’

He’s right, of course, but that played unwittingly into ‘meaningless name’ narrative.

It is no use pointing to Google and Yahoo! by way of non-explanation. Rebranding an established, high-profile company is not the same as naming a startup, which is what Google and Yahoo! were when they were named; corporate rebranding is an entirely different game played by different rules.

Hibu is involved in a high stakes game that involves changing people’s minds about what you are.

The rebranding of insurer Norwich Union to Aviva, for example, was given a free pass because the company stayed in front of the story. Much was made of the the name’s tenuous link to the Latin word for ‘life’ to appease the language police, but the real trick was in winning the communication war: why the name was being changed, why Aviva was chosen, and the enlisting of Ringo Starr, Bruce Willis, Alice Cooper and Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everidge to reassure the public that changing names is OK. ‘I changed my name, and look what happened to me’ was the message.

Language is, after all, an artificial construct. It is symbolic in nature, a system of communication made up of symbols and sounds that mean something only by convention. All names are, therefore, arbitrary; they are linguistic surrogates for the thing they represent. Peel back the etymological layers around a ‘real’ name like Disney, for example, and it is just as arbitrary as Verizon or Syngenta.

This is Hibu’s challenge. The question about the name should have been recast: Hibu was carefully created for very specific and practical purpose – now let me tell you what it’s going to mean to our important constituencies.

It has nothing to do with the meaning, or otherwise, of name itself. Corporate rebranding is a PR and communications challenge as much as it is a branding challenge.

See also: From A to Zeneca, a brief history of corporate naming.

4 thoughts on “Hibu, corporate names, and the search for meaning

  1. Pingback: From A to Zeneca, a brief history of corporate naming |

  2. Pingback: Phonosemantics – Can Sounds Have Intrinsic Meaning? | aperi mentis

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