Sprint stays on track with its brand name

In an industry characterized by stifling indifference to branding, Sprint arrived on the telecom scene as bright as a new pin.

It was 1987. The telecommunications industry, dominated by engineers and defined by its regulated past, had thrown up Bell Atlantic Bellsouth, Southwestern Bell, USWest, Ameritech Pacific Telesis, Nynex, and thousands of names that ended in cell, com or tel.

My former Landor Colleague and mentor, John Diefenbach, delighted in telling the drollery about Telesis sounding like something you caught, and Nynex being what you rubbed on to get rid of it.

Sprint was freshly different. In a word of one syllable the name conveyed energy, speed, agility, life and the right element of out-of-category surprise that marked it out as a pioneer.

But for all its breakthrough bravado the origins of the name are much more mundane. They go all the way back to the railroads.

The Southern Pacific Railroad of San Francisco maintained an extensive microwave communications system along its rights-of-way that it used for internal communications.

In 1972, Southern Pacific Communications, a unit set up by the railroad to manage the communications business, began selling surplus system capacity to corporations, circumventing AT&T’s then-monopoly on public telephony. As regulation loosened SPC began providing long-distance telephone service in 1978.

SPC decided it needed a new name for the switched voice service and ran an internal contest. Sprint was the winning entry.  The name is derived, it is said, from the initial letters of Southern Pacific Railroad Intercontinental Network of Telecommunications.

The Southern Pacific line

While the ‘SPR’ part of the name is logical enough, an ‘Intercontinental Network of Telecommunications’ feels more than a little forced. What we have here is a backronym, I suspect, not an acronym.

Anyway, the Sprint service was born and went on to survive several corporate mergers involving GTE, Telenet, United Telecom, US Telecom, Uninet, and ISACOMM.

By 1992 Sprint had achieved national recognition, thanks in large part to Candice Bergen’s “Dime Lady” ad campaign. Its then parent, United Telecommunications, sensibly adopted the name of its long distance unit to become Sprint Corporation.

In a 2005 ‘merger-of-equals’ Sprint merged with Nextel to become Sprint Nextel. The Nextel brand withered and has all but died. It is scheduled for retirement in 2013. The Sprint brand lives on.

Last Monday, Softbank, a Japanese company, announced a $20.1 billion deal to buy about 70 percent of the company, giving the Sprint the new life it needs to fight at least a few more rounds in the telecom wars.

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