What’s in a name? Headlines, clichés and the Juliet syndrome

“What’s in a name?” It must be the most famous rhetorical question in literary history.

Practically every article ever written about names has been headlined by Juliet’s speculation in Shakespeare’s play ‘The most excellent and lamentable tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’. There’s no other quotation that is so universally recognized, nor so widely misconstrued.

Taken on face value, Juliet’s view about names is clear enough. Names, she seems to say, are artificial and meaningless conventions; they are merely labels we attach to things and of no significance in themselves. After all, a rose by any other name…you can finish the line.

And so confusion begins. The words are commonly ascribed to Shakespeare in that they are said to represent his sentiments about names. It has to be remembered he wrote them for Juliet – an infatuated, lovelorn 13-year-old girl in hopeless denial. They are her words, not Shakespeare’s. Taken out of their dramatic context the significance of her words is lost.

Far from being the dismissive “so what” observation about names it is usually taken for, Juliet’s question goes to the very core of Shakespeare’s most poignant tragedy.

It is a defiantly futile challenge to fate from a desperate young girl.

Love and death in Verona

Juliet and her lover Romeo are tormented by their names; their love is thwarted by a bitter feud between their families, the Capulets and the Montagues. Not surprisingly then, Juliet is completely obsessed with names.  Immediately before she utters her famous line she says to Romeo: ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; and pleads with him: “O, be some other name!”

The immutable fact of their names and Juliet’s headstrong defiance of their explosive significance is a splendid piece dramatic irony used by Shakespeare to ratchet up the play’s narrative tension. Juliet’s astoundingly naive question signals to the audience that our young heroine is heedless of the disaster that is so clearly hurtling towards her.

What’s in a name? For Juliet, anguish and death; for Shakespeare, the essence of a tragedy; for businesses, as we shall discuss, consequences no less dramatic for those who fall victim to the Juliet syndrome and take names lightly.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey put it well: “In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be.”

Next: Allegis, the name that died of shame.


CA, the company formerly known as Computer Associates, is displaying all the characteristics of Hamlet. It is a company that can’t make up its mind.

Founded in 1976 as Computer Associates International, Inc., the company legally changed its corporate name to CA, Inc., in February 2006 while in the midst of a $2.2 billion fraud investigation that had dogged it for four years.

Explaining the name change at the time, CEO John Swainson said:

“CA is a changed company, but not an entirely new company. We’ve taken the strengths of the past and combined them with new initiatives, strategies and ideas to ensure CA is the clear industry leader in meeting the evolving information technology needs of customers.”

This week, four years on, the company announced it had changed it’s name again – this time to CA Technologies. Explaining this change, new CEO Bill McCracken, said:

“The name CA Technologies both acknowledges our past yet points to our future as a leader in delivering the technologies that will revolutionize the way IT powers business agility.”

Spot the difference?

While the latest statement does make reference to the current industry buzz-term “business agility”, the two statements are identical in their sentiment and intent. There is nothing to help us understand the logic of the addition of ‘technologies’ in the CA name.

Marianne Budnik, chief marketing officer, did add: “The brand and name change to CA Technologies was designed with insights from nearly 700 customers, partners and market thought leaders.”

It begs the question – insights into what, specifically? I would hazard a guess: CA hasn’t worked as a name. It was a hasty, myopic decision made at a time the company needed to distance itself from a debilitating scandal. CA was the easy choice, but the wrong choice. It just wasn’t thought through.

The pros and cons of initials as corporate names aside (more on this later), CA works visually when connected to the original name, Computer Associates, as in the amended logo introduced in 2001, shown above. Dropping the Computer Associates name from the logo was probably regarded as a minor adjustment. And as the internal rationale most likely went: competitors such as IBM, HP and BMC do just fine with initials, so why can’t we?

Well, disconnected from Computer Associates, CA becomes problematic for a number of reasons.

Unlike IBM, HP and BMC, ‘CA’ has no hard letter sounds. Consequently, CA it is not heard as two distinct initials, C and A. It is heard as ‘seeyay’.

Seeyay? Come again. Oh, you mean C and A, the old Computer Associates?

CA is nothing but a weak proxy for Computer Associates, a whiter shade of pale. It is too phonetically lightweight and nondescript as a name and simply not robust enough to acquire meaning of its own.

The other, not insignificant, problem – Google CA and up come pages of reference to California. CA means California first and foremost.

A new CEO brings in a new perspective. Bill McCracken decides change is necessary, and this time it will be based on research. Hence, the 700 insights Ms. Budnik mentioned. But they were probably given in response to a very specific question concerning the CA name, and very likely centering on preferences between modifiers, such as CA Software, CA Solutions and CA Technologies, etc.

Only in such a range of soft options could CA Technologies emerge as a winner. ‘Technologies’ is a verbal Band Aid and adds nothing other than a glottal stop to a very inadequate name.

Simpler options

This latest name change amounts to little more than fiddling around the problem, and in doing so CA creates another problem for itself.

In her statement, Ms. Budnik also said the name was “developed to ensure that we tell a consistent story in the market that reflects the full breadth and depth of what we offer.”

A redundant word in a name makes for inconsistency, not consistency. ‘Technologies’ is a such word. Lucent Technologies was always referred to just as Lucent, for example. No doubt CA Technologies will appear on things the company can control, such as corporate signage, stationery and collateral. But in all other cases it will be CA.  The company’s ticker symbol is still CA, it’s URL is still ca.com, and the company still defaults to CA in references to itself on its website. It will still be CA in headlines, analyst calls and in conversation. Where is the consistency?

Rather than finessing with the corporate name a simpler option would have been a tagline to anchor the name in some specificity for marketing purposes. EMC’s “Where information lives”, or GE’s “Imagination at work” are two of the better examples.

The better and braver option for Computer Associates would have been to change the name of the company in 2006 when it had reason and opportunity to, the accounting scandal apart. While Computer Associates’ success was built on mainframe software a different future beckons, one in which companies manage their technology in what the industry calls the “cloud.” The name should have claimed that future unequivocally.


Cleggmania is sweeping Britain.  On the basis of his performance in the first two televised debates between the three political party leaders, Nick Clegg is the new golden boy of British politics. People are talking of him as the leader Britain needs.

Most watchers of the debates — the first in British electoral history — scored the contests as a surprise victory for Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, over Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron.

Expenses scandals have left electors deeply contemptuous of parliamentarians. Clegg, as the outsider, managed to convince the audience that he was one of them and not part of a cozy old political machine.

His big problem is his name. Clegg.

Britain has come a long way from the noblesse oblige era of aristocratic, Eton-educated political leaders, but not quite far enough for the Cleggs, I fear.

It was a sure sign of the times when the Right Honourable Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate, renounced his peerage in the Sixties and reinvented himself as man-of-the-people ‘Tony Benn’ to pursue a career in British politics. It was said he had his shirt collars specially frayed at Harrods for the role.

And Eton-educated* Anthony Charles Lynton Blair led ‘New Labour’ out of the political wilderness as plain Tony Blair.

But Nick Clegg has no where else to go.

What’s wrong with Clegg might not be apparent to America ears, but to the British there is plenty wrong with it, although people probably wouldn’t say as much. Clegg is brass-necked working class, a clunkingly Anglo-Saxon, irredeemably Northern, below the salt name.

Clegg is, in fact, one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon surnames on record, pre-Domesday Book and all that, but it doesn’t count for much in modern Britain. Clegg would be the name of the dunderhead in a TV sitcom, or the feckless foot soldier in a Shakespeare historical drama.

Gordon Brown can’t be anything other than he is – all Brown, no gloss. Eton-educated David Cameron hasn’t yet reduced himself to ‘Dave’, but he might still before Election Day on May 6 if the Clegg continues to live up to his ancient family motto:

“Let him take what he is able to take”.


Qui potest capere capiat

*Tony Blair was educated Fettes College and not Eton. I am indebted to Alan Stephen for pointing out the error.


Apple’s iPad tablet device is shipping April 3 and already it’s looking like another hit for Steve Jobs…yes, in spite of initial reaction to the name.

I must admit, I am bemused by the continuing name controversy. Admittedly, for women of a certain age it is entirely understandable they would connect the word ‘pad’ to a hygiene product in free association. In context, however, that association would be drastically minimized.

When we speak of launch pads, legal pads, bachelor pads, ink pads or pad locks we know exactly what is being referred to. There are no jokes, snickers or shudders when someone asks for a note pad. In such contextual instances, association of the word ‘pad’ to a feminine hygiene product is not only unlikely, it is perverse.

So it will be with the Apple iPad. It will come to mean the computing platform of the future without anyone blinking an eye (see Walt Mossberg‘s comments in the Wall Street Journal).

In naming, context is everything.

Oddly, the prevailing negative views about the iPad name are coming from men. For some reason have assumed the banner of female disdain and just can’t get beyond the tampon. How their minds work is a matter for them and their psychologists.

After the Apple iPad, stand by for the Dell Streak

If people had problems with the name of Apple’s iPad, they are going to have a high old time with Dell’s entry into the touch screen tablet market.

Engadget has posted two slides from an internal Dell document that purports show color options, sizes and the new name for the tablet referred to as “Streak”.

Streak is troubling for a couple of reasons. By definition, a streak is a line, mark or smear. Apart from the open invitation it offers to toilet humorists, Streak is a hard name to love if it is anything more than a code name. More problematically for Dell, it is yet another ‘brand’ that has to fight for attention alongside OptiPlex, Vostro, n Series, Latitude, Precision, PowerEdge, PowerVault, PowerConnect EqualLogic, Inspiron, Studio, Studio XPS, Alienware and the pretentious Adamo.

For all the issues some people have with the iPad and Apple’s iNaming convention, at least it has a logic that helps you to understand the family of products within an Apple-centric system.

From Pampers to Pontiacs

Where is Dell going? Regrettably, the company seems to be heading down the same P&G-style consumer product branding path that Ron Zarella pursued a few years ago at GM at the behest of his Board mentor, John Smale. A former chairman of Procter & Gamble, Smale hoped to introduce the marketing skills of the packaged-goods business to cars. What worked for Pampers will work for Pontiacs was the logic.

Zarella, president of GM North America, duly obliged and poured marketing money into individual vehicle models at the expense of the core ‘divisional’ brands (Pontiac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac).

No new dawn for Oldsmobile

He even went so far as ‘de-badging’ Oldsmobile cars and promoted models such as the Aurora as brands in their own right, removing all trace of Oldsmobile on the vehicle. The problem was you still had to walk into an Oldsmobile dealership to buy one, an experience not for the faint-hearted. It was sleight-of-hand brand marketing logic devoid of any consumer buying psychology.  An already weak brand was effectively killed by this strategy which provided another expensive lesson in why classic consumer branding techniques cannot be applied willy-nilly across different industries.

Dell should look to its brand laurels. As innovative as its products might be (and I’m not sure they are technically), Dell is not a product marketing company. I don’t think it knows what it is anymore, but this much is certain: Dell needs a strong brand under which it can introduce new products and a nomenclature strategy that supports the brand. Fighting a war of product brands in now obligatory bright colors is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Hands off LaCrosse

Staying north of the border and south of the waistline, there’s news that GM has a new-found confidence in its marketing convictions. It concerns the Buick LaCrosse and the habits of Quebecois teenagers.

LaCrosse is a wildly popular sport in Canada. Sort of like hockey played on grass, it originated with the Native American nations of the United States and Canada, mainly among the Huron and Iroquois tribes.

So LaCrosse would seem to be a wholesome, easy-to-pronounce, action-oriented name for a vehicle. Except that it is apparently slang for masturbation in Quebec. Why the febrile teens of Quebec would refer to it as ‘la crosse’ is anyone’s guess but GM erred on the side of caution when it launched the LaCrosse in 2005. They called it the Allure in Canada.

The new GM seems to have come to its senses over this issue.  It has decided the 2010 model will be called the LaCrosse on both sides of the border.

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Keep your hands where I can see them.

“It was in fact our dealers in Quebec who wanted the name changed,” George Saratlic, a GM Canada product communications spokesman, told the Canadian Press. “They saw little down side to using the LaCrosse name in common with the U.S. and recognized the huge upside in terms of the enhanced advertising support that could be derived from the LaCrosse name and creative work done for it in the U.S.”

This is hardly the first time a carmaker has been distracted by an automotive double entendre. The Ford Pinto, the Mitsubishi Pajero, and the Mazda Laputa apparently all mean something unsavoury somewhere in South America.

As Ira Bachrach of NameLab says. “It happens all the time. You sit in a room and there’s always some guy in the back who says that means sexual perversion in Nicaragua.”

“Most companies ignore it or at the very worst they do research to see whether a), it’s generally perceived in the audience they care about and b), whether it’s relevant, whether the audience really cares.”

Which leads us to the legendary Chevy Nova story, the classic cautionary tale of the pitfalls of names in foreign markets. It goes something like this – GM launched the Chevrolet Nova into the Spanish speaking market and it bombed because ‘no va’ translates to ‘it doesn’t go’ in Spanish.

It lives on in countless marketing textbooks. It is repeated in numerous business and branding seminars and is a staple of magazine and newspaper reporters in need of a pithy example of branding folly.

A great anecdote, for sure. Except that the story is not true. Sorry. Blame Snopes.

The iPad: context is everything, ladies

Is a legal pad an item of personal hygiene for female lawyers? How about a launch pad – is that a contraption for applying Maxipads? What about ink pad? Or mouse pad…

Pardon the puerile analogies. Of course you know what these kind of ‘pads’ are. So, to force such interpretation of their meaning through association with a feminine hygiene pad would be perverse. But that’s no worse than what happened this week with Apple’s iPad.

Within seconds of the unveiling of the iPad by Steve Jobs, Twitter lit up with women complaining and/or joking that the name immediately made them think of …iTampon.

Experts who should know better fanned the flames. “It’s an unfortunate name choice,” contended Michael Silverstein, senior vice president at Boston Consulting Group and author of “Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World’s Largest, Fastest-Growing Market.”

“They needed to do a research protocol and testing for a product that would offend no one while making clear its technical, functional and emotional benefits,” he said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Are you experienced?

That may be the way they think in the literal world of management consulting. What he clearly does not understand is that, when it comes to names and naming, experiential context is everything. Just is we do not suppose a cell phone is for making calls in jail, that Virgin Atlantic is an airline for the sexually inexperienced, or indeed Apple is a company that manages orchards, the iPad will create its own context and it will be become just as familiar and accepted as iPod.

The trap to guard against with new names is the natural tendency of people to associate an unfamiliar name with something that it is familiar. The statement that begins, “It reminds me of…” has led to the premature dismissal of many a good name candidate.  Associations are important, but focus should be on whether the the product or company that is being named could create new, positive meaning around the word, rather than rear-view association.

There’s nothing that can be done with plain bad names, such as the Ford Probe. But just imagine if iPad had been called the iTablet, which some bets were on before the launch. Would alarmed physicians be advising us not to use one more than a twice day, and then only after meals with a glass of water? Of course not. They know what hypochondriasis is.

What was that name again, Steve?
What was that name again, Steve?


Google? What kind of name is that?

The subject of names and name origins has always been good for a quick article to fill a few column inches of newsprint or five minutes of air time.

ABC News ran such a story recently. It was the fairly desultory stroll down the well-trodden paths and naming byways of Accenture, Uggs, Wii and Google.

“Imagine what life was like before Google”, the reporter began. “Worse yet, imagine if there was no Google and we had to look everything up on BackRub”. Gasp. Just imagine.

BackRub, so legend has it, was the working name for search engine before it became Google, which is itself an unwitting misspelling of the word Googol, a mathematical term.

Few people know or care what a Googol is but it’s interesting how a familiar name, no matter how obscure, can seem so perfectly apt to this reporter; and how an unfamiliar name like BackRub can be so weirdly cumbersome and inappropriate.

One of the greatest challenges in naming is helping people to get beyond initial gut reaction to unfamiliar words (that’s how names start life) and think of them as successful, familiar brands. In this facet of human nature lies the essence of a brand: people like what they know, they are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.

Juliet had it so wrong. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic warhorse from Minnesota,  said it better if not as prosaically :  In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be” .

Time Warner’s naming twavails

When it comes to name changes, the Time Warner organization has had more than its fair share of unfortunate miss-steps.

Time Warner’s misbegotten merger with AOL produced the behemoth ‘AOL Time Warner’ in 2000. It was a fractious marriage and the promised synergies never materialized. When Time Warner executives regained their senses and control of the company they dropped AOL from the corporate name in 2003 before finally ridding itself the business in 2009.

In this case the name was the least of Time Warner’s problems, however humiliating the unraveling may have been.

Its offspring, Time Warner Telecom, has made much heavier weather of its naming challenge.


Continue reading “Time Warner’s naming twavails”

Coinstar, Amazon and the entrepreneur’s naming trap

What has the name ‘Starbucks’ got to do with coffee?

Apart from now being the name of the world’s largest coffee chain, it has absolutely nothing to do with the dark, bitter brew.

The company was named after a minor character in Herman Melville’s book ‘Moby Dick’. As anyone who has read the book can testify, Starbuck drinks not a drop of coffee. According to the Starbucks website the founders considered naming it after Captain Ahab’s boat, the Pequod, but minds were changed when a friend tried out the tagline, “Have a cup of Pequod.” Starbuck was the fallback choice.

“Customers must recognize that you stand for something”, CEO Howard Schultz once astutely observed. The Starbucks brand and business is built around his vision of recreating the Italian coffee bar culture in the US, not the commodity product.

How important was coffee to Starbuck’s success? Essential. It gave the business an early focus on the culture of coffee and a ‘known for” brand. Today, the brand has widened into that of a place to relax, meet and work.

Stores sell many things apart from mocha frappuccinos  — packaged food items, hot and cold sandwiches, mugs and tumblers; select “Starbucks Evenings” locations offer beer, wine, and appetizers. The point being the name has the necessary flexibility to grow with the business.

There’s an important naming lesson in that observation for every entrepreneur.

They have a great idea for a new product; they reason, not unnaturally, that the product is the business and the business is the product and, therefore, the name of the product becomes the name of the company.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 3.03.19 PMCollege graduate student Jens Molbak had a great idea for all that loose change we accumulate in jars.

The bank won’t accept coins unless they are sorted and rolled. He came up with Coinstar, those green vending machines you see in supermarkets where people dump their change and receive dollar bills. Coinstar takes a percentage.

A nice idea, and a very nice business. The company has processed more than 350 billion coins in its nearly two decades of operation.

In 2009 Coinstar came face-to-face with the limitations of its name when it acquired Redbox, the DVD rental company. Molbak realized the future of the business is really about dispensing machines, not coins. Coinstar is a limiting name for a business that wants to expand beyond coins.

The company changed it name to Outerwall to better reflect its evolving lineup of automated kiosks and is now a multi-national provider of services for the front end of retail stores, including bulk vending, prepaid products (gift cards), money transfer, automated DVD rentals via Redbox and coin counting.

Business focus is essential, but when it comes to corporate naming entrepreneurs need to think beyond the product and ask themselves the question, ‘What business am I really in?’ Changing a company name just as the business is hitting its stride is disruptive, expensive and unnecessary with a little forethought.

MP3Car faced a similar dilemma.

The company traces its roots to a worldwide online community of geeks in the 1990s who installed personal computers filled with electronic music files, or MP3s, in their cars. Along the way, MP3Car’s engineers developed increasing expertise in building and integrating mobile computers and started consulting and selling computers to companies and government agencies.

“MP3Car.com is obviously a misnomer at this point,” said CEO Heather Sarkissian in a 2009 interview with the Baltimore Sun. “It’s a very well-known brand. However, it is very confusing to our [business-to-business] enterprise customers.”

The name was a stumbling block for potential clients and even investors.

“One investor thought all we do is put MP3 players in cars,” Heather Sarkissian said in the interview. “He told us we’d be out of business in two years. … I had to explain to him what we really do.”

MP3Car tried to save money by doing its renaming and branding itself.

“I’m telling you, it’s all been thought of. … It’s crazy,” she said. “This has been an incredible challenge.”

So much so that the company seems to have abandoned the attempt.


Jeff Bezos wanted anything but a limiting name when he founded Amazon.

It was very nearly called Cadabra, as in “abracadabra” – the word magicians use when performing a trick. His lawyer apparently misheard the word as “cadaver” so Bezos instead named the business after the river, reportedly for two reasons: one, to suggest scale – Amazon.com launched with the tagline “Earth’s biggest book store” (a great value proposition) –  and two, back then website listings were often alphabetically before Google came along.

On it’s march to global retail hegemony Amazon has helped to put retailers Borders Books, Tower Records and Blockbuster out of business.

Books now represent a tiny fraction of its revenues. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has become the retailer’s money machine, accounting for more than half of the company’s operating profit while on track to do more than $10 billion in sales this year.

What a mistake books.com would have been.