Waiting for Mr. Cooper

Fans of Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life will recall with distaste the conniving banker Mr. Potter, the richest and meanest man in Bedford Falls.

George Bailey, played by James Stewart, falls afoul of Potter and is driven to the edge of suicide on Christmas Eve, saved only by the intervention of Clarence, his guardian angel.

Potter, or Henry F. Potter to give him his full fictitious name, occupies slot #6 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the 50 Greatest Villains in American film history. People just don’t like him.

This scene, where George Bailey confronts Potter, could be a post-2008 parable of our time.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 1.52.56 PM

So it was with some ambivalence I read that Nationstar, one of the biggest nonbank mortgage servicers in the US and whose name is associated with mortgage crisis, distressed loans and foreclosures, is creating a new brand with the name “Mr. Cooper”.

Mr. Potter? Mr. Cooper? Mortgages? Haven’t I seen this movie before?

According to the Dallas Morning News, executives at Nationstar have spent more than a year and roughly $5 million on the branding overhaul. The hope is that consumers will see the new name as an extension of a new company ethos, “personable, customer-focused and easily navigable online.”

The rebranding comes as the company, which grew into a niche borne of the massive rise in distressed mortgages, adapts to a shifting industry. As the housing market recovers Nationstar needs new ways to grow, especially after a difficult year that saw the departure of several senior executives and a 60 percent fall in the stock price.

President and CEO Jay Bray said making existing customers happy is a top priority. So building a recognizable digital-savvy brand that will attract customers for life is a logical step forward.

“Mr. Cooper is meant to be that advocate that person that’s going to connect with the customers to deliver best — better experience and to be an advocate for them day in and day out,” Jay Bray said on an earnings call.

Nationstar will be well shut of a tired, generic corporate name that is lost in the Landstar, Ameristar, Coinstar morass of sameness and, it’s true, personal names have worked well in the financial services industry in which service should be the operative word.

Chuck

The names of Messrs. Wells and Fargo have served the bank well since 1852, and J.P. Morgan, Edward Jones and Charles Schwab built financial empires on their personal credibility. Charles Schwab’s “Talk to Chuck” campaign in 2005 was a great way of capitalizing on the personal integrity and acumen of an individual, also signaling there was a real person on the end of the phone to talk to for advice, if not Chuck himself.

But, like Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls, Mr. Cooper is a fiction.

We are invited to relate to a man who doesn’t exist. Who is he? What does he stand for? What does he look like? Maybe the company will invent a Colonel Sanders-type spokesperson to give the brand flesh and blood substance. Even the Colonel was real, though. Given the artificial, digital nature of the brand, Max Headroom might be a better avatar (remember him?).

The world is changing around Nationstar and its ilk and it presents a seminal opportunity for them to reinvent what it means to be a mortgage company in the age of digital brands and heightened customer expectation. It had to do something.

Atom

The financial services industry is alive with the sound of molds cracking and breaking. Atom Bank of the UK, for example, is building a “customer obsessed” bank brand that customers can personalize. “We were building a bank for ‘you’ (the customer) and not ‘us’ (the bank).”

Mr. Cooper feels lamely traditional and superficial in comparison. It has the hallmarks of a campaign developed by a new age ad agency. And all ad campaigns are, by their nature, transient.

The intention for the brand is not entirely clear. News has leaked out in dribs and drabs. It could part of an Allstate/Esurance strategy allowing Nationstar to hedge its bets for a while.

Whatever the intention, Mr. Cooper needs more than a “digital-savvy brand”. He needs to be given life.

Strategy & Mondays

It was inevitable that the announcement of Booz & Company’s new name, Strategy&, would be accompianed by derisory references to “Monday”.

The tone of the coverage has been one of “here we go again – what is PwC thinking? First the Monday disaster and now Strategy&.”

Monday, as you will recall, was the name for the planned spinoff of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting business. It was 2002, the era of Sarbannes-Oxley. Arthur Andersen had just gone down in flames after being implicated in the Enron scandal.

The day day that never dawned
The day that never dawned

The remaining “Big Four” accounting firms (PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young and KPMG) were under pressure from investors, regulators and clients to separate audit from consulting work to prevent future conflicts of interest.

In what must go down as a miracle of timing and good fortune, Andersen Consulting had been involved in an acrimonious split from Arthur Andersen in 2000 and was forced to change its name. It became Accenture on January 1, 2001.

Ernst & Young sold its consulting practice to Cap Gemini of France and KPMG’s consulting services operations were demerged and renamed BearingPoint in October 2002 following an IPO.

Meanwhile, Deloitte was trying to whistle past the graveyard with Braxton, a firm it acquired in 1984, as the name for its consulting business spin off.  Braxton scarcely registered a blip on the media radar, which was probably the point. It has all the personality of an old tweed jacket.

It’s one thing dig up name candidates from the vaults, but quite another to turn what is basically a timid,  play safe strategy into a self-congratulatory blow for common sense, as it did on its website when it said: “Braxton represents a welcome return to common sense and a departure from the increasingly predictable tendency toward coined, invented, and whimsical corporate names.” Humbug.

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 8.24.25 PM

PricewaterhouseCoopers (now PwC) turned to Wolff Olins, the London company that created “Orange”, a mobile phone network named after a color that went on to disrupt the entire market. Presumably, PwC knew what it was in for and Wolff Olins did not disappoint.

Monday was no less iconoclastic. It drew the predicable gasps of disbelief, although the worst thing its detractors could level at the name was that “I don’t like Mondays” was the title of a hit song by the Boomtown Rats.

CEO Greg Brenneman said what was expected of him: “Monday is exactly what we want it to be as we create our new business: a real word, concise, recognizable, global and the right fit for a company that works hard to deliver results.”

It was left to spokeswoman Sehra Eusufzai to make the more telling and perceptive point: “With any new name introduction, there’s bound to be a wide range of reactions, and over time it will come to mean what people want it to mean.”

Whether or not Monday could have been the Orange of the consulting world we shall never know as IBM snapped up the business from PwC before the IPO happened and swallowed it wholesale, regurgitating it as IBM Consulting Services.

Still, even though that particular Monday never saw the light of day, it hasn’t stopped publications such as the Financial Times (which should know better) referring to Monday as a ‘miss-step’ and ‘ill-fated’ on the basis of no evidence at all.

Now, twelve years later with Enron receding in the rear-view mirror and audit revenues flattening, the Big Four are once again looking at consulting for growth. Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young have been investing heavily. Last year, PwC acquired Booz & Co, which was spun-off by its parent Booz Allen Hamilton in 2008 after it sold itself to the Carlyle Group.

All of which brings us back to Strategy&.

A condition of Booz’s spin-off was that it could no longer use founder Edwin Booz’s name if the consultancy lost its independence. So PwC found itself with another naming challenge on its books for its consulting business.

Far from being another attempt to break the consulting industry mold with an edgy new name, Strategy& (pronounced Strategyand) is as close as they could get to changing the name while making no change at all.

Booz

Consider: in the Booz & Co logo (also the handiwork of Wolff Olins) the ampersand is a prominent design feature. If the Booz part of the name had to go, which it did, the ampersand could be retained as a strong visual link of continuity. And then, simply by replacing “Booz” in Booz&Co with the innocuous word “strategy”, you have achieved the necessary change without the rebranding controversy.

Strategy&Co would have been an elegant solution. Unfortunately, if this was indeed the logic, they soon encountered a problem: Strategy&Co is already in use by another organization. Clipping off the “Co” gets round the problem but what PwC is left with in “Strategy&” is a name that is bizarrely incomplete. The snarks have duly had their field day, calling it the “worst marketing choice since Coke II.”

Cesare Mainardi, chief executive of Booz & Company makes a nice point in saying the name “invites a discussion about what we’re about and what we’re thinking and how we can help our clients transform.”

Yes it does. But that conversation is better left to a brand campaign rather than a name. And this is exactly what Strategy& feels like – a campaign. It has the same catchy, transitory quality of something dreamed up in an advertising agency.

Like small talk at a cocktail party the Strategy& conversation will soon grow stale, and then what? It will run its course until it is finally absorbed into PwC as PwC Strategy. Which may be the whole point of the exercise.

Footnote:

Deloitte backed off launching Braxton in 2003 as the credit markets tightened. Under heavy acquisition debts BearingPoint filed for Chapter 11 on February 18, 2009 and was liquidated.  Accenture went on to become one of the world’s most successful multinational firms, with approximately 289,000 people serving clients in more than 120 countries. The company generated net revenues of $28.6 billion in 2013 and yet, for some reason that has never been made clear, Accenture has figured in numerous lists of “rebranding disasters”. Go figure.

See also: Accenture, accent on the negative here.

You say Allegis and I say Allegion

You can’t fault Lippincott for persisting with corporate names based on the word ‘allegiance’.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a daily ritual for most American school children and, in spite of its feudal etymology, the distinct overtones of patriotic loyalty resonate positively with people.

No surprise then that it’s a wildly popular base word in naming. There are, literally, hundreds of ‘Allegiance’ names and its variants for companies in every conceivable business category.

Allegion and family
Allegion and family

The latest coinage is ‘Allegion’, the new corporate name for Ingersoll Rand’s commercial and residential security business that owns unsexy lock brands such as Schlage and Legge.

Lippincott says of their handiwork: “The selected name, Allegion, conveys the close, collaborative and long-term relationships (allegiances) that the company builds with customers. It also refers to the diverse legion of experts company-wide and suggests the protection and strength that the brand’s security solutions provide.”

It makes you wonder if, in the client evaluation of Allegion, the subject of its first cousin ‘Allegis’ ever came up. It’s a story that Lippincott knows well.

Allegis CEO Richard Ferris explains his strategy
Allegis CEO Richard Ferris explains his strategy

It starts in 1979 when Richard J. Ferris became chief executive of UAL Inc., the parent company of United Airlines. He spoke with messianic zeal of his visionary concept of a one-stop fly-drive-sleep behemoth that would take care of the major needs of travelers. In a two-year span Ferris spent $2.3 billion in pursuit of his vision, acquiring Hertz Car Rental, Westin and Hilton International hotel chains.

In February 1987 he changed the name of UAL Inc. to Allegis Corp. to reflect the broadened scope of his travel enterprise.

“We are a travel company, not just a transportation company”, he said. “The name change clearly identifies us as the only corporation that can offer travelers door-to-door service.”

Wall Street hated the strategy and analysts and institutional investors focused their displeasure on the name. Donald Trump, never at a loss for a pithy remark, said Allegis “sounds like the next world-class disease.”  Wall Street wags joined in; Allegis Corp. became Egregious Corp.

Unnerved by the ridicule, Allegis directors finally bowed to pressure from dissident shareholders who threatened a proxy fight to replace the board. They forced Ferris to resign, symbolically changed the name back to UAL, and began to dismember the company.

It was Lippincott (and Margulies) who came up with the Allegis name. They explained it thus at the time:  “Allegis conveys the central corporate mission of service and guardianship … through its relation to the word allegiant, meaning loyal or faithful, and aegis, meaning protection and sponsorship.”

Now, for me, notions of guardianship, fidelity and protection sound like a much better set of attributes for a security company than a travel company. Too bad for Allegion they had already been pinned to Allegis.

Of course, there was nothing wrong with Allegis as a name. It lives on quite happily today in various corporate guises; here, here and here, for example. Leave it to Donald Trump to provide a fitting epitaph:

“The name change made me more militant as an investor and more willing to speak out against management, because I thought it was so wrong,” he said in the New York Times. ”And I think it had an important psychological role. It brought out even more anger at management and made a lot of people say they had finally had it.”

In other words – if all else fails, attack the name.

See also: Allegis, the name that died of shame.

The old, old story of a new corporate name

Keysight LogoThe only interesting thing about the new Keysight Technologies name from Agilent is the weird familiarity of the story surrounding its development.

It’s like a tired, old Agatha Christie plot recycled over and over. Only the names of the characters have changed.

A corporate spinoff is announced: they need a name, one with a message–wait, so what do we stand for? It also has to be easy to pronounce and – watch out for those tricky translation issues – it can’t mean shriveled testicles or anything rude in Japanese!

It sounds easy; it turned out to be very hard, much harder than anyone imagined.

An internal multi-regional, cross-functional team is formed just to complicate things. Once again executives rummage for candidates in the HP heritage bin – Addison Technologies anyone? Lawyers in international markets can’t agree. A private investigator is hired to track down the owner of a domain name.

It finally gets down to a shortlist of candidates…and then the CEO nixes them all on his iPhone.

He doesn’t like anything? Quick, back to the drawing board!

“It’s really hard to just take a bunch of letters and put them together, and have somebody identify with them right away,” says client breathlessly after three months of turmoil. “I would definitely describe it as a wild ride, three months of insanity.” Indeed. Insane.

A new name is finally announced. A happy ending in this case. Phew! But such an unnecessary palaver.

Read the unabridged version here.

Thanks to the EEVBlog, here are a few possible alternative name candidates:

This is Shinola

This is Shinola

There was a saying where I came from about unfortunate people who are easily confused or taken in. “Graham can’t tell his arse from his elbow”, we’d say.

Americans have a pithier expression: “Wade can’t tell shit from Shinola.” The alliterative ‘sh…’ sound here adds an important degree of subtle memorability and sibilant symmetry.

Until recently I had no idea what Shinola was, but whatever it was I was instinctively sure I could distinguish it from shit.

Shinola, as it turns out, was an American shoe polish brand. Wikipedia reliably informs me that it was introduced in 1907 by Shinola-Bixby Corporation of Rochester, NY.

The -ola suffix for product names was all the fashion at the time thanks to the popularity of the Pianola, a player piano that possibly derived its name from the violin-viola relationship. In 1906 the Victor Talking Machine Company launched the Victrola gramophone. Galvin Manufacturing later introduced the Motorola car radio, a ‘Victrola’ for your motor, and the whole crapola naming trend ran its course soon after.

Shinola (add shine to ‘ola’) polished its last boot in 1960 when the company went out of business but its name now lives on as something more than a euphemism for something you step in.

Shinola has been reborn as a luxury brand.

Yes indeed. You are now urged to think of Shinola in the same way you think of Mont Blanc with its expensive pens and other luxury ‘lifestyle’ accessories you don’t really need.

The company behind Shinola, Bedrock Brands, was started by a founder of the Fossil brand of watches, Tom Kartsotis. Last year, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that Mr. Kartsotis commissioned a study in which people were asked if they preferred pens made in China that cost $5, the United States at $10 or Detroit at $15, and when offered the Detroit option, they chose it regardless of the higher price.

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 9.27.25 PM

And so a luxury brand was born, trading on the manufacturing prowess of a city that was once known as Motown, the Motor City. And its name is Shinola?

Shinola opened the doors of its flagship store in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood in July. The Shinola product line consists of an unlikely paring of watches, bicycles and leather goods, many of which are made in Detroit, or at least assembled in Detroit. Yes, you can buy Shinola shoe polish at$15 a can and, if the impulse takes you, there’s a “Rare American Flag” going for $15,000 in the ‘curated’ section its website. Add it to your cart.

All-in-all, Shinola leaves you with an odd, empty feeling. The product set has no brand focus. The faux authenticity of its story, straddling a “storied American brand, and a storied American city”,  is bizarrely schizophrenic. Shinola is by no stretch a ‘storied’ brand. What stories are told about Shinola apart from its association with shit? It is all off-the-mark marketing cliche and hype.

Detroit, on the other hand, could be a winning idea. Clint Eastwood’s raw, gritty Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler in 2012 “Halftime in America” hit exactly the right note.  It was an uplifting tribute to a great American city and a great brand.

The sentiment behind the Shinola brand tries to capture that same spirit but fumbles it. What have Detroit and Shinola got to do with each other?

Is the brand Detroit, is it Shinola, or is it something you just want to wipe off your shoes?

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.

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.

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=lacrosse&iid=5407747″ src=”e/f/2/6/MLL_All_Star_2468.jpg?adImageId=10127861&imageId=5407747″ width=”234″ height=”154″ /]

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.