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.

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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.


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.


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.

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Once, when something was brilliant, it really was brilliant. It was splendid, magnificent.

A George Best goal was brilliant. Peter Sellers was brilliant. An Aston Martin DB6 was brilliant.

Lives were brilliant. In his book “Brilliant Creatures” author Howard Jacobson traces the footsteps of Australians Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes and their influence on the cultural revolution in 1960s Britain. It was a time when “every life became a brilliant breaking of the bank” according to Philip Larkin in Annus Mirabilis.

The brilliance of brilliant has since dimmed. Over use has reduced the word to mean any mildly pleasing or underwhelming news — “are you ready with your order? Brilliant!” Laced with sarcasm it conveys disbelief. Basil says in exasperation to Sybil in Fawlty Towers: ‘Oh, brilliant!! Brilliant!! Is that what made Britain great? ‘

So it makes one wonder why ‘brilliant’ is currently enjoying such voguish popularity in the world of branding and advertising.

It started a few years ago when HTC, the Taiwanese mobile phone maker, launched a new brand campaign to noisily tell the world how “Quietly Brilliant” it is.

Marriott Hotels followed up with a rebranding campaign created by Grey urging us to “Travel Brilliantly”.

Harman, the audio technology company, is now warning us to “Expect Brilliance”.

And Hyundai has joined the parade with “Live Brilliant”.

With all this sudden brilliance it feels like I’m living in a Harry Potter movie.

BrilliantLess than.

Best Western and Westin – brand tales from the wild frontier

Best Western has always been a bit of a me-too brand.

The company’s recent attempt to fix its problematic name and confused economy brand image follows the well-trodden path of Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn with a ‘basic, plus, premium’ segmentation strategy.

But then there’s BW Premier Collection, Best Western Plus Executive Residency and – just for the millennials – two new concepts named ViB (Vibe) and Glo (Glow) — how are they supposed to fit in to our consciousness?

It’s still confusing, it has to be said, and oddly reminiscent of Oldsmobile’s panicky attempt to overcome its failing brand by pretending it didn’t exist and pouring money instead into models with names such as the Alero, Bravada and Firenza. But all credit to CEO David Kong — for the first time in the 69-year history of Best Western the company has really tried to address the problem of the Best Western brand.

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The name, as you might well imagine, has its origins in the American West, which is loosely defined as the territory west of the Mississippi River.

The company was founded after the Second World War when a network of independent hotel operators in California began making referrals of each other to travelers. The informal network eventually grew and in 1946 it was decided to formalize the arrangement. With a singular lack of imagination they named the new company ‘The Best Western Motels’.

Why ‘Best’? Most likely it had something to do with a chance meeting that took place 16 years earlier in a small town to the north of California in Washington State. Two hotel competitors found themselves having breakfast at the same diner in Yakima. They struck up a conversation and decided to band together and form an alliance, which they named ‘Western Hotels’.

The folks down in California were surely aware of Western Hotels when they were thinking about a name for their company. Given where they were operating, ‘western’ must have seemed a natural. Not to be outdone by Western Hotels they found what they assumed to be an easy way round that problem by going up the superlative scale –not just Western, but Best Western.

In 1964, Best Western bumped into the geographic limitations of its name when it decided to expand east of the Mississippi. Extending the same ‘territory as brand” logic the properties were named — you guessed it —  ‘Best Eastern’. It didn’t last long. By 1967 the Best Eastern name was dropped and all motels from coast-to-coast got the Best Western name and logo, a move that would substantiate its claim to be the “World’s Largest Hotel Chain” by the 1970s.

Western Hotels, meanwhile, had taken a different route to growth with service innovations such as the first guest credit card, a state-of-the-art reservation system and the first hotel to offer 24-hour room service.

Positioned for global growth

With expansion into Canada in 1954 the company changed its name to Western International. And then, in what was a truly inspired rebranding exercise, Western International morphed its name into ‘Westin’ in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Westin Hotels & Spas is now a brand cornerstone of the Starwood Group. The addition of the Westin bird logo by Landor in San Francisco gave the brand a luxury caché that was much admired in the hotel industry.

Unlike Westin, Best Western never got to grips with the evolution of its brand as the business grew. It wasn’t until quite recently it actually came to understand that Best Western is a brand – albeit, a brand with baggage – and not just a name. I am reliably informed that, at one time not too long ago, a branding agency seriously suggested to Best Western that it build a brand around ‘Best’ and drop the western part. No takers at Best Western.

A hint of what might be ahead for the Best Western brand is the introduction of a BW monogram in the new, modernized Best Western logo. A good move although still too tentative. David Kong should have seized the opportunity and gone the whole hog with BW as the main hotel brand and corporate name and ring-fenced Best Western as its economy brand.

And what of ViB and Glo? One thing I do know about millenials – they don’t like being sold to, especially by their grandfather.

Google and the ABC of creative destruction

I know, it’s been done to death. But I think it’s time to call BS on Alphabet.

The most remarkable thing about the announcement of Google’s restructuring was not the news itself but the rapturous praise that was heaped upon it. The branding community was quite giddy with excitement.

“Without a doubt the biggest rebrand in the 21st century.”

“One of the most incredible pieces of corporate brand communication I can remember.”

“A brilliant branding move.”

“A strategy at the opposite of what is typically recommended by consultants or advisors.”


The outpouring of adulation gave me pause for thought… had I missed something?

As a business story, Google’s creation of Alphabet, a holding company, is remarkable, not so much for what it is but for what it will make possible; as a branding story, it’s really old hat.

There is nothing in the creation of Alphabet that hasn’t been done many times before and equally as well by many other companies in the cause of business reconstruction and renewal.

At its most mundane, Google has turned itself into an unfashionable conglomerate. It’s a familiar tale, one told by such unglamorous conglomerates as ITW, Manitowoc and Textron. And it’s hard to forget the disastrous attempt by UAL Corp to bind together Hertz, Westin and Sheraton Hotels under a holding company called Allegis. This is a story I’d recommend as further reading for all brand strategists. If Alphabet is the branding road less traveled then Allegis is the reason why.

“The next world-class disease” according to Donald Trump

More worthy exemplars of the genre are to be found among the energy companies such as Constellation, NextEra Energy, Exelon. They grew exponentially beyond their regulated core utility origins by creating a holding company, à la Alphabet, so they could offer enhanced services and products in the competitive energy market, satisfying both shareholders and regulators.

The energy giant Exelon, for example, has its origins in two very humble regional utilities – PECO (Pennsylvania Electric Company), and Commonwealth Edison, which are now operating divisions of Exelon – just as Google will become an operating division of Alphabet.

For some reason we accept Amazon in all its sprawling vastness as it attempts to become the world’s retailer, even though it makes most of its money from its web services business, AWS. Google had become impossible to define. To most people, Google is a search engine; as a business, it is much more. And there, in that dynamic, is the tension that created Alphabet.

Google had grown into an opaque, messy hotchpotch of businesses, some speculative, such as driverless cars and life extension technology, and all financed by the phenomenon of Google itself, the financial nuclear reactor.

In decline: This Fortune cover appeared before Google was even created
In decline: This Fortune cover appeared before Google was even created

Branding Google is like trying to brand an explosion. What the new structure provides is maximum flexibility together with investor transparency, discipline and financial accountability as the company makes big bets on the future.

Google’s founders, Messrs. Brin and Page, have handed over the reins of Google to Sundar Pichai who, by all accounts, will do a good steady job. For them, Google is done. The new more enticing future is spelled out by Alphabet, which, as a name, is about exciting as cold rice pudding.

No mind, they have spun a nice story around it and, as a holding company, it will work just fine. It has no other role to play other than that of a name for a legal entity that places the big bets. What’s interesting is what will happen underneath Alphabet in the operating divisions.

Is this the branding story of the century? No, far from it. But it does provide a glimpse into the future intent of one of the world’s great companies.

The truly brave thing about the creation of Alphabet is in its invocation of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction, ‘the essential fact about capitalism’. It is the spirit of Schumpeter that will push the company far beyond its origins and the Google brand.

I can’t help thinking such an approach might have saved two other iconic American brands that found it impossible to escape the gravitational pull of their brand’s heritage and an addiction to the cash they threw off.

Kodak missed its chance several times to evolve beyond the failing Kodak brand and determine its own future as a business. It met its inevitable end in one form of creative destruction, Chapter 11,  to be reborn as something else entirely.

And then there is always Levis: as it seeks salvation with cheerleader CEOs who endlessly try to revive a commoditized brand by dressing from head to foot in the product, it keeps coming back to the same product conundrum of heritage versus innovation as it continues on the long, remorseless slide towards business oblivion.

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.

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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.


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.


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.

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:

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.

Lucent, Consignia and the psychology of naming

What is a good name?

Most people would agree that the 1996 Lucent spin-off from AT&T was a brilliant success. The name ‘Lucent’ is cited as a triumph, as shiningly transformative as the literal meaning of the word on which it is based (lucent:from Latin lūcēns, present participle of lūcēre to shine).

Remember this TV ad? $100 million says you do.

And yet, according to one authoritative account, the whole naming process was a debilitating, angst-ridden affair.  Lucent was unloved and unwanted. Right to the end AT&T executives were ready to ditch it. Consider this passage from Optical Illusions: Lucent And The Crash Of Telecom:

“No one loved the name Lucent…The choice of both name and symbol were controversial until the last, and Landor continued to developed the AGB name [Alexander Graham Bell’s initials] and an alternative, Telascent or Telescent.

As the process dragged on, Rich McGinn and Henry Schacht [President and CEO elect respectively] chatted in front of an elevator one evening. They had reconciled themselves to the fact that the Bell name [American Bell] would not be available, that no new name would emerge to sweep them off their feet, and as their elevator car descended to the ground the two agreed that Lucent was the best option available.

Yet neither was overly enthusiastic about the name, and as they ascended the stage to announce it to their employees, McGinn turned to Schacht and said, “Come on, Henry. One last chance, we can still change it if we want to”.”

Their worst fears were realized on launch day when newspapers ran their usual ‘What’s in a name’ story with quotes such as this:

“It’s a horrible name,” said Danny Briere, president of TeleChoice, a telecommunications consulting firm. “The good news is that it doesn’t sound like anything else; the bad is there’s a reason for it.”

For engineers steeped in a century of the Bell culture and telecom jargon Lucent was outside of their frame of reference. It was a gift thrust upon a recalcitrant management by force of circumstance: a spin-off needs a unique, ownable name in order to be spun-off, and all other options that were within their comfort zone were not available.

Kathy Fitzgerald, Lucent’s VP of Corporate Communications, was revealingly philosophical on this point:

“It turns out you don’t need to love the name or the logo to be able to turn it into one of the best known names in communications in less than two years. Because, trust me, I was at best lukewarm about the name – with its key virtue being that it wasn’t a made-up name and was actually a word in the meaning ‘marked with clarity and glowing with light’.”

The definition was repeated like a mantra to ward off evil spirits. How many people knew Lucent was a real word? Why does it matter? And how is ‘marked with clarity and glowing with light’ relevant?

Underlying this comment is an atavistic fear of what many executives think of as ‘made-up’ corporate names and a bias towards the tried-and-true of the familiar.

In spite of its eventual business decline and merger with Alcatel of France, Lucent’s initial success gave rise to a tranche of sound-alike imitators, circa 2000 – Agilent, Navigant, Thrivent, Mirant – all of them made-up names for companies hoping to borrow some of Lucent’s magic. Such is the corporate world psychology of naming.

So what transformed Lucent from the unpopular choice it was into a celebrated case of rebranding brilliance?

In a word: success.

The Lucent Technologies IPO was a huge success, thanks in no small measure to a $100 million ad campaign designed to underwrite the stock issue. Ipso facto, the name is a success.

At the other end of this spectrum there is the example of Consignia, which one newspaper was moved to call  “one of the most disastrous corporate rebrandings ever undertaken”.

Consignia was launched in 2001 as the new name for the UK’s Post Office Group, a cumbersome collection of inefficient delivery services which included that most royal and ancient of institutions, the Royal Mail.

The rigorous restructuring plan was years in development. It was designed to bring the government-owned enterprise into the 21st century as a modern, competitively viable and internationally focused business. However, they didn’t reckon with public sentiment and the media’s penchant for indulging it.

If you can include the three words ‘royal’, ‘institution’ and ‘branding’ in the same sentence you have a potent complexity of popular interest that is red meat to the rabid British press.

After a remorseless torrent of negative news stories, union strike threats over job cuts and mounting financial losses the restructuring strategy was abandoned. In a final act of high symbolism, the whole sorry mess was renamed yet again, this time as the Royal Mail Group. Political expediency won the day. Consignia was sacrificed as proof of the plan’s demise.

Ringo, Aviva ad
Ringo, it was the Beatles who made you famous.

Was Consignia a bad name? No. There are other names out there of similar ilk doing serviceable duty – Altria, Aviva, Centrica, etc. Consignia was pilloried in part because it did not do a very good job of explaining itself. In the end the strategy failed and, therefore, the name is associated to this day with a failure.

It was a lesson learned well by Aviva a few years later.  When the British insurer Norwich Union decided to unify its global operations under a single name, Aviva, they took no chances. Ringo Starr, Bruce Willis and Alice Cooper were featured in a series of high-profile TV ads to make the point that changing your name is really OK; we did it – and just look at how successful we are.

It was rebranding 101 to the letter. The name and the campaign may have been pretty banal stuff but it worked. Aviva got its version of the story out first and stuck to it.

Is Aviva a better name than Consignia? Is Consignia worse than Lucent? It doesn’t matter.

In business, as in war, the victors get to write history. Ultimately, all rebranding is about PR and the battle for control of the story.

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What word comes to mind when you think of Volvo?

Swedish? Chinese? Boring? Anything?

It is a widely accepted axiom among brand consultants that leading brands can be identified by a single word or concept. BMW, for example, owns “driving” and Mercedes-Benz owns “prestige”.

Volvo supposedly owns “safety”.

The single word theory was first propounded by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their classic 1981 book ‘Positioning: The Battle for your Mind’. Their hugely successful theory (in book-sale terms, at least) has since been handed down from father to daughter, generation to generation, and has thus passed into blogosphere folklore where it is regurgitated wholesale as an immutable tenet of brand strategy.

It gets a bit squirly in the retelling. I have seen confident assertions that the Disney brand variously owns ‘magic’, ‘fun’, ‘happiness’ or ‘family entertainment’ without an ounce of substantiation. Well, which is it?

Can a brand really be associated with a single, dominant trait or concept? More importantly, should it be?

It has to be remembered, of course, that Messrs. Ries and Trout are former admen whose simplistic brand-building notions were formulated in those far off days of the pre-Internet era when the world was a much simpler place and a single media buy could reach a majority of America’s TV audience.

But would Tony Stark drive one?

For Volvo, a rugged car built to withstand the rigors of Sweden’s weather and roads, safety was a reasonable advertising campaign “positioning” back then when safety standards were much less stringent and activist Ralph Nader was taking on the entire American automotive industry. Nader’s book, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, revealed that many American automobiles were shockingly unsafe.

Enter Volvo. Built like a tank, drives like a tank. But it’s safe.

When all your competition is proven to be unsafe, that’s quite a differentiator.

Buick Lacrosse: Safer than a Volvo.

Since then the world has turned several times. Technology has leveled the manufacturing playing field and vehicle safety standards are much more rigorous. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the safest cars for 2010 are the Buick LaCrosse (large cars), Audi A3 (midsize cars), and Honda Civic 4-door model (small cars).

Where’s Volvo? Nowhere.

Perhaps in perverse vindication of the Ries/Trout theory, and much to its disadvantage, Volvo cannot get beyond the lead weight of that word safety.

Design, styling, performance, quality and brand heritage are the essential ingredients of brand building in the automotive industry today, all of which are attuned to micro-segments of the market. Safe just isn’t sexy. It’s expected. What else have you got to offer?

It’s a problem Ford tried in vain to find an answer to for more than a decade, without success. After Ford purchased the Volvo in 1999 various attempts were made to spice up the brand in the US and pitch it to a younger audience. The kids were too busy driving their Scions to notice and the brand languished, unloved and ignored, except by a declining number of die-hard aficionados.

What the Volvo brand is and what it can be is no doubt preoccupying the collective minds its new owners, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Geely successfully marketed “the world’s cheapest car” to an emerging middle class in the country’s inland cities. Volvo represents an altogether different challenge.

Volvo’s brand heritage offers little inspiration. The name (it means “I roll” in Latin) was registered in 1911 by SKF, a Swedish manufacturer of ball bearings, for a new product line. The plan was shelved and the name was later resurrected for the construction of a vehicle for the Swedish market.

Volvo’s priapic logo, a circle with an arrow pointing diagonally upwards to the right, is an uneasy amalgam of symbolic references that includes the Swedish iron industry, Mars, the Roman God of War, and the male gender. Add a word that means ‘I roll’ and you have all the qualities you would want to avoid in a modern, luxury vehicle.

Geely has a dilemma. Safety in the Chinese market is not a compelling product attribute. For the rest of the world – a Chinese-owned brand positioned on safety? A hard sell.

The speculation is that Geely plans to sell Chinese-manufactured Volvos to rich Chinese and government and army officials, a ‘showcase’ segment currently dominated by Audi. Owned by Volkswagen, Audi is by far the No. 1 luxury vehicle brand in China. It sold 157,188 units last year, surpassing Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.

Volkswagen was the first foreign automaker to set up a joint venture in China in 1984, long before others. Today, Audi is viewed as a made-in-China luxury brand among government officials.

Can Volvo unseat Audi, the vehicle of choice for Ironman Tony Stark, the epitome of technological cool? We should not underestimate the far-sighted Chinese and their almost endearing belief in the fungibility of brands.

After Nanjing Automobile Group acquired MG, the legendary British roadster brand, it decided to change the meaning of the famous initials to help promote the brand in its new home.

The letters MG are derived from ‘Morris Garages‘, the original 1923 manufacturing home of the MG in Britain. Nanjing has proclaimed it “wants Chinese consumers to know this brand as ‘Modern Gentleman’, to see that this brand represents grace and style.”

Modern Gentleman? Even Ries and Trout could not come up with that one. Maybe there’s hope still for Volvo.

Modern Gentleman, circa 1930
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