Who was Oscar?

The Oscars are upon us again. Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally take home the coveted statuette for his role in the dreary “The Revenant” or will “Brooklyn” steal the limelight, as I suspect it will?

Regardless, the burning question for Namedropper is the identity of Oscar. Who was Oscar?

Officially, the statuette is called the Academy Award of Merit, but everyone in Hollywood has known it as Oscar since at least 1934. The Academy itself adopted the nickname in 1939. The most likely story is that when the Academy’s librarian, Margaret Herrick, first saw the statuette, she said it looked like her Uncle Oscar. There were other claims to the name at the time – including the rumor that Bette Davis had named it after her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson – but whatever its uncertain provenance, it was to stick as firmly as superglue.

The BBC goes into the history of the awards and the story of Oscar  here.

The R S Owen Oscar Statuette factory in Chicago, America - 1994
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Araldo di Crollalanza/REX/Shutterstock (642981d) Polished but unplated statues await the next part of the process The R S Owen Oscar Statuette factory in Chicago, America – 1994


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.

Screen shot 2015-10-03 at 1.56.34 PM

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.

DuPont misfires with Chemours

I. E. du Pont de Nemours and Company. This impressively aristocratic name is better known as plain DuPont, the world’s fourth largest chemical company.

Founded in July 1802 as a gundowder mill by one Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, it supplied the Union Army in the Civil War and went on to specialize in the poylmers that made it famous.

dupont logo

Du Pont was born in Paris in 1771. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, was a political economist who had been elevated to the nobility in 1784 by King Louis XVI, allowing him to carry the honorable de Nemours suffix, Nemours being a picturesque ‘commune’ in the Île-de-France region in north-central France.

Little wonder then the company should look fondly on Nemours as the name for the spinoff of its performance chemicals business, embedded as it is in the heritage of the company and the duPont family’s noble French origins.

Nemours was a natural, except that the duPont family had already endowed the name to The Nemours Foundation, a pediatric health system operating in the Delaware Valley and in Florida.

The problem was neatly side-stepped by the creation of Chemours, a sound-alike name that also invokes French place names à la Cherbourg, Chantilly, Chartres, Charmant, Chambery and Chinon.

ChemoursA nice idea, but it’s not at all what DuPont had in mind; it wants to be sure that people know the performance chemicals business is a performance chemicals business and has, therefore, declared Chemours be pronounced ‘Kem-oars’, with a ‘k’ for chemicals and not a ‘schh’ for château.

Sad. My mistake. I got carried away by the romance of it all. I just thought… a company with such a flair for naming its inventions – Vespel, Corian, Teflon, Freon, Mylar, Kevlar, Zemdrain, Nomex, Tyvek, Sorona and Lycra – might have been more inventive with an historic spin-off dedicated to “applying great chemistry to make a colorful, capable, and cleaner world.”

Corporate name changes: from prey to predator

All successful companies grow and evolve. They acquire other businesses and expand into new markets and product areas. Technology transforms how they deliver value. Non-core processes are outsourced. Cyclical, low-growth business lines are divested to refocus the company on growth markets.

As they so evolve many reach the point at which the corporate name becomes an issue. Every day there’s a stream of news announcements about companies changing their names for most of the above reasons.

The daily bulletin
The daily bulletin

You can’t fault HickoryTech Corporation, for example, changing its name to Enventis. HickoryTech began life as Mankato Citizen’s Telephone Company (MCTC) in 1898 and through a series of astute acquisitions over the intervening century, including Enventis Telecom in 2005. The company dropped the HickoryTech name and morphed into Enventis earlier this year, tidying up a ragbag of acronyms and legacy names in the process.

The logic of Darling International’s name change to Darling Ingredients is less clear.

Darling describes itself as “one of the world’s leading companies for converting edible/non-edible bio-nutrient streams into sustainable natural ingredients and specialty products.”

Darling CEO Randall Stuewe explained the name change thus: “Our new name, Darling Ingredients Inc., better reflects our global presence and focus on creating sustainable food, feed and fuel ingredients for a growing population.”

I can’t help thinking he could have achieved that objective far more effectively without a name change. Whatever the corporate name (Darling International or Darling Ingredients) the brand name is clearly ‘Darling’. By utilizing a simple tagline with the Darling name, CEO Stuewe could have communicated his company’s mission much more effectively, as in: Darling – Ingredients for a growing world.

From prey to predator
That looks tasty.

The prize for corporate chutzpah in naming has to go to Innocent, Inc. Innocent is an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Texas. It recently added new “industry leaders” to its advisory board who are clearly advocating a more aggressive brand posture.

Not for them a passive name like Innocent. Bystanders and victims are innocent. Something more predatory would seem in order. So hello Panther Energy. Goodbye Innocent.

ING’s Tangerine Dream

I used to think ING was one of the cleverest of brand names.

Here was a name that was completed according to whatever you wanted to do – live, build, spend, create, plan, save, retire, raise, invest, etc. ING smartly provided the participle (‘ing’) that turned the verb into a noun. Live becomes livING, plan becomes plannING, invest becomes investING. Whatever you need is made active by ING. See what I mean?

Screen shot 2014-08-02 at 10.24.00 AM

OK, maybe it was more a case of wishful thinking and projection on my part. ING is just three initials that stand for the mundane ‘Internationale Nederlanden Groep’ — a big financial services conglomerate based in Amsterdam. But some interesting brand developments are taking place around this otherwise quirky letter string.

The ING name dates from 1991 when a Dutch bank and an insurer merged to form the Internationale Nederlanden Groep. Over the intervening years more than fifty different brands have ben acquired and consolidated into the ING worldwide brand.

The great financial meltdown of 2008 brought an abrupt halt to their global ambitions. ING received €10bn in capital support from the Dutch government. In return, ING and the Dutch government reached an agreement with the European Commission to restructure the company in a ‘back-to-basics’ strategy, separating its banking, insurance, and investment management operations.

Out of turmoil springs creativity. The big break up of ING is spawning some interesting new brand names.

In the US the ING brand, with its disturbing Oz-like Cowardly Lion logo, first appeared in 2001 when multiple investment and life insurance acquisitions dating back to the 1970s were rolled up into what became ING US.

As part of the restructuring plan it will be divested through an IPO to be completed by September 1. Its new name will be Voya Financial.


Given the scope and scale of the rebranding, introduction will be staggered. The Voya name is already in use in some parts of the organization.

In a well scripted announcement, chief marketing officer Ann Glover made good use of the allusion to voyage, of which voya is a word part, that the name nicely evokes.

“Voya is an abstract name coined from the word ‘voyage’…the name reminds us that a secure financial future is more than simply reaching a destination; it’s about a positive journey to financial empowerment, and knowing that Voya can help you take control along the way.”

And don’t overlook orange, it has to be a big factor in the brand, no?  “It also associates well with the color orange, which remains a distinctive attribute of our brand.” Thanks for clearing that up Ann.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, ING Direct is also going through a similar exercise.

ING Direct first entered the Canadian market in 1997 as a telephone banking service offering savings accounts. It was the first test market for ING Group’s direct banking business model, where the aim was to offer more favorable rates to customers by avoiding the costs of running a network of branches.

Operating without traditional bank branches, it instead opened a small network of ING Direct Cafes for its face-to-face contact points. As the bank expanded into online banking it also grew to offer mortgages, mutual funds and a no-fee checking account.

In November 2012 Scotiabank, one of the ‘big 5’ Canadian banks, completed the acquisition of ING Direct from ING Groep. As part of the terms of the deal the bank was required to change its name from ING Direct before May 2014.

Lexicon Branding, the firm that created the name Blackberry for Research in Motion (another Canadian company), got the call to handle the name change. And, yes, they again came up with another fruit.

After research among 10,000 people, 1,500 customers and 5,000 employees it was established that simplicity, innovation and the color orange (just as Voya concluded) were the attributes to build on with a name. Orange Bank was, in fact, on the shortlist. Whether or not the fact that Orange is also the name of a global telecommunications company colored their thinking about orange is unknown, but it had to be a consideration in the legal due diligence stage of name evaluation.

CEO Peter Aceto thought orange was “too safe or obvious of a choice”. Easy to say when someone else thought of it first. Instead he plumped for a close citrus relative – the tangerine. Tangerine makes reference to ING Direct’s orange history, he said, while also being significantly different. “Significantly different” is stretching it a bit. After all, we are not comparing apples with oranges. A tangerine is an orange citrus fruit.

While there will be no reference to the fruit in brand communications it’s hard to avoid the reality that the word tangerine is used almost exclusively in reference to the fruit. As a color, tangerine is classified as a shade of orange.


But Tangerine it is for ING Direct and good luck to them.

In Europe, ING Insurance is taking a much more conservative route than its North American cousins.

It, too, is being spun off as a standalone company and is changing its name. It will be known as NN, taken from the initials of Nationale-Nederlanden, one of its constituent businesses. NN may look pithy and modern, but on first hearing it will likely sound incomprehensible to people unfamiliar with the name.

BP, BT and GE get away with the initial brevity because of the distinctive plosives that distinguish the letter sounds. Try saying NN out loud without sounding slightly deranged.

Still, two out of three isn’t bad. And NN, too, is orange. Or tangerine if you prefer.

NN…Never mind

Ampersands and, per se, and

ampersandTalking of Strategy& and the use of ampersands as we were below, the ampersand today is used primarily in business names — Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.

The elegant symbol in fact dates from the days when Roman scribes wrote the Latin word et, which means “and”, with a ligature to blend the two letters into a single letter form.

The actual word “ampersand” came into being many years later. The “&” had become such a standard part of the English alphabet over the centuries that by the early 1800s school children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the “&”, the 27th letter.

As it would have been confusing to say just “X, Y, Z, and”, students said: “X, Y, Z and, per se, and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and, by itself, and.” Over time the “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand.

Reference: Dictionary.com