Sprint stays on track with its brand name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Southern Pacific line

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Neil Armstrong and the power of being first

The whole world knows Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon.

His name is practically conjoined with his achievement, as we saw in the headlines over the weekend: “Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is dead” (or some variation thereof).

Some people might be able to tell you that it was Buzz Aldrin who joined him on the lunar surface to become the second man to walk on the moon.

Very few people will be able to tell you the name of the third man.

121 days after the Apollo 11 mission, it was Pete Conrad landed who on the moon to become the third man to leave his boot prints in the gray, fine powder of its surface.

All three achieved exactly the same thing within a matter of weeks. All equally brave, equally skilled, yet it is the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man, that has been immortalized.

It’s a curious thing about “firsts”.

Anyone remember John Landy? 46 days after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile Australian John Landy did it faster. It is Roger Bannister’s name that has gone down in history.

What about Tenzing Norgay? He followed Edmund Hillary up Everest to become the world’s second person to summit the mountain, yet it is Hillary whose name is forever attached to the feat.

In their 1981 book, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that while positioning begins with a product, the concept really is about positioning that product in the mind of the customer. The easiest way of getting into someone’s mind is to be first in a category.

They use the case of Xerox to make this point. Xerox was the first plain-paper copier and was able to sustain its leadership position. However, time after time the company failed in other product categories in which it was not first.

Neil Armstrong was first into the mind in the walking-on-the-moon category, but Pete Conrad has his own “first”.

He died on July 8, 1999, while motorcycling in Ojai, California. As co-incidence would have it, Ojai just happens to be a Native American name for “moon”.

In the end, Pete Conrad became the first astronaut ever to die there.

Why you can’t call your child Anus, Pluto or Monkey in Denmark

When it comes to naming kids, anything goes here in the United States.

You can burden your offspring with whatever bizarre name catches your fancy (and movie stars usually do).

Other countries are not easy-going. Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and China all have baby-naming laws to protect the innocent. Courtesy of CNN, these are the countries that outlaw bad baby names.

1. Sweden

Enacted in 1982, the Naming law in Sweden was originally created to prevent non-noble families from giving their children noble names, but a few changes to the law have been made since then.

The part of the law referencing first names reads: “First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.”

If you later change your name, you must keep at least one of the names that you were originally given, and you can only change your name once.

Rejected names: “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb111163 (pronounced Albin, naturally) was submitted by a child’s parents in protest of the Naming law. It was rejected. The parents later submitted “A” (also pronounced Albin) as the child’s name. It, too, was rejected.

Also rejected: Metallica, Superman, Veranda, Ikea and Elvis.

Accepted names: Google as a middle name, Lego.

2. Germany

In Germany, you must be able to tell the gender of the child by the first name, and the name chosen must not be negatively affect the well being of the child. Also, you can not use last names or the names of objects or products as first names.

Whether or not your chosen name will be accepted is up to the office of vital statistics, the Standesamt, in the area in which the child was born. If the office rejects your proposed baby name, you may appeal the decision. But if you lose, you’ll have to think of a different name. Each time you submit a name you pay a fee, so it can get costly.

When evaluating names, the Standesamt refers to a book which translates to “the international manual of the first names,” and they also consult foreign embassies for assistance with non-German names. Because of the hassle parents have to go through to name their children, many opt for traditional names such as Maximilian, Alexander, Marie and Sophie.

Rejected names: Matti was rejected for a boy because it didn’t indicate gender.

Approved names: Legolas and Nemo were approved for baby boys.

3. New Zealand

New Zealand’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act of 1995 doesn’t allow people to name their children anything that “might cause offence to a reasonable person; or […] is unreasonably long; or without adequate justification, […] is, includes, or resembles, an official title or rank.” Officials at the registrar of births have successfully talked parents out of some more embarrassing names.

Rejected names: Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy, Sex Fruit, Satan and Adolf Hitler

Approved names: Benson and Hedges (for a set of twins), Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter and Violence

4. Japan

In Japan, one given name and one surname are chosen for babies, except for the imperial family, who only receive given names. Except for a few examples, it is obvious which are the given names and which are the surnames, regardless of in what order the names have been given. There are a couple thousand “name kanji” and “commonly used characters” for use in naming babies, and only these official kanji may be used in babies’ given names. The purpose of this is to make sure that all names can be easily read and written by the Japanese. The Japanese also restrict names that might be deemed inappropriate.

Rejected names: Akuma, meaning “devil.”

5. Denmark

Denmark’s very strict Law on Personal Names is in place to protect children from having odd names that suit their parents’ fancy. To do this, parents can choose from a list of 7,000 pre-approved names, some for girls, some for boys.

If you want to name your child something that isn’t on the list, you have to get special permission from your local church, and the name is then reviewed by governmental officials. Creative spellings of more common names are often rejected.

The law states that girls and boys must have names that indicate their gender, you can’t use a last name as a first name and unusual names may be rejected. Of the approximately 1,100 names that are reviewed each year, 15-20 percent of the names are rejected. There are also laws in place to protect rare Danish last names.

Rejected names: Anus, Pluto and Monkey.

Approved names: Benji, Jiminico, Molli and Fee.

6. China

Most new babies in China are now basically required to be named based on the ability of computer scanners to read those names on national identification cards. The government recommends giving children names that are easily readable, and encourages Simplified characters over Traditional Chinese ones.

Parents can technically choose the given name, but numbers and non-Chinese symbols and characters are not allowed.

Also, now, Chinese characters that can not be represented on the computer are not allowed. There are over 70,000 Chinese characters, but only about 13,000 can be represented on the computer. Because this requirement is a new one, some citizens are having their name misrepresented, and some have to change their names to be accurately shown on the identification cards.

Rejected names: “@”: Wang “At” was rejected as a baby name. The parents felt that the @ symbol had the right meaning for them. @ in Chinese is pronounced “ai-ta” which is very similar to a phrase that means “love him.”

Is your name your destiny?

Mo’Nique deservedly walked off with the Oscar for best supporting actress last night for her performance in the movie ‘Precious’.

As the world now knows by now, Precious is based on the novel ‘Push’ that tells the harrowing story of an obese, illiterate and horribly abused Harlem teenager.

While a work of fiction, the story is based the experiences of the author, Sapphire, who encountered several girls in similar situations during her time teaching literacy in Harlem and the Bronx in New York.

A Precious Oscar win for Mo'Nique

The child’s name, Precious, is indeed a cruel irony considering the brutally uncaring treatment she received from her parents. It brought to mind the real-life story of Temptress told in the book ‘Freakonomics’. Temptress was a 15-year-old girl whose misdeeds landed her in her in Albany County Family Court. She was charged with ungovernable behavior which included taking men home when her mother was at work.

The judge had long taken note of the strange names borne by some offenders. He asked the child’s mother why she had named her daughter Temptress. She explained she had been watching ‘The Cosby Show’ and liked the young actress. The judge had to point out that the name of the actress she admired was, in fact, Tempestt Bledsoe, not Temptress. The mother agreed she has made a mistake but was nonplussed when the Judge suggested that poor Temptress’s problematic behavior might stem from her living out her name.

The book goes on to recount the case of the New York City man, Robert Lane, who named his son Loser. In spite of the difficulties his name presented throughout his life, Loser was a success. He went to prep school on a scholarship, graduated from Lafayette College and joined the New York Police Department and became a sergeant in the force.

Now it turns out that Loser Lane had a brother. His name was Winner. The most notable achievement of Winner Lane’s life was the length of his criminal record. Winner and his brother Loser rarely speak.

So, does the name you give your child affect his life? Would young Temptress still have landed in trouble if she had been named, say, Chastity? As it happens,  Temptress, Loser, Winner and Precious are all black. Is this fact merely a curiosity, or does it have something larger to say about names and culture?

The authors of Freakonomics draw on a study based on birth-certificate information for every child born in California since 1961. The data, they argue, proves just how differently black and white parents name their children. A great many names today are unique to blacks. More than 40 percent of all black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls receive. Astonishingly, 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white or black, born that year in California.

Even among very popular black names there is little overlap with whites. As an example, of the 454 girls named Precious in the 1990s, 431 were black. Of the 319 Shanices, 310 were black. There were also 228 babies named Unique, and 1 each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee.

On the other hand, more than 40 percent of the white babies are given names that are at least four times more common among whites Consider Connor, Cody, Emily and Abigail: each of these names was given to at least two thousand babies in California, and fewer than 2 percent of them black.

But is the life outcome any different for a person with a typical black name – Imani or Deshawn (the two most popular) – than for a woman named Molly or a man named Jake? According to the data, the answer is yes. But it isn’t the fault of their names. There are underlying socio-economic, educational and cultural circumstances at play. Names are an indicator, not a cause, of life outcomes.

What the data does suggest is that an overwhelming number of parents use a name to signal their own expectations of how successful their children will be.

Are there any better exemplars of this conceit than movie stars, so entertainingly on display last night. They are the American aristocracy who seem to live in a parallel universe where  normal laws don’t apply. While middle class parents cautiously push the boundaries of the social acceptability with the likes of Caleb and Izabella, the children of movie stars rejoice in names such as Lourdes, Banjo, Pilot Inspektor, Moxie CrimeFighter, Audio Science and Prince Michael II.

For movie stars, children seem to function as a vehicle for expressing their talent and uniqueness. Names are the equivalent of a royal title, a way for the aristocracy to ensure their creative legacy is passed on to their progeny. To settle on an ordinary name for the child would almost be a form of spiritual surrender, according to a psychologist who has worked with Hollywood clients.

There are exceptions, of course.  It was heartwarming to see the unassuming Jeff Bridges take the Oscar for Best Actor and make a point of mentioning his wife and children with their reassuringly ordinary names — Susan, Isabelle, Jessica and Hayley.

The Dude abides

Santander – a name to bank on, if not to love

Santander is a port city on the northern coast of Spain. It was known to the Romans as Portus Victoriae Iuliobrigensium, but its present name is derived from that of a 3rd century Catholic martyr, Saint Emeterio (Santemter – Santenter – Santander).

These days the city is noted for nothing in particular according to my friend Dave who lives in nearby Oñati. He says it’s very nice for a seaside promenade if it isn’t raining, as it frequently does, but he much prefers Bilbao or San Sebastian.

And yet the name of  this wet, nondescript Spanish city has become one of the most ubiquitously visible on the high streets of Britain. How so?


Santander is also a bank. It took its name from the city in which it was founded in 1857. Having survived the economic maelstrom of the last 18 months in better shape than most if its European rivals, Santander is intent on capitalizing on its good fortune by forging its name into a global brand. Through furious acquisition the bank has become the third largest in the world in terms of profits.

Its entry into the UK was made only recently through a series of acquisitions that focused on Britain’s battered building societies, those uniquely British inventions that began as co-operative savings groups. The first was founded in Birmingham in 1774. By 1910 there were 1,723 providing the British middle class with mortgages to buy houses.

For most of the 20th century these admirable but eminently boring institutions were granite-like proclamations of Victorian thrift and the virtues of home ownership. Their names constituted a national inventory of British towns – Halifax, Bradford & Bingley, Leeds, Yorkshire, Barnsley, Woolwich, Coventry. Just about every high street in the country had a building society branch.

Most are gone. Only 52 remain as independent societies. Many merged to form larger ones after ‘demutualization’ in the 1980s allowed them to change their legal status and operate as banks. They were swallowed up by larger banks such as Santander which acquired the largest, Abbey National, in 2004 quickly followed by the Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley.

Over the last couple of months Santander has been busy replacing the signs on branches across the length and breadth of Britain. By the end of this year there will be 1,300 buildings in the UK bearing the name of a remote Spanish city.

Aviva enlists Ringo to sell name change

What the man-in-the-street in Bingley will make of the name change remains to be seen. Britain’s largest insurer, Norwich Union, took no chances when it changed its name to Aviva. It enlisted the aid of Ringo Starr and Bruce Willis in TV ads recently to explain to the British populace why it was becoming Aviva which is not, as you might suppose, a another city in Spain but just a made-up name that better suits the company’s international ambitions.

Such is the Darwinian way with names as industries become increasingly globalized. Rich local diversity is replaced with international bland. Here in the US we lived for a while with a bank called Wachovia, named after an obscure region of Germany, before it was swept away in the recent financial crisis which also saw off the hitherto financial stalwarts of Washington Mutual, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, together with 140 local banks that failed in 2009.

Last year Santander quietly made its first move in the US. It acquired Sovereign Bancorp of Pennsylvania for approximately US$1.9 billion giving the Spanish bank a foothold in United States. Odds on it won’t be long before we too become very familiar with the name of that small, insignificant city in the north of Spain.

Not for long

Has MySpace ruined rock band names?

This week the 10 billionth song was downloaded from iTunes since its launch in 2003.

In less than seven years Apple has become America’s No. 1 music vendor. The digital revolution has transformed the way we listen to music. It has also made life a lot more difficult for rock bands in search of a good name.

It used to be just a case of dreaming up a name and using it. These days, it takes only moments for a local band to create an online profile, upload songs and reach an international audience, thereby raising the stakes in trademark disputes which almost always hinge on which band first used the name commercially, and where.

Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones recently found just how difficult finding a name has become when he was forming a new rock band.

“Every other name is taken,” he complained to the Wall Street Journal. “Think of a great band name and Google it, and you’ll find a French-Canadian jam band with a MySpace page.” Naming consultants everywhere will sympathize.

Hands off my name

A lack of imagination may be part of the problem. According to Rovi Corp., which has a database of about 1.4 million artist names, the most common name in its files is Bliss. Next up: Mirage and One, followed by Gemini, Legacy, Paradox and Rain. They sound more like Las Vegas hotels than rock bands.

John Paul Jones’ first choice, Caligula, was ditched after they found seven other acts using the name. His band eventually decided on  Them Crooked Vultures for reasons best known to themselves.

It’s just as well they did their homework though. Having to change a name can be disastrous for a band. The Journal recounted the case of Captain America, a Scottish band that was endorsed and invited on tour by Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain in 1992.

Captain America was signed by Atlantic Records just as Marvel, publisher of the Captain America comic book, sent the band a cease-and-desist order. With its first U.S. record already in the pipeline, the group rechristened itself Eugenius, a reference to leader Eugene Kelly.

“Overnight, their career deflated,” says Steve Greenberg, the former Atlantic Records talent scout who landed Captain America.

“When people are given the chance to decide twice about a band, they don’t always make the same decision,” he says. “Fans of Captain America weren’t quite so sure they were fans of Eugenius.”

Mr. Kelly agrees that the “worst name ever” derailed Eugenius. “A band name should pass the taxi-driver test: You shouldn’t have to tell him twice,” says the Glasgow singer, who is recording a new album with his pre-Captain America band, the Vaselines. That name, he says, “sounds good and looks good.”

Personally, I can’t help feeling he’s not going to have much luck with that one either.

Led Zeppelin: Going down like a lead balloon.

Footnote: how Led Zeppelin got its name. When Jimmy Page was assembling the group, Keith Moon (drummer from The Who) got word of his plans and predicted the group would go down “like a lead balloon”, a common English expression for something that will bomb very quickly. John Entwistle added it would be “more like a lead zeppelin,” the large gas-filled cylindrical rigid airships invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Page took the phrase and manager Peter Grant changed the spelling to “led” in order to avoid mispronunciation.

Related articles.

The name of this band is WHAT?

To Xfinity, and beyond: The new laws of naming

Newspapers and magazines love lists. They are easy copy, as they need little or no research apart from the elicitation of a few expert opinions on the subject in question. And readers love them, if only to disagree.

Time magazine has a whole section on its website devoted to Top 10 lists. It includes compulsively irrelevant topics such as the Top 10 Internet Blunders, and the Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah.

This week Time rushed out a list of the Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes in honor of Xfinity, the new name from Comcast, the cable company, for its service offerings.

In a rush to judgment Time put Xfinity at the top of the list that included Accenture, SyFy, Consignia, Xe, Altria, WWE, Spike TV, AirTran, and the Willis Tower.

It’s a curious list. The criteria seems to be that if a name change is in any way controversial, then it’s bad.

Take the Willis Tower in Chicago, for instance. It was the Sears Tower for decades, a famous Chicago landmark. Unfortunately, Sears is not the company it once was and the building has been acquired by Willis Group Holdings, a London-based insurance company. Willis, understandably, wants its own name on the building. It has upset Chicagoans no end, but all’s fair in love, war and naming rights. When it comes down to it, why is Sears a better a name for a building than Willis? Nothing more than familiarity and a large dose of sentiment, I would say.

The map of the world in my school atlas was mostly pink, denoting the reach of the British Empire. Back then, Mumbai was Bombay, Beijing was Peking and  Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. The world moves on. It disturbed me more when San Francisco’s legendary Candlestick Park became 3Com Park, which then became Monster Park before the city mandated that it shall be Candlestick Park for ever more.

Spike TV is on the list because Spike Lee claimed that people might connect the TV network with Spike Lee. He won an injunction to prevent The National Network changing its name to Spike TV. The case was settled soon after in the network’s favor. Case closed.

How does this minor spat warrant Spike TV’s inclusion on Time magazine’s Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes – because Spike Lee was upset?

The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had to change its name to the World Wrestling Entertainment following a disagreement with the World Wildlife Fund, so WWF became WWE. What’s the problem?

Andersen Consulting was required to change its name as part of its acrimonious separation agreement with Arthur Andersen. Accenture is not a lovely name, to me it sounds like a sneeze, but to say it was “regarded as one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history” is stretching it just a bit. Accenture today is very successful, unlike its misbegotten counterpart at KPMG that became BearingPoint. It sank without trace and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. And not to forget PwC’s consulting arm, which was primped and dressed as ‘Monday’ by Wolff Olins before IBM came along to save the day. 

Consignia is rightly on the list. Its sin was not so much the name itself, as naff as it was, but the ineptitude with which the proposed change was handled. Renaming a British institution like the Royal Mail was always going to be highly controversial. Well, controversial it was. And the name became the focal point for torrent of fear and loathing that eventually sank it and the CEO of the company.

Consigned to the scrap heap

Which brings us to Xfinity, the name that clearly inspired Time’s hastily compiled list in the first place.  The negative energy around the introduction of Xfinity seems to be generated by a perception of poor service from Comcast.

William Lozito of Strategic Name Development says Comcast is “trying to put lipstick on a pig” by instituting a name change as a way to cover up service complaints.

But things are changing at Comcast. It recently acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal for $13.75 billion, giving it control of the Peacock network, an array of cable channels and a major movie studio. Advances in broadband digital technology also mean faster Internet speeds and more high-definition channels. The acquisition puts Comcast in the position of being both a content producer—through NBC and its subsidiaries—as well as a media distributor.

This is a long way from what the traditional cable company offered. As lazy and clichéd as the name Xfinity might be, it is the beginning of a campaign to convey this new world of myriad content and delivery quality, and change minds about what Comcast is. Whatever Xfinity may remind people of today, Comcast is going to spend a huge amount of money to get that brand to mean what it wants it to mean.

Today, naming is as much about PR strategy as it is about brand strategy. Accordingly, I offer these Seven New Laws of Naming:

1. All name changes of any consequence will be controversial.

2. Controversy is good for newspaper articles and circulation figures. There will always be people who don’t like a name change for whatever reason, and reporters will always find them for a quote. Be prepared.

4. New names will always remind people of something more familiar to begin with. They have to be given a context in which to understand the name.

5. People will get used to new names over time as long as they are free from negative connotations that can not be overcome (plain dumb names not withstanding).

6. Corporate name changes are politically charged. They have to be managed aggressively and proactively.

7. Social media is important. The urls xfinitysucks.com, and xfinitysucks.org are not available. Someone at Comcast is thinking ahead.

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 beaver fades into Canada’s History

The beaver, the largest rodent in North America, is a national emblem in Canada. The first Canadian postage stamp, the three-penny beaver, carried its image. And one of Canada’s oldest magazines carries its name.

Sent to Scunthorpe

But not for much longer, according to the Economist. From April The Beaver will be renamed Canada’s History. You can guess the reason why. As beaver has become popular slang for female pubic hair, market research unsurprisingly indicated that many women and people under the age of 45 said they would not subscribe solely because of the name.

Readers also complained that Internet filters were blocking emails and newsletters from The Beaver. This is known as the Scunthorpe problem, after the town in England whose residents were unable to register with AOL because the name Scunthorpe contained an obscene word.

So beaver goes the way of other innocent words such as gay, queer and pussy – into the spam filter of history.