From A to Zeneca, a brief history of corporate naming

I’ve always felt a mild professional antipathy toward Zeneca. For me, it was the coinage that tipped corporate names into the abyss of synthetic anonymity.

It’s got to such a point now that it’s hard to distinguish a pharma company from the drug it makes. Try sorting these out: Actavis, Actos, Advaxis, Alimta, Amalthea, Anavex, Atripla – companies, drugs or the moons of Jupiter?*

Then I found this nugget buried in a Daily Telegraph article raking over of the ashes Accenture, Consignia and other weary corporate naming controversies.

Nothing rude or silly
Nothing stupid, funny, or rude and devoid of meaning

“The company that started the fashion for new, made up names was Zeneca, now AstraZeneca, the biosciences company split off from ICI in 1993. Leading consultants still view it as the best example of a name change.

Sir David Barnes was its first chief executive and is now a non-executive director. His inspiration was Kodak, a name that was memorable phonetically but had no associations with other companies.

Barnes said: “There is an advantage in being alphabetically at the top or bottom of lists, A or Z. I asked Interbrand to find a name that was phonetically memorable, of no more than three syllables and didn’t mean anything stupid, funny or rude in other languages. A new name also allowed us to instill a new company culture.”

Barnes paid about £50,000 for the name and did not spend anything on advertising: ‘We just sent out lots and lots of press releases every time the company did anything. Thanks to the press it soon caught on’.”

In truth, Zeneca was a latecomer to the ‘made-up corporate name’ party.

As the reporter would have discovered, had he done his homework, the trend started much earlier. In 1961 The Haloid Photographic Company changed its named to Xerox and gave the world a corporate name that looks totally unpronounceable. Then there’s the Allegis storm that engulfed United Airlines in 1985.

But what is notable about Zeneca is the blithely deliberate meaninglessness of the name.

There is something endearingly Colonel Blimp-ish about Sir David’s no nonsense approach here. Not for him the tenuous, tortuous semantic acrobatics of Syngenta (“derived from Greek and Latin origins: together with people”) or Novartis (“from the Latin words novae artes meaning new skills”). No mucking about, just make one up – nothing stupid or rude in other languages and just three syllables.

Of course, this was in the pre-Internet and SEO days when there was some an advantage to be alphabetically positioned in directories and the media had not yet turned corporate naming in to a blood sport.

Contrast the Daily Telegraph’s coverage above with the recent outraged headlines over Hibu, the new name for the Yell Group: “Chief Executive admits new name is meaningless”.

How times have changed.

*Actavis – a pharmaceutical company; Actos – a diabetes drug; , Advaxis – a biotechnology company;  Alimta – a lung cancer drug; Anavex – a life sciences company;  Atripla – an HIV treatment drug. Amalthea is a moon of Jupiter;

“The name game”. The Daily Telegraph. 14 January 2001

Quote unquote

Talking of questionable quotes, there’s one I have seen cropping up over the years that has been ascribed to Sir Hector Laing, who was Chairman of United Biscuits, a UK cookie conglomerate, in the 1970s and 1980s. He is supposed to have said sometime, somewhere:

“The most important assets are brands. Buildings age and become dilapidated. Machines wear out. Cars rust. People die. But what lives on are the brands.”

A quotable quote if ever there was one, but did he say it? I have tried to establish its provenance various times without success. Anyway, like many quotes that were not actually said, it has lapsed into myth. Even though Walter Landor never said “products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind,” and just as Archimedes probably did not shout “Eureka” jumping out of his bathtub, people would rather believe they did.