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

Are we running out of names (again)?

Just as the dust was settling around Abbvie and Mondelez (sorry, still can’t find the macron e key), along comes another tricky little teaser of a name to stir things up again.

Say hello to Zoetis from Pfizer. Contrary to what you might expect from pharmaceutical company Zoetis is not a drug, it’s the name for the company’s $4.2 billion animal health unit that will be spun-off later this year.

Why Zoetis? Pfizer explains that the name “has its root in zo, which is familiar in commonly known words such as zoo and zoology.” It also derives from the word zoetic, which means “pertaining to life.” Obscure, but plausible enough. The real problem with Zoetis is how you are supposed to say it*. Care to take a guess?

Abbvie? Mondelez? Zoetis? The question has to be asked: In the naming business, are we beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel?

It’s a legitimate question that deserves an answer. The really interesting thing about the question is that it was first asked more than 14 years ago when consultant Tony Spaeth raised an eyebrow at Visteon, Miravant and Diageo.

In a word, yes, was his conclusion: we are running out of names.  He wrote: “There is a numeric limit to the universe of names, the combinations of letters of five syllables or less that are pronounceable, avoid offense in principal languages, and are not someone else’s property. A population explosion of business entities, on top of product proliferation, means we are rapidly depleting the supply. And as more companies think “global,” more seek global name protection, vastly increasing the pool of possible conflicts.”

He concluded: “Expect more strange new names like Diageo, distinctive yet functional, that take some getting used to. We really are scraping the linguistic barrel and have to reach further beyond our comfort zones to make names that work.”

He was right on that last point, but the barrel seems to be a lot deeper than he thought. Fourteen years later we have added tens of thousands of names to the corporate roster and our capacity for the acceptance of the linguistically exotic has shown encouraging elasticity; Google rules the Internet, a lot of people use Twitter, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, we read books on Kindle, Hyundai is the cool car on the road and, for the time being, there’s a President named Obama in the White House.

Shakespeare would have been proud of us. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. Just like the namers of today do. The point being that the English language is infinitely fungible. What we are running out of, if anything, is imagination and a capacity to accept linguistic invention.

There’s still the atavistic reflex to the unfamiliar and what are referred to as  ‘meaningless’ corporate names, yet the truth is there is really no such thing as a meaningless name. For better or worse, “Mondelez” (pronounced mohn-dah-LEEZ, please) will be the name of a $31 billion global snacks business.

Yes, if you need one it has a clunky provenance as a word – monde means “world” in French, and delez is a play on “delish” – but why does it have to mean anything other than what it is: the name of a company? In spite of the disdain heaped at its door the Mondelez will be as accepted as Diageo is today. What is Diageo? It’s the world’s leading premium drinks business. That’s its meaning (please spare me the day/world etymology).

Poor Abbvie is just an unfortunate child with a speech impediment whose parents, Abbott Laboratories, don’t seem to care too much about her fate. The drug and medical-device company plans to spinoff its pharmaceutical business with the name AbbVie by the end of the year. Pronounced “Abb-VEE,” the name is derived from Abbott, its parent company, as well as “vi,” the Latin root for “life”. This one is scraping the barrel.

As for Zoetis, the world of animal health is tightly knit. The people who need to know about the company and what it does will be very familiar with the name, and Zoetis will be rolling off their tongues as easily as Nike (that’s ni-KEE, as we all had to be educated to say).

*BTW, Zoetis is pronounced zo-EH-tis, according to Pfizer.