A shock of white hair. The shaggy mustache. The pipe. An immaculate white suit. This is no informal portrait of the artist as an old man, but the iconic image of Mark Twain, the brand.

A distinguished novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and literary critic, Mark Twain was the creator of  some of the great characters of American literature. His literary achievement was best estimated by Ernest Hemingway when he said: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’.”

His greatest creation, however, was Mark Twain. Himself.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, he died one hundred years ago this year as Mark Twain, celebrity. As every schoolchild used to know, the most famous pen name in the world has its origins as a Mississippi riverboat cry, “by the mark, twain”.

As a former riverboat pilot Clemens was more than familiar with the cry, which indicated a two-fathom clearance beneath the boat.  But he did not invent the name so much as acquire it.

It was one Captain Isaiah Sellers who first used Mark Twain as a name. He wrote river news for the New Orleans Picayune under that sobriquet. When Captain Sellers died in 1869 Clemens saw his chance. “I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains,” as he explained later in a letter.

Clearly Clemens had an ear and an instinct for a fitting name, the first essential of a brand. As the expression ‘mark twain’ had strong associations with the setting of his most famous books, so as a name it was highly relevant and memorable. It also had the virtue of being easy to pronounce and, given Captain Sellers’ demise, it was available.

For Clemens, Mark Twain became much more than a ‘nom de plume’. He manufactured the character Mark Twain around it just as surely as he created Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

His success as an author enabled Clemens to recreate himself entirely. During the course of his life he worked hard at cultivating the image and building the brand until, ultimately, Samuel Clemens morphed into Mark Twain. Like Huckleberry Finn, he became a figment of his own imagination.

As early as 1873 he had tried to trademark “Mark Twain” and in 1908, two years before his death, he formally established the Mark Twain Company to promote his work and image. Starting in 1909 the company, rather than Twain himself, retained copyright to new works. Mark Twain cigars and Mark Twain Whiskey were already on the market.

We may struggle to call to mind what Emerson or Hawthorne or Melville looked like, but not Twain. From early on, he made sure his image remained distinctive and unforgettable, from the mustache, the carefully tousled white hair, the pipe and the white suit worn year-round. This was his brand identity, carefully nurtured and assiduously protected.

He left an extensive photographic trail, he refused to talk to unauthorized biographers and recognized the power of new media, even licensing Thomas Edison’s company to film ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, complete with out-takes of him padding around his estate.

He was ahead of his time. If he were alive today the Mark Twain brand would be as ubiquitous as Disney. He would, no doubt, have a Facebook page, a website, a line of clothing, a cologne for men, all on sale at the Huckleberry Finn Mississippi Adventure Playground gift shop.

Perhaps with an eye to a then imagined future in which the full potential of his brand could be realized, his dying wish on April 21st 1910 was that his unpublished autobiography would not see the light of day until 100 years after his death. For the last century a 5,000 page unedited manuscript of Twain’s autobiography has been gathering dust in a vault at the University of California, Berkeley.

This November his wish will be fulfilled when the first volume of the autobiography will be published. It is, as publishers love to say, eagerly awaited.

The question is: whose autobiography will it be?

Coming up: Westinghouse, the brand name that would not die

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CA, the company formerly known as Computer Associates, is displaying all the characteristics of Hamlet. It is a company that can’t make up its mind.

Founded in 1976 as Computer Associates International, Inc., the company legally changed its corporate name to CA, Inc., in February 2006 while in the midst of a $2.2 billion fraud investigation that had dogged it for four years.

Explaining the name change at the time, CEO John Swainson said:

“CA is a changed company, but not an entirely new company. We’ve taken the strengths of the past and combined them with new initiatives, strategies and ideas to ensure CA is the clear industry leader in meeting the evolving information technology needs of customers.”

This week, four years on, the company announced it had changed it’s name again – this time to CA Technologies. Explaining this change, new CEO Bill McCracken, said:

“The name CA Technologies both acknowledges our past yet points to our future as a leader in delivering the technologies that will revolutionize the way IT powers business agility.”

Spot the difference?

While the latest statement does make reference to the current industry buzz-term “business agility”, the two statements are identical in their sentiment and intent. There is nothing to help us understand the logic of the addition of ‘technologies’ in the CA name.

Marianne Budnik, chief marketing officer, did add: “The brand and name change to CA Technologies was designed with insights from nearly 700 customers, partners and market thought leaders.”

It begs the question – insights into what, specifically? I would hazard a guess: CA hasn’t worked as a name. It was a hasty, myopic decision made at a time the company needed to distance itself from a debilitating scandal. CA was the easy choice, but the wrong choice. It just wasn’t thought through.

The pros and cons of initials as corporate names aside (more on this later), CA works visually when connected to the original name, Computer Associates, as in the amended logo introduced in 2001, shown above. Dropping the Computer Associates name from the logo was probably regarded as a minor adjustment. And as the internal rationale most likely went: competitors such as IBM, HP and BMC do just fine with initials, so why can’t we?

Well, disconnected from Computer Associates, CA becomes problematic for a number of reasons.

Unlike IBM, HP and BMC, ‘CA’ has no hard letter sounds. Consequently, CA it is not heard as two distinct initials, C and A. It is heard as ‘seeyay’.

Seeyay? Come again. Oh, you mean C and A, the old Computer Associates?

CA is nothing but a weak proxy for Computer Associates, a whiter shade of pale. It is too phonetically lightweight and nondescript as a name and simply not robust enough to acquire meaning of its own.

The other, not insignificant, problem – Google CA and up come pages of reference to California. CA means California first and foremost.

A new CEO brings in a new perspective. Bill McCracken decides change is necessary, and this time it will be based on research. Hence, the 700 insights Ms. Budnik mentioned. But they were probably given in response to a very specific question concerning the CA name, and very likely centering on preferences between modifiers, such as CA Software, CA Solutions and CA Technologies, etc.

Only in such a range of soft options could CA Technologies emerge as a winner. ‘Technologies’ is a verbal Band Aid and adds nothing other than a glottal stop to a very inadequate name.

Simpler options

This latest name change amounts to little more than fiddling around the problem, and in doing so CA creates another problem for itself.

In her statement, Ms. Budnik also said the name was “developed to ensure that we tell a consistent story in the market that reflects the full breadth and depth of what we offer.”

A redundant word in a name makes for inconsistency, not consistency. ‘Technologies’ is a such word. Lucent Technologies was always referred to just as Lucent, for example. No doubt CA Technologies will appear on things the company can control, such as corporate signage, stationery and collateral. But in all other cases it will be CA.  The company’s ticker symbol is still CA, it’s URL is still, and the company still defaults to CA in references to itself on its website. It will still be CA in headlines, analyst calls and in conversation. Where is the consistency?

Rather than finessing with the corporate name a simpler option would have been a tagline to anchor the name in some specificity for marketing purposes. EMC’s “Where information lives”, or GE’s “Imagination at work” are two of the better examples.

The better and braver option for Computer Associates would have been to change the name of the company in 2006 when it had reason and opportunity to, the accounting scandal apart. While Computer Associates’ success was built on mainframe software a different future beckons, one in which companies manage their technology in what the industry calls the “cloud.” The name should have claimed that future unequivocally.

Xmtch – an assignment for Don Draper, not Dan Draper



As the FT reports above, Credit Suisse is planning to rename something it calls Xmtch.

The Swiss bank has decided Xmtch is simply not cutting it in the arcane world of ETFs (exchange traded funds). “The rebrand”, the FT astutely observes, “seems to point to an admission that the business needs help.”

News of the planned name change, that will make it “very clear” the ETF business is part of the Credit Suisse stable, comes after the bank announced it had recruited ETF heavyweight Dan Draper from somewhere called Lyxor to shake-up the business.

While I am sure Dan Draper from Lyxor knows a lot about ETFs, Credit Suisse would have done far better to bring in Don Draper from Sterling Cooper. Don could have saved the bank a substantial part of the fortune it is no doubt paying Dan by giving it a few pieces of advice about names along the following lines:

“First, if you don’t know how to pronounce something, it does not even qualify as a name. How am I supposed to say Xmtch?

Second, a name should give you a clue as to what the product is. What is Xmtch? Does anybody out there know? Is it really any wonder your ETF business isn’t doing so well?

Third, if you want to connect the ETF business to the Credit Suisse name, how about something like, um,  ‘Credit Suisse ETFs’?

OK, you can send Dan back to Planet Lyxor now. My invoice is in the mail.”



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

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.

The iPad: context is everything, ladies

Is a legal pad an item of personal hygiene for female lawyers? How about a launch pad – is that a contraption for applying Maxipads? What about ink pad? Or mouse pad…

Pardon the puerile analogies. Of course you know what these kind of ‘pads’ are. So, to force such interpretation of their meaning through association with a feminine hygiene pad would be perverse. But that’s no worse than what happened this week with Apple’s iPad.

Within seconds of the unveiling of the iPad by Steve Jobs, Twitter lit up with women complaining and/or joking that the name immediately made them think of …iTampon.

Experts who should know better fanned the flames. “It’s an unfortunate name choice,” contended Michael Silverstein, senior vice president at Boston Consulting Group and author of “Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World’s Largest, Fastest-Growing Market.”

“They needed to do a research protocol and testing for a product that would offend no one while making clear its technical, functional and emotional benefits,” he said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Are you experienced?

That may be the way they think in the literal world of management consulting. What he clearly does not understand is that, when it comes to names and naming, experiential context is everything. Just is we do not suppose a cell phone is for making calls in jail, that Virgin Atlantic is an airline for the sexually inexperienced, or indeed Apple is a company that manages orchards, the iPad will create its own context and it will be become just as familiar and accepted as iPod.

The trap to guard against with new names is the natural tendency of people to associate an unfamiliar name with something that it is familiar. The statement that begins, “It reminds me of…” has led to the premature dismissal of many a good name candidate.  Associations are important, but focus should be on whether the the product or company that is being named could create new, positive meaning around the word, rather than rear-view association.

There’s nothing that can be done with plain bad names, such as the Ford Probe. But just imagine if iPad had been called the iTablet, which some bets were on before the launch. Would alarmed physicians be advising us not to use one more than a twice day, and then only after meals with a glass of water? Of course not. They know what hypochondriasis is.

What was that name again, Steve?
What was that name again, Steve?


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.