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.

These brand tenants should be evicted

The word ‘brand’ has been so pulverized by misuse that it has become devoid of any specific meaning. It is a verbal husk from which most of the nutrition has been extracted.

As a result, other words are frequently added to it in an attempt to inject some meaning. Thus we have Brand Core, Brand DNA, Brand Insistence, Brand Momentum, Brand Physique and Brand Science, to mention just a few notable examples of the genre.

I came across a new one recently.

A presenter from a research company of international repute was earnestly discussing the “brand tenants” of a company to a group of its senior executives. No, I did not hear incorrectly; there it was emblazoned on the screen:

BRAND TENANTS.

These ‘tenants’ included words such as ‘innovative’ and ‘trusted’ with supporting verbiage. No one blinked, not an eyebrow was raised.

In search of brand tenants

It had me guessing for a while before I realized she meant ‘tenets’.

While tenet and tenant share the same root tenere (to hold) they mean totally different things. A tenant is a person that pays rent to use or occupy land or a building owned by another; a tenet is an opinion, doctrine, or principle held as being true by a person or especially by an organization (it says so in the dictionary).

Brand tenets, however wearisome the verbal concoction, makes some sense. Meanwhile, those company executives in the meeting are presumably quite content to believe they have brand tenants. Which is OK, as long as they don’t expect to collect rent from them.

Time Warner’s naming twavails

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When it comes to name changes, the Time Warner organization has had more than its fair share of unfortunate miss-steps.

Time Warner’s misbegotten merger with AOL produced the behemoth ‘AOL Time Warner’ in 2000. It was a fractious marriage and the promised synergies never materialized. When Time Warner executives regained their senses and control of the company they dropped AOL from the corporate name in 2003 before finally ridding itself the business in 2009.

In this case the name was the least of Time Warner’s problems, however humiliating the unraveling may have been.

Its offspring, Time Warner Telecom, has made much heavier weather of its naming challenge.

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Continue reading “Time Warner’s naming twavails”

The entrepreuner’s naming trap 2: Lack of due diligence

Financial advisor Sid Blum had been running his own firm, GreenLight Fee Only Advisors, for more than three years when in April he received a threatening legal letter from Greenlight Capital Inc., the hedge fund led by legendary short-seller David Einhorn.

The letter ordered Mr. Blum to stop using the GreenLight name. The hedge fund followed up by filing a lawsuit in May.

Continue reading “The entrepreuner’s naming trap 2: Lack of due diligence”

Coinstar, Amazon and the entrepreneur’s naming trap

What has the name ‘Starbucks’ got to do with coffee?

Apart from now being the name of the world’s largest coffee chain, it has absolutely nothing to do with the dark, bitter brew.

The company was named after a minor character in Herman Melville’s book ‘Moby Dick’. As anyone who has read the book can testify, Starbuck drinks not a drop of coffee. According to the Starbucks website the founders considered naming it after Captain Ahab’s boat, the Pequod, but minds were changed when a friend tried out the tagline, “Have a cup of Pequod.” Starbuck was the fallback choice.

“Customers must recognize that you stand for something”, CEO Howard Schultz once astutely observed. The Starbucks brand and business is built around his vision of recreating the Italian coffee bar culture in the US, not the commodity product.

How important was coffee to Starbuck’s success? Essential. It gave the business an early focus on the culture of coffee and a ‘known for” brand. Today, the brand has widened into that of a place to relax, meet and work.

Stores sell many things apart from mocha frappuccinos  — packaged food items, hot and cold sandwiches, mugs and tumblers; select “Starbucks Evenings” locations offer beer, wine, and appetizers. The point being the name has the necessary flexibility to grow with the business.

There’s an important naming lesson in that observation for every entrepreneur.

They have a great idea for a new product; they reason, not unnaturally, that the product is the business and the business is the product and, therefore, the name of the product becomes the name of the company.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 3.03.19 PMCollege graduate student Jens Molbak had a great idea for all that loose change we accumulate in jars.

The bank won’t accept coins unless they are sorted and rolled. He came up with Coinstar, those green vending machines you see in supermarkets where people dump their change and receive dollar bills. Coinstar takes a percentage.

A nice idea, and a very nice business. The company has processed more than 350 billion coins in its nearly two decades of operation.

In 2009 Coinstar came face-to-face with the limitations of its name when it acquired Redbox, the DVD rental company. Molbak realized the future of the business is really about dispensing machines, not coins. Coinstar is a limiting name for a business that wants to expand beyond coins.

The company changed it name to Outerwall to better reflect its evolving lineup of automated kiosks and is now a multi-national provider of services for the front end of retail stores, including bulk vending, prepaid products (gift cards), money transfer, automated DVD rentals via Redbox and coin counting.

Business focus is essential, but when it comes to corporate naming entrepreneurs need to think beyond the product and ask themselves the question, ‘What business am I really in?’ Changing a company name just as the business is hitting its stride is disruptive, expensive and unnecessary with a little forethought.

MP3Car faced a similar dilemma.

The company traces its roots to a worldwide online community of geeks in the 1990s who installed personal computers filled with electronic music files, or MP3s, in their cars. Along the way, MP3Car’s engineers developed increasing expertise in building and integrating mobile computers and started consulting and selling computers to companies and government agencies.

“MP3Car.com is obviously a misnomer at this point,” said CEO Heather Sarkissian in a 2009 interview with the Baltimore Sun. “It’s a very well-known brand. However, it is very confusing to our [business-to-business] enterprise customers.”

The name was a stumbling block for potential clients and even investors.

“One investor thought all we do is put MP3 players in cars,” Heather Sarkissian said in the interview. “He told us we’d be out of business in two years. … I had to explain to him what we really do.”

MP3Car tried to save money by doing its renaming and branding itself.

“I’m telling you, it’s all been thought of. … It’s crazy,” she said. “This has been an incredible challenge.”

So much so that the company seems to have abandoned the attempt.

Amazon

Jeff Bezos wanted anything but a limiting name when he founded Amazon.

It was very nearly called Cadabra, as in “abracadabra” – the word magicians use when performing a trick. His lawyer apparently misheard the word as “cadaver” so Bezos instead named the business after the river, reportedly for two reasons: one, to suggest scale – Amazon.com launched with the tagline “Earth’s biggest book store” (a great value proposition) –  and two, back then website listings were often alphabetically before Google came along.

On it’s march to global retail hegemony Amazon has helped to put retailers Borders Books, Tower Records and Blockbuster out of business.

Books now represent a tiny fraction of its revenues. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has become the retailer’s money machine, accounting for more than half of the company’s operating profit while on track to do more than $10 billion in sales this year.

What a mistake books.com would have been.