Leonardo, Tesla and the genius syndrome of corporate naming

IN THE SUMMER OF 1974 a pregnant young woman was gazing at a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi Gallery. At that moment she felt the baby kick and, so the story goes, Imelin DiCaprio decided, then and there, to call her first-born child Leonardo.

A nice story if you believe it. Her son, Leonardo DiCaprio, has certainly been blessed with a talent that has earned him fame and fortune. To what extent Leonardo da Vinci’s namesake can ascribe his success to his name has to remain the stuff of romantic speculation.

Mauro Moretti, the CEO of the Italian aerospace company Finmeccanica, has no doubts at all about the power of Leonardo’s name. He has decided to rename the entire company Leonardo in honor of the renaissance genius.

Mr. Moretti had a tough job ahead of him on his appointment in 2014. 

Finmeccanica was then a sprawling industrial company partly owned by the Italian government. He launched a dramatic restructuring plan to transform performance and upgrade the reputation of a company dogged by corruption.

By all accounts he has done a good job streamlining the company and unifying its multiple brands into a coherent organizational whole around a ‘one company’ brand strategy that fits the business vision of a more cohesive, homogeneous and efficient group focused on aerospace.

Mr. Moretti has talked openly over the last year about his intention to abandon the Finmeccanica name, which roughly translates as “Financial Mechanics”, for something more inspiring, something with “the sense of deep roots and a great future.” Obviously heavily pregnant with ideas about names, he received a metaphorical kick in the stomach while contemplating Leonardo da Vinci’s genius for invention and the future of Finmeccanica.

So, on January 1, 2017, Finmeccanica will become Leonardo SpA.

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“We looked for something that would reflect the history of our evolution in space and security,” Moretti said at a press conference in Milan’s Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci, which hosts a collection of the Italian master’s models and drawings. “Luckily we have this genius Leonardo. We think that this will be the basis of our future motto: genius at your service.” *

Mr. Moretti is said to be moving on to greater things and is now in the running for the post of Italy’s industry minister.

What will become of Leonardo? It remains to be seen what the company will do with its presumptuous new name and whether it can build a brand for the future beyond the backward-looking museum piece references of the Vitruvian Man and Leonardo’s sketches of machines.

Moretti had a much better name available to him in Alenia Aerospace, a division of the Finmeccanica group. Far too mundane, though, for a renaissance man on the move who wants to leave his personal stamp on the company.

Genius for sale.

It’s not the first time a company will have draped itself in the borrowed robes of a dead genius in hopes of reviving its fortunes. The names of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and Albert Einstein have all been invoked in the cause of capitalism.

If the notion appeals to your conceit it is possible to license the Einstein name at einstein.biz for your business, albeit with stringent conditions.

And with some legitimacy there are many US utilities that use the Edison name; Southern California Edison, Consolidated Edison, Detroit Edison, Boston Edison and Ohio Edison, to mention a few, all operated happily together and independently under an original agreement in which Thomas Edison allowed electric utilities to use his patents if they used his name.

George Westinghouse, Edison’s great rival, has not been so lucky with his brand trustees. Westinghouse Electric once bestrode the industrial landscape of the world producing amazing technical inventions in defense electronics, power generation, refrigerated transport, nuclear engineering and so on. By the mid-1990s the company was a shadow of its former self, having diversified almost to the point of oblivion. In 1995 Westinghouse purchased CBS, the broadcasting company, and in a kind of ‘reverse brand merger’ morphed itself into the CBS Corporation in 1997.

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The Einstein licensing website

The company sold its remaining manufacturing asset, the nuclear energy business, to British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), along with rights to the Westinghouse name. BNFL, in turn, sold it to Toshiba in 2006 and it still operates to this day as Westinghouse Electric Company.

CBS also created a new subsidiary to manage the Westinghouse brand. What “managing” means in this case is licensing. The famous W logo, designed by Paul Rand in 1960, along with the Westinghouse name and the slogan “You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse” is yours to use for a price. It has been licensed to a ragbag of upstart crows now called Westinghouse each hoping to be raised from obscurity by association with a genius (Westinghouse, the undead brand).

For sale: one previous owner.

At the center of the power struggle between Edison and Westinghouse was the commercialization of electricity and the two different technologies used to transmit it from plant to user. Edison was a proponent of DC power (Direct Current) although he recognized its limitations; it was very difficult to transmit over distances without a significant loss of energy. He turned to a young Serbian mathematician and engineer whom he’d recently hired at Edison Machine Works for help. His name was Nikola Tesla.

Tesla accepted the challenge and set out to redesign Edison’s DC generators. The future of electric distribution, Tesla told Edison, was in Alternating Current (AC) —where high-voltage energy could be transmitted over long distances using lower current—miles beyond generating plants, allowing a much more efficient delivery system.

“Splendid” but “utterly impractical” was Edison’s verdict. Tesla was crushed and left Edison in 1885 to raise capital for his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. George Westinghouse was a believer in AC power and bought some of Tesla’s patents and set about commercializing the system to make electric light available to all.

Tesla went on to become celebrated as a ‘mad scientist’ showman, renown for his achievements and displays with electricity. Using his Tesla coil to conjure thunderbolts on stage he would enthrall audiences and speak like a sorcerer. Despite the fame he achieved in his lifetime, the name Tesla would be largely forgotten today were it not for another industrial genius of the 21st Century.

Tesla: Electrifying

Elon Musk is the CEO and public face of Tesla Motors, the first new American auto company to turn profit in decades (the company was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, Elon Musk joined soon after it was incorporated).

Tesla Motors acknowledges its debt to Nikola Tesla and has drawn on the inspiration of his name and work to shape the Tesla brand into something beautiful and original with its own vision and brilliance. For Tesla Motors, the name was a starting point, not an end point.

And here’s the challenge with “Leonardo Strategy” of naming in general: such borrowed brands have a seductive appeal, they are chocolate clichés with creamy fillings, tasty but gone in a bite.

For Finmeccanica the Leonardo name can either delude the company into believing it’s branding work is done, that the brand comes as a complete ‘off-the-shelf’ package with the name, or, like Tesla Motors, the company can use the name as a starting point for its own renaissance in true tribute to a genius without equal.

Footnote: Leonardo DiCaprio’s first agent believed Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio was “too ethnic” to work and, at first, refused to sign him unless he changed his name to Lenny Williams.

Lenny SpA Mr. Moretti?

* Financial Times: Finmeccanica turns to Leonardo for rennaisance.

Best Western and Westin – brand tales from the wild frontier

Best Western has always been a bit of a me-too brand.

The company’s recent attempt to fix its problematic name and confused economy brand image follows the well-trodden path of Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn with a ‘basic, plus, premium’ segmentation strategy.

But then there’s BW Premier Collection, Best Western Plus Executive Residency and – just for the millennials – two new concepts named ViB (Vibe) and Glo (Glow) — how are they supposed to fit in to our consciousness?

It’s still confusing, it has to be said, and oddly reminiscent of Oldsmobile’s panicky attempt to overcome its failing brand by pretending it didn’t exist and pouring money instead into models with names such as the Alero, Bravada and Firenza. But all credit to CEO David Kong — for the first time in the 69-year history of Best Western the company has really tried to address the problem of the Best Western brand.

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The name, as you might well imagine, has its origins in the American West, which is loosely defined as the territory west of the Mississippi River.

The company was founded after the Second World War when a network of independent hotel operators in California began making referrals of each other to travelers. The informal network eventually grew and in 1946 it was decided to formalize the arrangement. With a singular lack of imagination they named the new company ‘The Best Western Motels’.

Why ‘Best’? Most likely it had something to do with a chance meeting that took place 16 years earlier in a small town to the north of California in Washington State. Two hotel competitors found themselves having breakfast at the same diner in Yakima. They struck up a conversation and decided to band together and form an alliance, which they named ‘Western Hotels’.

The folks down in California were surely aware of Western Hotels when they were thinking about a name for their company. Given where they were operating, ‘western’ must have seemed a natural. Not to be outdone by Western Hotels they found what they assumed to be an easy way round that problem by going up the superlative scale –not just Western, but Best Western.

In 1964, Best Western bumped into the geographic limitations of its name when it decided to expand east of the Mississippi. Extending the same ‘territory as brand” logic the properties were named — you guessed it —  ‘Best Eastern’. It didn’t last long. By 1967 the Best Eastern name was dropped and all motels from coast-to-coast got the Best Western name and logo, a move that would substantiate its claim to be the “World’s Largest Hotel Chain” by the 1970s.

Western Hotels, meanwhile, had taken a different route to growth with service innovations such as the first guest credit card, a state-of-the-art reservation system and the first hotel to offer 24-hour room service.

Positioned for global growth

With expansion into Canada in 1954 the company changed its name to Western International. And then, in what was a truly inspired rebranding exercise, Western International morphed its name into ‘Westin’ in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Westin Hotels & Spas is now a brand cornerstone of the Starwood Group. The addition of the Westin bird logo by Landor in San Francisco gave the brand a luxury caché that was much admired in the hotel industry.

Unlike Westin, Best Western never got to grips with the evolution of its brand as the business grew. It wasn’t until quite recently it actually came to understand that Best Western is a brand – albeit, a brand with baggage – and not just a name. I am reliably informed that, at one time not too long ago, a branding agency seriously suggested to Best Western that it build a brand around ‘Best’ and drop the western part. No takers at Best Western.

A hint of what might be ahead for the Best Western brand is the introduction of a BW monogram in the new, modernized Best Western logo. A good move although still too tentative. David Kong should have seized the opportunity and gone the whole hog with BW as the main hotel brand and corporate name and ring-fenced Best Western as its economy brand.

And what of ViB and Glo? One thing I do know about millenials – they don’t like being sold to, especially by their grandfather.

Time for a name change at Time Warner

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Time Warner, the media conglomerate that bears the title of once-great magazine in its name, is getting out of the publishing business.

The plan to spin off its Time Inc. magazine division is part of the great unraveling of a conglomerate that came into being in 1990 with the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications.  It will complete Time Warner’s evolution into a pure cable television and movie production company from what was once a colossus that included dominant cable and Internet companies, a book publisher and music unit.

It also redresses the lingering fallout of Time Warner’s recent corporate marriages, most notably AOL’s $103.5 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2000 that created the monstrous AOL Time Warner.  That debacle became a case study in M.B.A. programs on how not to run a company.

For one brief shining moment
For one brief shining moment

With the departure of Time Inc. from its stable it would be an ideal time for Time Warner to resolve the confusion that has surrounded its name for years, the chief culprit in this being Time Warner Cable.

It is no minor issue. Time Warner Cable was a division of Time Warner Inc. up until 2009 when it was spun off… as Time Warner Cable. Since the separation it’s been commonplace to see their names confused.

Time Warner Inc. regularly gets complaints from Time Warner Cable customers about its apparently terrible service. Time Warner Cable, for its part, gets complaints from people about programming of Time Warner-owned cable channels such as CNN and HBO.

Executives at Time Warner Cable did make a run at a name change in 2010. The search was voluntary; the company was under no contractual obligation to find a new name. Dubbed ‘Project Mercury’ the name search involved the combined might of WPP’s Ogilvy and its various branding agencies, all to no avail. In the end, the folks at Time Warner Cable couldn’t wean themselves off the seductive familiarity of the Time Warner name, or even the word ‘cable’, so they made do with a logo change and a new ad campaign to create ‘distance’.

Is this far enough?
Is this far enough?

They also might have been glancing over their shoulders at the naming travails of its sister company, Time Warner Telecom, which had to change its name under a license agreement that expired in 2006. It made a complete hash of the job and after two license extensions the company finally surrendered with the name ‘TW Telecom’ in 2008.

Now, along comes Comcast to the rescue. It’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable will likely do Time Warner Inc. a favor by burying the Time Warner Cable name.

A possible option for Comcast is to rename the combined company Xfinity, the current name for its TV, phone and Internet service. Nobody likes their cable company, but Comcast and Time Warner Cable are particularly reviled, both consistently ranking at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys. While it’s not a lovely name, Xfinity is free of the cable company service stigma. Still, that will be Comcast’s call.

Meanwhile, Time Warner Inc. has some soul searching of its own to do. The spin off of Time Inc. will mean there will be two companies with similar names traded on the stock market: Time Warner Inc. and Time Inc.

With no ‘Time’ in Time Warner will the company simply lop off Time from its name, as it did so unceremoniously with AOL in 2003, and become plain Warner Inc., or Warner Media? Even that would be problematic as there is the Warner Music Group, a closely held music company whose sale by Time Warner began the great unraveling.

Time Warner is beginning to look a lot like Viacom. It needs to find a similar kind of brand name that makes strategic sense of the whole, rather than passively drawing its identity from acquired properties that come and go. While time might not be running out for Time Warner, Time is no longer on its side.

See also: Time Warner’s naming twavails

The old, old story of a new corporate name

Keysight LogoThe only interesting thing about the new Keysight Technologies name from Agilent is the weird familiarity of the story surrounding its development.

It’s like a tired, old Agatha Christie plot recycled over and over. Only the names of the characters have changed.

A corporate spinoff is announced: they need a name, one with a message–wait, so what do we stand for? It also has to be easy to pronounce and – watch out for those tricky translation issues – it can’t mean shriveled testicles or anything rude in Japanese!

It sounds easy; it turned out to be very hard, much harder than anyone imagined.

An internal multi-regional, cross-functional team is formed just to complicate things. Once again executives rummage for candidates in the HP heritage bin – Addison Technologies anyone? Lawyers in international markets can’t agree. A private investigator is hired to track down the owner of a domain name.

It finally gets down to a shortlist of candidates…and then the CEO nixes them all on his iPhone.

He doesn’t like anything? Quick, back to the drawing board!

“It’s really hard to just take a bunch of letters and put them together, and have somebody identify with them right away,” says client breathlessly after three months of turmoil. “I would definitely describe it as a wild ride, three months of insanity.” Indeed. Insane.

A new name is finally announced. A happy ending in this case. Phew! But such an unnecessary palaver.

Read the unabridged version here.

Thanks to the EEVBlog, here are a few possible alternative name candidates:

This is Shinola

This is Shinola

There was a saying where I came from about unfortunate people who are easily confused or taken in. “Graham can’t tell his arse from his elbow”, we’d say.

Americans have a pithier expression: “Wade can’t tell shit from Shinola.” The alliterative ‘sh…’ sound here adds an important degree of subtle memorability and sibilant symmetry.

Until recently I had no idea what Shinola was, but whatever it was I was instinctively sure I could distinguish it from shit.

Shinola, as it turns out, was an American shoe polish brand. Wikipedia reliably informs me that it was introduced in 1907 by Shinola-Bixby Corporation of Rochester, NY.

The -ola suffix for product names was all the fashion at the time thanks to the popularity of the Pianola, a player piano that possibly derived its name from the violin-viola relationship. In 1906 the Victor Talking Machine Company launched the Victrola gramophone. Galvin Manufacturing later introduced the Motorola car radio, a ‘Victrola’ for your motor, and the whole crapola naming trend ran its course soon after.

Shinola (add shine to ‘ola’) polished its last boot in 1960 when the company went out of business but its name now lives on as something more than a euphemism for something you step in.

Shinola has been reborn as a luxury brand.

Yes indeed. You are now urged to think of Shinola in the same way you think of Mont Blanc with its expensive pens and other luxury ‘lifestyle’ accessories you don’t really need.

The company behind Shinola, Bedrock Brands, was started by a founder of the Fossil brand of watches, Tom Kartsotis. Last year, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that Mr. Kartsotis commissioned a study in which people were asked if they preferred pens made in China that cost $5, the United States at $10 or Detroit at $15, and when offered the Detroit option, they chose it regardless of the higher price.

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And so a luxury brand was born, trading on the manufacturing prowess of a city that was once known as Motown, the Motor City. And its name is Shinola?

Shinola opened the doors of its flagship store in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood in July. The Shinola product line consists of an unlikely paring of watches, bicycles and leather goods, many of which are made in Detroit, or at least assembled in Detroit. Yes, you can buy Shinola shoe polish at$15 a can and, if the impulse takes you, there’s a “Rare American Flag” going for $15,000 in the ‘curated’ section its website. Add it to your cart.

All-in-all, Shinola leaves you with an odd, empty feeling. The product set has no brand focus. The faux authenticity of its story, straddling a “storied American brand, and a storied American city”,  is bizarrely schizophrenic. Shinola is by no stretch a ‘storied’ brand. What stories are told about Shinola apart from its association with shit? It is all off-the-mark marketing cliche and hype.

Detroit, on the other hand, could be a winning idea. Clint Eastwood’s raw, gritty Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler in 2012 “Halftime in America” hit exactly the right note.  It was an uplifting tribute to a great American city and a great brand.

The sentiment behind the Shinola brand tries to capture that same spirit but fumbles it. What have Detroit and Shinola got to do with each other?

Is the brand Detroit, is it Shinola, or is it something you just want to wipe off your shoes?

Super-sizing Santander

An unveiling ceremony in Manhattan’s Herald Square this week gave New Yorkers a first view of a gaudy red sign that bears the name of a financial services powerhouse.

It says, simply, ‘Santander’.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was there with Emilio Botin, Chairman of the Santander Group. It was an important occasion for Santander. Similar ceremonies took place in Boston, Philadelphia, Providence and Wyomissing, PA.

It marks it the end of Boston’s Sovereign Bank, acquired by Santander four years ago and, more significantly, the beginning of Santander’s presence in the US market. The red sign will soon go up above 700 branches of what was Sovereign Bank network in nine states in the northeast.

Goodbye Sovereign
Goodbye Sovereign

The global brand hegemony of the Spanish banking group is impressive to behold.

Those oddly anonymous strips of red actually bear the name of a wet, nondescript port city on the northern coast of Spain. Santander is derived from the name of a 3rd century Catholic martyr, Saint Emeterio. Over time it became Santemter, then Santenter and finally Santander (see Namedroppings).

The bank’s history begins in 1857, when Queen Isabel II signed a royal decree authorizing the founding of Banco Santander to capitalize on the trade boom between Spain and Latin America.

A huge acquisition spree has, quite literally, put Santander on the global map. Today it is the largest bank in the Eurozone by market value and one of the largest banks in the world in terms of market capitalization with 186,000 employees, 102 million customers and 14,392 branches worldwide.

In the UK those bright red signs have spread like kudzu on every high street in the land over the last decade. Santander snapped up several of Britain’s most prominent building societies, including Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, quickly building up a national network of more than 1,300 retail branches, each of which slot in cheerily between the local Waitrose supermarket and Thorntons candy store.

Not Bank of America
Not Bank of America

The virtue of the Santander name is in its very blandness. Pronounced ‘san-tan-DAIR’ (although it will probably become better known in the US as ‘SAN-tanda’) it could be anything. It certainly doesn’t sound like a bank. And after the financial turmoil of the last recession and the bailouts that’s a good thing. People are still wary of big banks.

Santander’s rise is the Darwinian way, especially in financial services. Brands ebb and flow like corks on the economic tide. In the US, financial giants Merrill Lynch, Wachovia and Washington Mutual, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were swept away in the last recession.

If the UK is anything to go by Sovereign Bank will be just the first of several Santander acquisitions in the US on its way to prominence. It’s unflashy brand rooted in resolute consistency and customer focus has all the hallmarks of that other retailing giant that got the basics right.

Santander has the global scale, resources and corporate ambition to become the McDonalds of retail banking.


Top 25 US bank changes its name to Santander today

Sovereign Bank Starts Over as Santander

EY, aye ya-yi

It was either Al Ries or Jack Trout who first propounded the law of three syllables.

It goes something like this: if a name has more than three syllables it will be abbreviated or reduced to initials in popular usage.

It explains why New York (two syllables) is always New York while Los Angeles (four syllables) is more popularly known as ‘LA’. Likewise, Detroit is always Detroit but Philadelphia is Philly; and Wells Fargo gets its full name while Bank of America is referred to as BofA.

Beverages & More! was shortened to ‘BevMo!’ and Federal Express became ‘Fedex’. Most people knew Network Appliance as ‘NetApp’ and the Federal National Mortgage Association became ‘Fannie May’ via its initials, FNMA, and so on.

When there’s no handy short form available there’s always initials to fall back on – so PricewaterhouseCoopers becomes PwC, National Public Radio becomes NPR and National Cash Register becomes NCR.

There’s an important clause to the three syllable naming rule: only after a name has been has been appropriated and blessed in the public domain with common usage can it be yours to adopt and used with credibility. As my friend Ray likes to say – you can’t give yourself a nickname.

Thus, when National Cash Register formally changed its name to NCR in 1974 it had long since moved beyond the cash register business and NCR was how people referred to the company.

The Federal National Mortgage Association became, officially, Fannie May in 1997. In 2000, FDX Corporation, the parent company of Fedex, changed its name to Fedex Corporation. Beverages & More! became BevMo! in 2001. Network Appliance adopted NetApp as its name in 2008, and in 2010 National Public Radio changed its name to just NPR. PricewaterhouseCoopers finally bowed to the inevitable and joined the rest of the world when it decided to call itself PwC in 2010.


All of which brings us to Ernst & Young, or EY as it now wishes to be known.

One of the big four audit firms along with KPMG, Deloitte and PwC, Ernst & Young was created out of the merger of Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young in 1989.

For years Ernst & Young and Deloitte retained the professional high ground with their proper names. Deloitte smartly recognized the value of its name and has built a world-class brand around it. Ernst & Young had the same opportunity. The name is only three syllables long, easily pronounced and rich in history.

In succumbing to the use of initials in an attempt to reinvent itself, EY joins KPMG and PwC in the fog of corporate initialisms, leaving Deloitte to rejoice in its good fortune.

The problem for EY is that it has never been referred to as EY. Falling within the three-syllable rule, people have not had any need to abbreviate the name. In syllabic terms, Ernst & Young is just as long as IBM. In the industry it is occasionally referred to as ‘Ernst’ or  ‘E&Y’ (still three syllables long) or just Ernst & Young, but never EY as far as I know (although there was an interlocked E and Y in the previous logo).


EY feels forced as a result.  It doesn’t help either to have two letters with soft sounds that together look like an exclamation  – EY!

EY has something of the ‘CA’ problem (CA’s initial naming mistake). When Computer Associates changed its name to CA it never took. Four years later the company changed its name again, adding ‘Technologies’ to CA “to ensure that we tell a consistent story in the market that reflects the full breadth and depth of what we offer.”

Still, the new EY comes snappily outfitted in gray and yellow and that might be enough to convince people that the company has a convincing new story to tell about who it is and where it’s going.

But just as we were off and running with a new idea there’s that awkward tagline to hurdle: Building a better working world.

True, it does have some nice alliterative qualities – BBWW – but, again, it feels forced (maybe for the sake of alliterative symmetry). Is it correct to say “better working”? I want to take out my editor’s pen and make it either “Building a better, working world” or “Building a world that works better”.

Building a better working world? EY!


Ernst & Young Rebranding Draws Comparisons To ‘Sexy Boys’ Publication EY! Megateen