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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 4.20.12 AM

“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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 3.45.26 PM
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).

westinghouse-logo
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
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.

Blaer needs a shot of Tequila

Blaer, which means “light breeze” in Icelandic, sounds a perfectly nice name for a young girl.

The Iceland government takes a different view. Blaer is not on it’s approved list of names for girls on the Personal Names Register. So, as most of the world knows by now, the 15-year-old girl is suing the state for the right to legally use the name given to her by her mother.

We’ve been down this naming path before. It may seem high-handed state interference into private and very personal matters such as an individual’s name, but the baby naming laws are there for what the Icelandic authorities see as good reason: to protect children from naming abuse.

Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and China also have laws designed to shield the innocent from the wilder naming fantasies of their parents.

For example, the Danish authorities have stepped in to block parents trying to name their children, variously, Anus, Pluto and Monkey.

The Swedes have rejected “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb111163 (pronounced Albin, naturally).

It was submitted by a child’s parents in protest of the naming law, and was duly dismissed. The parents later submitted “A” (also pronounced Albin) as the child’s name. It, too, was rejected.

Metallica, Superman, Veranda and Elvis have also been rejected. Ikea has been nixed but Lego is OK, for some reason, as is Google for a middle name.

Blaer, or whatever, should at least be grateful for her mother’s good taste, and also draw encouragement from the example Tequila, an 8th grade Swedish girl who triumphed over the system.

The Swedish authorities refused to recognize her name. Her family took the case all the way to the Supreme Administrative Court, which also rejected it.

She took the name Quila instead but was always Tequila to her friends and family.

As she was never baptized as a child, Quila decided to take another shot at getting the Tax Agency, the authority that administers the naming law, to approve her name. She sent her own personal plea explaining how she has grown into the name and that she wanted it to be official before her baptism.

They relented. She is now officially Tequila. The breeze is at your back Blaer. Don’t give up.

Further reading:

Is your name your destiny?

Unlike Jeff Bridges, Tron can’t hide it’s age

As entertainingly spruced up and spiffed out as the digital effects and graphics are in “Tron: Legacy”, the movie is an artifact from the past.

Just as the lines on Jeff Bridges’ face tell us how much time as past since Tron first appeared in 1982, the name also dates it.

Biodigital jazz, man.

Tron belongs to an era that began in the early 1960s. The space race was on and electronics and computers were linked with rocket technology.

In his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Princeton professor Burton G. Malkiel remembers the “tronics boom” of the time when companies thought investors would be attracted to any name reminiscent of electronics and the space age.

Monsell, a New Jersey-based maker of mechanical equipment, changed its name to K-Tron International in 1964 hoping to escape the gravitational pull of its founder’s name. Others followed.

“There were a host of ‘trons’ such as Astron, Dutron, Vulcatron, and Transitron, and a number of ‘onics’ such as Circuitronics, Supronics, Videotronics, and several Electrosonics companies”, writes Malkiel. “Leaving nothing to chance, one group put together the winning combination of Powertron Ultrasonics.”

Tron wouldn’t sound too out of place today in Toy Story as Buzz Lightyear’s younger brother. Technology eras and naming trends come and go. The wireless era had a myriad of companies with cell and tel names. We had the dot coms of the Internet era. And now we have Solexa, Solexant, Soliant, Solaris, Solarmer, Solarwatt, etc. of the solar era.

Two of the most recent and biggest trends in computing – open-source software and cloud computing – have been accompanied by some of the most generic naming conventions ever.

For open source, as Matt Asay points out in CNET News, it has become a requirement to include “source” in the company name – XenSource, MuleSource, SpringSource, SourceSense, Sourcefire, etc.

It's getting cloudy

Already, there’s a telling shift in the market. As open source goes mainstream companies don’t seem to be appending source to their names as much anymore . Instead, it’s cloud-computing companies that are eager to tack a “cloud” badge to their name – Cloudant, Cloudkick, Cloudshore, Cloudswitch, CloudSource. This too shall pass very quickly.

Technology companies are founded by visionary engineers who think it’s all about the technology; it will sell itself, just put it in the name of the company. So we get generations of soundalike names, layered on top of each other like stratified fossils.

Technologies soon become commodities. Yesterday’s breakthrough is today’s standard. Categories are created, and they are dominated by brands, as Apple, Amazon, Verizon, Cisco and Oracle testify.

But see the movie.

Why you can’t call your child Anus, Pluto or Monkey in Denmark

When it comes to naming kids, anything goes here in the United States.

You can burden your offspring with whatever bizarre name catches your fancy (and movie stars usually do).

Other countries are not easy-going. Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and China all have baby-naming laws to protect the innocent. Courtesy of CNN, these are the countries that outlaw bad baby names.

1. Sweden

Enacted in 1982, the Naming law in Sweden was originally created to prevent non-noble families from giving their children noble names, but a few changes to the law have been made since then.

The part of the law referencing first names reads: “First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.”

If you later change your name, you must keep at least one of the names that you were originally given, and you can only change your name once.

Rejected names: “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb111163 (pronounced Albin, naturally) was submitted by a child’s parents in protest of the Naming law. It was rejected. The parents later submitted “A” (also pronounced Albin) as the child’s name. It, too, was rejected.

Also rejected: Metallica, Superman, Veranda, Ikea and Elvis.

Accepted names: Google as a middle name, Lego.

2. Germany

In Germany, you must be able to tell the gender of the child by the first name, and the name chosen must not be negatively affect the well being of the child. Also, you can not use last names or the names of objects or products as first names.

Whether or not your chosen name will be accepted is up to the office of vital statistics, the Standesamt, in the area in which the child was born. If the office rejects your proposed baby name, you may appeal the decision. But if you lose, you’ll have to think of a different name. Each time you submit a name you pay a fee, so it can get costly.

When evaluating names, the Standesamt refers to a book which translates to “the international manual of the first names,” and they also consult foreign embassies for assistance with non-German names. Because of the hassle parents have to go through to name their children, many opt for traditional names such as Maximilian, Alexander, Marie and Sophie.

Rejected names: Matti was rejected for a boy because it didn’t indicate gender.

Approved names: Legolas and Nemo were approved for baby boys.

3. New Zealand

New Zealand’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act of 1995 doesn’t allow people to name their children anything that “might cause offence to a reasonable person; or […] is unreasonably long; or without adequate justification, […] is, includes, or resembles, an official title or rank.” Officials at the registrar of births have successfully talked parents out of some more embarrassing names.

Rejected names: Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy, Sex Fruit, Satan and Adolf Hitler

Approved names: Benson and Hedges (for a set of twins), Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter and Violence

4. Japan

In Japan, one given name and one surname are chosen for babies, except for the imperial family, who only receive given names. Except for a few examples, it is obvious which are the given names and which are the surnames, regardless of in what order the names have been given. There are a couple thousand “name kanji” and “commonly used characters” for use in naming babies, and only these official kanji may be used in babies’ given names. The purpose of this is to make sure that all names can be easily read and written by the Japanese. The Japanese also restrict names that might be deemed inappropriate.

Rejected names: Akuma, meaning “devil.”

5. Denmark

Denmark’s very strict Law on Personal Names is in place to protect children from having odd names that suit their parents’ fancy. To do this, parents can choose from a list of 7,000 pre-approved names, some for girls, some for boys.

If you want to name your child something that isn’t on the list, you have to get special permission from your local church, and the name is then reviewed by governmental officials. Creative spellings of more common names are often rejected.

The law states that girls and boys must have names that indicate their gender, you can’t use a last name as a first name and unusual names may be rejected. Of the approximately 1,100 names that are reviewed each year, 15-20 percent of the names are rejected. There are also laws in place to protect rare Danish last names.

Rejected names: Anus, Pluto and Monkey.

Approved names: Benji, Jiminico, Molli and Fee.

6. China

Most new babies in China are now basically required to be named based on the ability of computer scanners to read those names on national identification cards. The government recommends giving children names that are easily readable, and encourages Simplified characters over Traditional Chinese ones.

Parents can technically choose the given name, but numbers and non-Chinese symbols and characters are not allowed.

Also, now, Chinese characters that can not be represented on the computer are not allowed. There are over 70,000 Chinese characters, but only about 13,000 can be represented on the computer. Because this requirement is a new one, some citizens are having their name misrepresented, and some have to change their names to be accurately shown on the identification cards.

Rejected names: “@”: Wang “At” was rejected as a baby name. The parents felt that the @ symbol had the right meaning for them. @ in Chinese is pronounced “ai-ta” which is very similar to a phrase that means “love him.”

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?

Eh?

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

Has MySpace ruined rock band names?

This week the 10 billionth song was downloaded from iTunes since its launch in 2003.

In less than seven years Apple has become America’s No. 1 music vendor. The digital revolution has transformed the way we listen to music. It has also made life a lot more difficult for rock bands in search of a good name.

It used to be just a case of dreaming up a name and using it. These days, it takes only moments for a local band to create an online profile, upload songs and reach an international audience, thereby raising the stakes in trademark disputes which almost always hinge on which band first used the name commercially, and where.

Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones recently found just how difficult finding a name has become when he was forming a new rock band.

“Every other name is taken,” he complained to the Wall Street Journal. “Think of a great band name and Google it, and you’ll find a French-Canadian jam band with a MySpace page.” Naming consultants everywhere will sympathize.

Hands off my name

A lack of imagination may be part of the problem. According to Rovi Corp., which has a database of about 1.4 million artist names, the most common name in its files is Bliss. Next up: Mirage and One, followed by Gemini, Legacy, Paradox and Rain. They sound more like Las Vegas hotels than rock bands.

John Paul Jones’ first choice, Caligula, was ditched after they found seven other acts using the name. His band eventually decided on  Them Crooked Vultures for reasons best known to themselves.

It’s just as well they did their homework though. Having to change a name can be disastrous for a band. The Journal recounted the case of Captain America, a Scottish band that was endorsed and invited on tour by Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain in 1992.

Captain America was signed by Atlantic Records just as Marvel, publisher of the Captain America comic book, sent the band a cease-and-desist order. With its first U.S. record already in the pipeline, the group rechristened itself Eugenius, a reference to leader Eugene Kelly.

“Overnight, their career deflated,” says Steve Greenberg, the former Atlantic Records talent scout who landed Captain America.

“When people are given the chance to decide twice about a band, they don’t always make the same decision,” he says. “Fans of Captain America weren’t quite so sure they were fans of Eugenius.”

Mr. Kelly agrees that the “worst name ever” derailed Eugenius. “A band name should pass the taxi-driver test: You shouldn’t have to tell him twice,” says the Glasgow singer, who is recording a new album with his pre-Captain America band, the Vaselines. That name, he says, “sounds good and looks good.”

Personally, I can’t help feeling he’s not going to have much luck with that one either.

Led Zeppelin: Going down like a lead balloon.

Footnote: how Led Zeppelin got its name. When Jimmy Page was assembling the group, Keith Moon (drummer from The Who) got word of his plans and predicted the group would go down “like a lead balloon”, a common English expression for something that will bomb very quickly. John Entwistle added it would be “more like a lead zeppelin,” the large gas-filled cylindrical rigid airships invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Page took the phrase and manager Peter Grant changed the spelling to “led” in order to avoid mispronunciation.

Related articles.

The name of this band is WHAT?

Peeling the Apple

Buried in the article mentioned in the previous post [Google? What kind of name is that?] there is an inevitable reference to Apple.

In the article Paola Norambuena, who runs the naming division at Interbrand, said: “If you took the Apple name away and sold all of its other assets, they wouldn’t be worth as much”.

As with many things in the branding industry, there is an overwhelming amount of unsubstantiated received wisdom that is accepted as truth. This line of thinking about Apple seems to be a variation of a quotation, beloved by namers everywhere, which is attributed to John Stuart, former CEO of Quaker Oats. It goes something like this:

“If this business were split up, I would give you the land and bricks and mortar, and I would take the brands and trademarks, and I would fare better than you”.

This is probably so in the commodity business of breakfast cereal in which oats are oats are oats. Quaker did a great job of processing oats in their brick and mortar assets and getting them into the breakfast bowls of the nation. Apple, I would argue, is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Feb 5, 1996

Apple as a business has not always been the shining success it is today. As the BusinessWeek cover tells, the company and the brand were nearly managed into oblivion by a succession CEO misfits after Steve Jobs left Apple Computer in the mid-1990s. They viewed the business’s core product as manufacturing beige computers that fewer and fewer people wanted.

The Apple brand was rescued by Steve Jobs on his return, first through product revitalization and marketing and then by new product innovation. Today the brand is inextricably wound around the intangible capital of design, functionality, retail environments, product integration, content convergence, the Internet, marketing and the brilliance of Steve Jobs and his team.

What other assets does Apple have to sell? The company does not own its manufacturing plants. The brand is everything.

 

Google? What kind of name is that?

The subject of names and name origins has always been good for a quick article to fill a few column inches of newsprint or five minutes of air time.

ABC News ran such a story recently. It was the fairly desultory stroll down the well-trodden paths and naming byways of Accenture, Uggs, Wii and Google.

“Imagine what life was like before Google”, the reporter began. “Worse yet, imagine if there was no Google and we had to look everything up on BackRub”. Gasp. Just imagine.

BackRub, so legend has it, was the working name for search engine before it became Google, which is itself an unwitting misspelling of the word Googol, a mathematical term.

Few people know or care what a Googol is but it’s interesting how a familiar name, no matter how obscure, can seem so perfectly apt to this reporter; and how an unfamiliar name like BackRub can be so weirdly cumbersome and inappropriate.

One of the greatest challenges in naming is helping people to get beyond initial gut reaction to unfamiliar words (that’s how names start life) and think of them as successful, familiar brands. In this facet of human nature lies the essence of a brand: people like what they know, they are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.

Juliet had it so wrong. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic warhorse from Minnesota,  said it better if not as prosaically :  In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be” .


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”