What word comes to mind when you think of Volvo?

Swedish? Chinese? Boring? Anything?

It is a widely accepted axiom among brand consultants that leading brands can be identified by a single word or concept. BMW, for example, owns “driving” and Mercedes-Benz owns “prestige”.

Volvo supposedly owns “safety”.

The single word theory was first propounded by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their classic 1981 book ‘Positioning: The Battle for your Mind’. Their hugely successful theory (in book-sale terms, at least) has since been handed down from father to daughter, generation to generation, and has thus passed into blogosphere folklore where it is regurgitated wholesale as an immutable tenet of brand strategy.

It gets a bit squirly in the retelling. I have seen confident assertions that the Disney brand variously owns ‘magic’, ‘fun’, ‘happiness’ or ‘family entertainment’ without an ounce of substantiation. Well, which is it?

Can a brand really be associated with a single, dominant trait or concept? More importantly, should it be?

It has to be remembered, of course, that Messrs. Ries and Trout are former admen whose simplistic brand-building notions were formulated in those far off days of the pre-Internet era when the world was a much simpler place and a single media buy could reach a majority of America’s TV audience.

But would Tony Stark drive one?

For Volvo, a rugged car built to withstand the rigors of Sweden’s weather and roads, safety was a reasonable advertising campaign “positioning” back then when safety standards were much less stringent and activist Ralph Nader was taking on the entire American automotive industry. Nader’s book, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, revealed that many American automobiles were shockingly unsafe.

Enter Volvo. Built like a tank, drives like a tank. But it’s safe.

When all your competition is proven to be unsafe, that’s quite a differentiator.

Buick Lacrosse: Safer than a Volvo.

Since then the world has turned several times. Technology has leveled the manufacturing playing field and vehicle safety standards are much more rigorous. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the safest cars for 2010 are the Buick LaCrosse (large cars), Audi A3 (midsize cars), and Honda Civic 4-door model (small cars).

Where’s Volvo? Nowhere.

Perhaps in perverse vindication of the Ries/Trout theory, and much to its disadvantage, Volvo cannot get beyond the lead weight of that word safety.

Design, styling, performance, quality and brand heritage are the essential ingredients of brand building in the automotive industry today, all of which are attuned to micro-segments of the market. Safe just isn’t sexy. It’s expected. What else have you got to offer?

It’s a problem Ford tried in vain to find an answer to for more than a decade, without success. After Ford purchased the Volvo in 1999 various attempts were made to spice up the brand in the US and pitch it to a younger audience. The kids were too busy driving their Scions to notice and the brand languished, unloved and ignored, except by a declining number of die-hard aficionados.

What the Volvo brand is and what it can be is no doubt preoccupying the collective minds its new owners, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Geely successfully marketed “the world’s cheapest car” to an emerging middle class in the country’s inland cities. Volvo represents an altogether different challenge.

Volvo’s brand heritage offers little inspiration. The name (it means “I roll” in Latin) was registered in 1911 by SKF, a Swedish manufacturer of ball bearings, for a new product line. The plan was shelved and the name was later resurrected for the construction of a vehicle for the Swedish market.

Volvo’s priapic logo, a circle with an arrow pointing diagonally upwards to the right, is an uneasy amalgam of symbolic references that includes the Swedish iron industry, Mars, the Roman God of War, and the male gender. Add a word that means ‘I roll’ and you have all the qualities you would want to avoid in a modern, luxury vehicle.

Geely has a dilemma. Safety in the Chinese market is not a compelling product attribute. For the rest of the world – a Chinese-owned brand positioned on safety? A hard sell.

The speculation is that Geely plans to sell Chinese-manufactured Volvos to rich Chinese and government and army officials, a ‘showcase’ segment currently dominated by Audi. Owned by Volkswagen, Audi is by far the No. 1 luxury vehicle brand in China. It sold 157,188 units last year, surpassing Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.

Volkswagen was the first foreign automaker to set up a joint venture in China in 1984, long before others. Today, Audi is viewed as a made-in-China luxury brand among government officials.

Can Volvo unseat Audi, the vehicle of choice for Ironman Tony Stark, the epitome of technological cool? We should not underestimate the far-sighted Chinese and their almost endearing belief in the fungibility of brands.

After Nanjing Automobile Group acquired MG, the legendary British roadster brand, it decided to change the meaning of the famous initials to help promote the brand in its new home.

The letters MG are derived from ‘Morris Garages‘, the original 1923 manufacturing home of the MG in Britain. Nanjing has proclaimed it “wants Chinese consumers to know this brand as ‘Modern Gentleman’, to see that this brand represents grace and style.”

Modern Gentleman? Even Ries and Trout could not come up with that one. Maybe there’s hope still for Volvo.

Modern Gentleman, circa 1930
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What is it about Accenture that engenders so much negativity?

Time recently included Accenture in what it referred to as the ‘Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes‘, putting it in the company of Comcast’s new Xfinity brand, SyFy and Blackwater’s name change to Xe.

According to Time, the rebranding of Andersen Consulting to Accenture was “regarded as one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history”. The criteria seems to be that if any name change becomes remotely controversial (and most of them are to reporters) it qualifies as a disaster.

Then last week Business Insider, in conjunction with Method and Rob Frankel, a branding expert, came out with its own list – “The worst rebranding disasters in the past few years”. Accenture is in there again, along with a mixed bag including the Tropicana pack redesign, the London 2012 Olympic logo, and “The Shack’ advertising campaign.

Once again the criteria for inclusion is hazy although the writer, one Bianca Male, says earnestly that “successful rebranding involves overhauling a company’s goals, message, and culture — not just changing a name or a logo”.

Quite so. But that’s a lot to expect from an orange juice carton redesign. As far as Accenture is concerned I would (and do) argue that the rebrand succeeds at every level on this basis.

What do you think Tiger?

The worst they can throw at Accenture is that the name is ‘meaningless’ and the rebrand cost $100 million, suggesting the company has been extravagantly profligate with its shareholders’ money.

First the name: as unlovely as it may be, it is far from being the disaster that Time and Bianca Male insists.

As anyone who has been involved in global branding programs knows only too well, finding a name that is universally available and has a positive interpretation in many different languages practically mandates a manufactured name in the Verizon, Novartis, Agilent genre. As a global company, the Accenture name had to be cleared in 47 countries and acceptable in 200 different languages.

As for the cost, a $100 million is about par for the course with corporate rebrands these days, most of that going on advertising and media. If cost is qualification for a disastrous rebranding, where is the mention of Verizon, AT&T and Lucent? Those rebranding campaigns cost about the same.

The main fact that is so oddly overlooked in the criticism of Accenture is the name change was forced upon Andersen Consulting. Unlike the Bell Atlantic/Verizon name change, for example, Andersen Consulting had to change its name as a requirement of its acrimonious legal split from its parent, Andersen Worldwide. Neither did it have the luxury of time. Andersen Consulting had to totally reinvent itself globally within 147 days of the August 2000 arbitration ruling. The risk of getting it wrong was huge.

Whatever one might think of the name itself, Accenture today is very successful $21 billion global enterprise. Its brand has been beautifully and comprehensively executed and positively embraced by clients and 180,000 employees worldwide.

Where is the disaster? Where is the failure?

Try looking at Accenture’s competitors. KPMG’s consulting arm, for example, changed its name to BearingPoint in 2002. Ironically, a bearing point is a nautical term for setting directions to a specific destination.

BearingPoint ran aground: it went into bankruptcy in 2009 and was broken up. There is a disaster if ever there was one.

Name changes are easy copy for reporters – the cost, the unusual name, the reaction. Gasp! They need little research, just rewrite the last article on the subject, and ‘experts’ who will freshen the controversy with ready quotes about how rank the name is are easily found.

For me, it is somewhat depressing to see reputable branding companies and “branding gurus” complicit in this kind of shabby, ill-informed exercise at the expense of branding industry’s already damaged credibility.

For those interested in the facts, here is an excellent white paper on Andersen Consulting’s marketing strategy and its transition to Accenture.

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.”



After the Apple iPad, stand by for the Dell Streak

If people had problems with the name of Apple’s iPad, they are going to have a high old time with Dell’s entry into the touch screen tablet market.

Engadget has posted two slides from an internal Dell document that purports show color options, sizes and the new name for the tablet referred to as “Streak”.

Streak is troubling for a couple of reasons. By definition, a streak is a line, mark or smear. Apart from the open invitation it offers to toilet humorists, Streak is a hard name to love if it is anything more than a code name. More problematically for Dell, it is yet another ‘brand’ that has to fight for attention alongside OptiPlex, Vostro, n Series, Latitude, Precision, PowerEdge, PowerVault, PowerConnect EqualLogic, Inspiron, Studio, Studio XPS, Alienware and the pretentious Adamo.

For all the issues some people have with the iPad and Apple’s iNaming convention, at least it has a logic that helps you to understand the family of products within an Apple-centric system.

From Pampers to Pontiacs

Where is Dell going? Regrettably, the company seems to be heading down the same P&G-style consumer product branding path that Ron Zarella pursued a few years ago at GM at the behest of his Board mentor, John Smale. A former chairman of Procter & Gamble, Smale hoped to introduce the marketing skills of the packaged-goods business to cars. What worked for Pampers will work for Pontiacs was the logic.

Zarella, president of GM North America, duly obliged and poured marketing money into individual vehicle models at the expense of the core ‘divisional’ brands (Pontiac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac).

No new dawn for Oldsmobile

He even went so far as ‘de-badging’ Oldsmobile cars and promoted models such as the Aurora as brands in their own right, removing all trace of Oldsmobile on the vehicle. The problem was you still had to walk into an Oldsmobile dealership to buy one, an experience not for the faint-hearted. It was sleight-of-hand brand marketing logic devoid of any consumer buying psychology.  An already weak brand was effectively killed by this strategy which provided another expensive lesson in why classic consumer branding techniques cannot be applied willy-nilly across different industries.

Dell should look to its brand laurels. As innovative as its products might be (and I’m not sure they are technically), Dell is not a product marketing company. I don’t think it knows what it is anymore, but this much is certain: Dell needs a strong brand under which it can introduce new products and a nomenclature strategy that supports the brand. Fighting a war of product brands in now obligatory bright colors is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

To Xfinity, and beyond: The new laws of naming

Newspapers and magazines love lists. They are easy copy, as they need little or no research apart from the elicitation of a few expert opinions on the subject in question. And readers love them, if only to disagree.

Time magazine has a whole section on its website devoted to Top 10 lists. It includes compulsively irrelevant topics such as the Top 10 Internet Blunders, and the Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah.

This week Time rushed out a list of the Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes in honor of Xfinity, the new name from Comcast, the cable company, for its service offerings.

In a rush to judgment Time put Xfinity at the top of the list that included Accenture, SyFy, Consignia, Xe, Altria, WWE, Spike TV, AirTran, and the Willis Tower.

It’s a curious list. The criteria seems to be that if a name change is in any way controversial, then it’s bad.

Take the Willis Tower in Chicago, for instance. It was the Sears Tower for decades, a famous Chicago landmark. Unfortunately, Sears is not the company it once was and the building has been acquired by Willis Group Holdings, a London-based insurance company. Willis, understandably, wants its own name on the building. It has upset Chicagoans no end, but all’s fair in love, war and naming rights. When it comes down to it, why is Sears a better a name for a building than Willis? Nothing more than familiarity and a large dose of sentiment, I would say.

The map of the world in my school atlas was mostly pink, denoting the reach of the British Empire. Back then, Mumbai was Bombay, Beijing was Peking and  Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. The world moves on. It disturbed me more when San Francisco’s legendary Candlestick Park became 3Com Park, which then became Monster Park before the city mandated that it shall be Candlestick Park for ever more.

Spike TV is on the list because Spike Lee claimed that people might connect the TV network with Spike Lee. He won an injunction to prevent The National Network changing its name to Spike TV. The case was settled soon after in the network’s favor. Case closed.

How does this minor spat warrant Spike TV’s inclusion on Time magazine’s Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes – because Spike Lee was upset?

The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had to change its name to the World Wrestling Entertainment following a disagreement with the World Wildlife Fund, so WWF became WWE. What’s the problem?

Andersen Consulting was required to change its name as part of its acrimonious separation agreement with Arthur Andersen. Accenture is not a lovely name, to me it sounds like a sneeze, but to say it was “regarded as one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history” is stretching it just a bit. Accenture today is very successful, unlike its misbegotten counterpart at KPMG that became BearingPoint. It sank without trace and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. And not to forget PwC’s consulting arm, which was primped and dressed as ‘Monday’ by Wolff Olins before IBM came along to save the day. 

Consignia is rightly on the list. Its sin was not so much the name itself, as naff as it was, but the ineptitude with which the proposed change was handled. Renaming a British institution like the Royal Mail was always going to be highly controversial. Well, controversial it was. And the name became the focal point for torrent of fear and loathing that eventually sank it and the CEO of the company.

Consigned to the scrap heap

Which brings us to Xfinity, the name that clearly inspired Time’s hastily compiled list in the first place.  The negative energy around the introduction of Xfinity seems to be generated by a perception of poor service from Comcast.

William Lozito of Strategic Name Development says Comcast is “trying to put lipstick on a pig” by instituting a name change as a way to cover up service complaints.

But things are changing at Comcast. It recently acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal for $13.75 billion, giving it control of the Peacock network, an array of cable channels and a major movie studio. Advances in broadband digital technology also mean faster Internet speeds and more high-definition channels. The acquisition puts Comcast in the position of being both a content producer—through NBC and its subsidiaries—as well as a media distributor.

This is a long way from what the traditional cable company offered. As lazy and clichéd as the name Xfinity might be, it is the beginning of a campaign to convey this new world of myriad content and delivery quality, and change minds about what Comcast is. Whatever Xfinity may remind people of today, Comcast is going to spend a huge amount of money to get that brand to mean what it wants it to mean.

Today, naming is as much about PR strategy as it is about brand strategy. Accordingly, I offer these Seven New Laws of Naming:

1. All name changes of any consequence will be controversial.

2. Controversy is good for newspaper articles and circulation figures. There will always be people who don’t like a name change for whatever reason, and reporters will always find them for a quote. Be prepared.

4. New names will always remind people of something more familiar to begin with. They have to be given a context in which to understand the name.

5. People will get used to new names over time as long as they are free from negative connotations that can not be overcome (plain dumb names not withstanding).

6. Corporate name changes are politically charged. They have to be managed aggressively and proactively.

7. Social media is important. The urls xfinitysucks.com, and xfinitysucks.org are not available. Someone at Comcast is thinking ahead.