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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is: whose autobiography will it be?

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

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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, and are not available. Someone at Comcast is thinking ahead.