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).

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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.

Westinghouse, the Undead brand

You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse.

Those of us old enough to remember Westinghouse Electric as the great industrial powerhouse it once was will recognize that slogan and the iconic Circle W logo with some affection.

In what is now known as the Mad Men era of the 20th century the logo adorned the items of everyday life, from the Dog-o-matic hotdog maker to fridges, vacuum cleaners, ceiling fans, cookers, toasters, irons… every conceivable electrical appliance for modern convenience brought to you by the driving innovation of Westinghouse.

Like arch-rival GE, Westinghouse once bestrode the industrial landscape of the world producing amazing technical inventions in defense electronics, power generation, refrigerated transport, nuclear engineering and so on.

The logo is still visible today. It appears on an odd assortment of products, from solar panels, light bulbs, flat panel TVs and air conditioners. But it’s not your father’s Westinghouse. It’s not even Westinghouse.

Unlike GE, the company no longer exists. Westinghouse Electric officially died on December 1st 1997.

On that date a great industrial icon of the 20th Century completed one of the most sweeping corporate transformations in history by morphing itself into CBS Corporation, the broadcasting and media company it acquired in 1995. What was left of the firm’s industrial business was sold in pieces.

And so the 111-year-old industrial icon founded on the genius of George Westinghouse vanished from the face of the earth.

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While large corporations are, in one way, merely legal fictions which produce returns out of interchangeable assets, in another way they have a life of their own.

Whatever the complexity of events leading up to the dismantling of an industrial giant and its transformation it into a media company, the demise of Westinghouse demonstrates the resilience of a brand name.

Getting with it.

In 1998 the company, now CBS Corporation, did two things that would ensure the Westinghouse name would live beyond the grave. It 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 mark, designed by Paul Rand in 1960, along with the Westinghouse name and the slogan “You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse” has been licensed to a ragbag of small companies hoping to be raised from obscurity by use of the famous brand.

There’s Angelo Brothers, for example, a Philadelphia lighting company. In 2003 Angelo Brothers changed its name to Westinghouse Lighting Corporation under a licensing deal.

“We’re proud to be part of the Westinghouse family and to market products under one of the most powerful and trustworthy brands of our time”, said Stanley Angelo, who now rejoices in the title of Chairman and CEO of Westinghouse Lighting Corporation. While convenient for the Angelo brothers the arrangement has understandably given rise to comical confusion with people calling a nuclear power company for Christmas tree light bulb replacements.

And then there’s Westinghouse Digital of Orange, California that markets LCD televisions and other flat-panel display products. of reportedly variable quality that are made in Taiwan.

Westinghouse Lighting: Borrowed brand heritage.

One of the most recent conversions to Westinghouse is Akeena Solar, an installer and manufacturer of modular solar panels. Akeena Solar is now Westinghouse Solar. It too is free to use the Circle W logo, the slogan “You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse”.

Akeena Solar astutely observed: “ as solar purchasers move from early adapters to mainstream consumers, a lack of brand recognition will discourage buyers”.

Idea! Why bother building a brand when you can rent one? Akeena Solar now drapes itself in the borrowed trust and heritage and reputation of a brand that took another company a century to build.

The odd thing about all this is that Westinghouse as a brand is out of its time. While it is not dead, neither is it alive. It connects to a bygone era for those who remember it; for those who don’t it is a museum piece, a brand in formaldehyde. It is an undead brand.

In fact, it has become the antithesis of a brand: it guarantees nothing. From product to product there are no quality standards actively maintained by a parent company. Whatever it delivers, it is not the Westinghouse brand promise it wants you to think it is.

It’s an empty promise, a mocking contradiction of its own slogan: If it’s Westinghouse…you can’t be sure.

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