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VIEWPOINT

Name Changes That Fracture Language : Many Firms' New Monikers Are Utter Gibberish

March 15, 1987|S. B. MASTER | S.B. Masters is in charge of the corporate-naming division of Landor Associates, a San Francisco consulting firm.

In a misguided effort to liberate themselves from what management perceives as old, restrictive company names, many otherwise sensible corporate executives have run to phoneme scramblers, a breed of naming experts who seem to have given up on the language in favor of computer-generated gibberish.

Bits and pieces of words, remnants of sound, are electronically stitched together to form new "words. "

The result? A rash of prominent American companies are sporting new patchwork names such as Allegis, Unisys, Navistar, Nynex and Trinova. Not since Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" have we seen so much phoneme scrambling.

Often the scramblers get so caught up in their synthetic threads that they forget the basics: differentiation and pronounceability.

Name is Ambiguous

For example, while Primerica, American Can's new moniker, is not a total embarrassment like Unisys, its pronunciation (PRY-merica) is ambiguous and the "merica" suffix, although meaningful, is hackneyed.

There are already many federally registered corporations or trademarks with names ending in "merica" (Homerica, Comerica, Agrimerica) and others beginning with "Ameri" (Ameritech, Amerifirst, etc.).

So it will be very difficult and costly to make Primerica stand out.

Coining words is definitely not the same as minting money. Names such as Exxon and Abex may be good or bad. But one thing is certain: They will require many promotional dollars to establish.

With enough time and money, any meaningless and fairly pronounceable combination of letters can be made a part of the language.

But that's an expensive way to go. A new word will always need more introductory promotion than a real word already charged with meaning.

Our experience both nationally and internationally proves that people respond most positively to names that they can use easily, understand quickly and feel good about.

Real words, with the emotional and psychological associations they carry, generally do a better job of accomplishing these objectives. It isn't easy for people to get a warm feeling from abstract and meaningless computer-generated names.

Dangers abound in phoneme scrambling. Sometimes a computer-made creation turns out, embarrassingly enough, to be an obscure real word.

When Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth merged last year, the marriage resulted in the awkward moniker HNG/InterNorth. Management agreed to rename the company (something coined, something related to energy and high tech).

It very nearly ended up with Enteron Corp. until it learned from a very amused investment community that the word enteron is the medical term for the alimentary canal, an organ that functions both in digestion and the elimination of waste. Back to the minting machine.

Another naming mistake, almost as common and also resulting in a meaningless miasma, is the Alphabet Soup Solution.

In the age of mergers and acquisitions, many good corporate names have been replaced by a string of letters. It works with RCA, IBM and GE. Why not then PPG or MBPXL?

The answer is obvious. Only companies with a long history of very high visibility can get away with shorthand initials.

Running to the alphabet is often the easiest way out--and a sure sign of the naming expert's fatigue. For every AT&T or GE there are hundreds of SMCs, DPFs, GAFs and--most tragic of all--USXs that have chosen alphabetical anonymity.

The Nearsighted Name also is a hazard. Always keep an eye to the future. With too specific a name, you can fence yourself into a single market, product or service and create problems for future diversification.

Beware especially of geographically limiting names. Allegheny Airlines had a geographically nearsighted name. Its current name, USAir, immediately changed the public perception, communicating its nationwide service.

Beware of Blunders

Names often build up tremendous equity. If a new name won't do a better job of achieving your objectives, keep the old one and revitalize it with a fresh, new visual treatment.

For example, new corporate colors, judiciously selected typography, a revised logo and a systematic approach to graphics can be powerful--and instant--communicators of corporate strategy.

Lastly, beware of the Dirty Word blunder. Even if you think that your market is limited for the moment to the English-speaking world, don't forget the large and growing non-English-speaking population in the United States.

Also remember that today's marketplace is becoming more and more global. Forward-thinking management should anticipate expansion.

Names, therefore, should be checked with the major languages of the world so that awkward homonyms can be avoided.

Chevy Nova, for example, means "no go" in Spanish, and Colgate means "hang yourself" when given the Spanish pronunciation, col-gah-tay.

While it's great fun to call attention to the current lunacy in naming that seems to be sweeping corporate America, it should be remembered that naming is a serious business.

In these days of intensified competition, the right name can be an enormous advantage in the marketplace.

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