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Sometimes, What's Not in a Company's Name Is What Really Counts

January 23, 1990|BRUCE HOROVITZ

When officials from Sanwa Bank telephoned their new advertising agency a few years ago, the garbled phone messages they left behind often left agency executives in stitches.

"We kept getting messages telling us to call San Juan Bank," said John Fuller, who worked for the bank's former agency. "Then, there were messages for Sanyo Bank," said Fuller, who now handles ads for the bank from his new ad firm, Sacks/Fuller Advertising.

Those botched messages were pure inspiration. Copywriter Cary Sacks helped create an advertising campaign that actually poked fun at the bank's name. Besides "San Juan," one recent radio ad even made reference to "Sanwa Barbara." The problem is that, while Sanwa may be the fifth-largest bank in the world, when it entered the California market after a merger in 1986, most people didn't know Sanwa from Sanskrit.

While some companies such as Sanwa decide to tough it out with mind-numbing names, in recent years others have been more quick to change them. Just a few years ago, executives at Consolidated Foods Corp. figured that the best recipe for recognition was to change its corporate name to match its best-known product line. Faster than you can say Sara Lee, the company renamed itself after its famous baked-goods line.

On the other hand, United States Steel Corp., which wanted to be known for more than steel, some years ago renamed itself USX Corp. And Donald Trump renamed the Eastern Airlines Shuttle the Trump Shuttle--hoping that his own name had more credibility than that of the troubled airline.

But some experts now say the name-changing game may have hit the wall. In fact, there may even be a corporate naming backlash in the making.

For one thing, corporate mergers--the most commonly cited reason for name changes--were down in 1989 compared to 1988. As a result, corporate name changes fell 14% last year, reports the New York identity consulting firm, Anspach Grossman Portugal Inc., which created the name "Optima" for the new American Express card that comes complete with a credit line.

Sanwa Bank has stood firm against adopting a more American-sounding name. Why? "We'd just gone through a name change after the merger," said Margaret Merrett, vice president of corporate communications at the bank. "Besides," she added, "all the best names are already taken."

Are they? Well, not exactly. But even the naming experts admit they're not as plentiful as they once were. "One of the most frustrating things in this business is finding a name that's terrific, then finding out that someone else already has it," said Bill Schneider, managing director of the San Francisco office of Anspach Grossman Portugal. "We always tell our clients not to fall in love with any single name."

It may be against their own best interests, but some naming experts say they are more often telling companies to stick with the names they've got. "There is considerable logic to not adopting a new name," said Ira Bachrach, president of Namelab Inc., a San Francisco company that has devised such familiar names as "Acura" for the Honda division and Geo for the General Motors import line.

"Most companies assume that every new product requires a new name," said S. B. Master, president of Master-McNeil Inc., a San Francisco company that specializes in developing names for companies and products. "The challenge is to understand your existing name and to make it work for you," she said. "Making a new name should be the exception. We think un-naming is the next big step in marketing communications."

Un-naming?

When Apple Computer was about to introduce a new portable computer, it hired Master-McNeil to help name it. Apple had several names in mind. But Master suggested they simply keep the name Macintosh and combine it with the word portable--which they did. "Introducing a new name was not only unnecessary, it was even potentially harmful," said Master. "It might have suggested that this product was not a real Macintosh."

At the same time, some companies are simply shortening their names. In 1989, F. W. Woolworth Co. figured that it was time to drop the dime-store imagery, so it shortened its corporate name to Woolworth Corp. And two of Madison Avenue's biggest advertising agencies also shortened their names in 1989. NW Ayer became Ayer. And Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt became a far more digestable Bozell.

"It became obvious to us that our old name was not one that we could easily promote internationally," said Charles Peebler, chairman of Bozell. "Research has shown us that shortening our name has already increased awareness. We only wish we'd done it sooner."

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