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Name Game Is Serious Business for Corporate America

February 20, 2001|From Washington Post

Corporate America is in an unparalleled rush to change its name.

With constant mergers, changing business strategies and the search for new business worldwide, a record 2,976 U.S. firms changed their names last year, reported Enterprise IG, a New York firm that has tracked the phenomenon for 31 years.

The changes, designed by companies to present themselves as unique or futuristic or technologically on the cutting edge, have nearly tripled from the 1,004 total eight years ago.

The search for the oh-so-evocative corporate name, the one that places a company on a pinnacle in its field and projects the desired image, has spawned an industry of branding and name-developing firms that search the world's languages for words that might be used as company names, or at least provide a prefix or suffix.

Numerous corporations, especially those undergoing a merger, said they have each studied 5,000 to 8,500 possible names. Then they winnow the choices to a few dozen or so. Then comes exhaustive checking to ensure the names aren't already trademarked and don't mean something undesirable in some language, such as the syllable si, which means "death" in Mandarin. The search for new identities has become so difficult for a simple reason: Almost all the logical names are already taken.

"There is not a color, an animal, a food or prehistoric animal left to be used," said Virginia Vann, chief marketing officer for Cingular Wireless in Atlanta, which itself resorted to a misspelled word in naming its merged operations of BellSouth Mobility and SBC Communications. "There are no real words left. It's really a very difficult process."

Cingular was chosen because "it sounds like the individual," she said. "We're becoming one [company] and the one place you need to go for your wireless needs."

Despite market testing and executives' efforts to think ahead about possible business ventures, no one knows whether the names will have lasting value or will be discarded with the next merger. "We want to make sure they can live with the name, hopefully forever," said Anthony Shore of Landor Associates, a San Francisco branding firm that helped transform the overnight delivery service Federal Express into FedEx. Companies looking to reinvent themselves after a merger have three basic choices: Keep one of the merged companies' names, join the two or make up a new name.

"Some people think the name ought to say what the company does," said Steve Addis, chief executive of his own naming firm in Berkeley. "But the trend is toward [names] more aspirational in nature, more emotional in nature.

The game of corporate naming is based ultimately on a bit of research and a lot of gut feelings. For some, it's easy. Larry Haeg, a spokesman for Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco, said that after last year's merger of Wells Fargo and Norwest banks, "it took us all of two seconds" to keep Wells Fargo as the surviving name. "The Wells Fargo brand and image is one of the most widely known of all brands. In the West, it approaches that of Coca-Cola."

Merging oil giants Exxon Corp. and Mobil Corp. opted to keep both names: Exxon Mobil Corp.. The corporate logo still has the single slash through the double X in Exxon. (That name itself is the result of a years-long search three decades ago for a replacement for Esso, formerly Standard Oil of New Jersey.)

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