What's in a name?


Naming a new company or product is a long and involved business for all concerned. A corporate image can be greatly influenced by the choice of name, colours and logo. As a result, the naming of companies is becoming big business, reports Dede Williams.

What's in a name? Plenty. A company's 'good name' can be worth billions. Coca-Cola, for example, is worth $39m, Marlboro almost that much. For most chemical companies selecting a name for a spin-off, joint venture or merger, there is not as much at stake. But finding something which will please customers and catch attention in the market can still be a challenge.

The 'cell division' sweeping industry at large has spawned a new business sector: agencies specialised in selecting company names, brand names or logos. It is a lucrative field: a new name can cost upwards of $200 000.

What do AgrEvo, Agomer, Aspell, Basell, Borealis, Centeon, Cipen, Clariant, Cognis, Creanova, Dyneon, DyStar, Elementis, Merial, Montell, Novartis, Polimeri Europa, Rhodia, Soplaril, Styrenix, Targor, Ticona and Zeneca have in common?

They are all businesses that not too long ago existed under other names. All of the new titles are 'synthetic' and they provide no clues to the companies' - primarily multinational -forebears. What links AgrEvo, Cognis, DyStar and Targor and Megaperls with Smart, Twingo, Vectra, Scall, Tellit Direct, Tiony and Twipsy? The first five are well-known offshoots or products of Hoechst, Schering, Henkel, Bayer and BASF. The next three are car models, while the last four are a pager, an insurance company, a two-tone diamond and the mascot for the Hanover millennium show Expo 2000.

All these names and many more heard in other marketplaces today were thought up by Gotta, a specialised agency in Baden-Baden, Germany. As names are 'an integral part of a company's corporate culture, they must be chosen wisely and carefully', says the agency's founder-owner Manfred Gotta.

His and other agencies promise clients to let their creative juices flow, while at the same time taking care to match the new 'monniker' to its owner's business or create a 'neutral' identity for two merged portfolios. The name Cognis, for Henkel's water processing and ground redevelopment subsidiary, is intended to symbolise knowledge, emphasise technology. Smart stands for Swatch and Mercedes, but also for 'art' - a new way of building a car. The completely artificial Targor does not actually stand for anything, which is not to say it cannot be interpreted.

In Gotta's view, some company names - like AgrEvo, which Hoechst and Schering say evokes 'agriculture' and 'evolution' - mean something to the owners, while to the general public, they 'just sound good'.

The Baden-Baden firm employs internal and external copywriters and a computer program that modifies names and sounds without regard to grammatical rules. 'This gives us a new dimension,' explains Gotta. 'A German copywriter would never dream up anything starting with "th" - but why not?'.

The search for a new company name is not only random, it is also extensive and thorough. Hitting on the right choice can take eight weeks or more. For Twipsy, Gotta 'had to check 35 Swahili dialects'.

Before names that make the 'short list' are presented to a client, they are first scrutinised by language experts to ensure that they do not have a negative connotation anywhere in the world. Later, they are tried out on 'ordinary people' in the countries where products will be sold before the list is finally turned over to patent lawyers. Occasionally, a name on its way to being established has to be tossed out. Aspell, the polyethylene joint venture of Atochem and BP, was once called Aspen - before it was discovered Dow already owned the name. But not all the slip-ups are of a legal nature.

Volkswagen might have done well to consult an Englishman before christening its new van Sharan, as Gotta points out amusedly. Something similar could have happened to him. One of the names under consideration for a new cat food was Kinky, he recalls. After its colloquial meaning in English was discovered, the cat food was renamed Sheba.

When Zeneca was demerged from ICI in 1993, it was to be called ICI Bioscience. But executives later concluded a new name and identity 'would differentiate the new company from its parent'.

Zeneca, found by the Interbrand agency, stands for 'zenith', the highest point or peak. This, the company felt, had 'all the right associations in terms of our aspirations to excellence'. Novartis, developed by London-based agency Siegel and Gale, is derived from the Latin words for 'new style'. It was picked by Sandoz and Ciba to stress that the merged company's corporate culture was entirely different from that of its predecessors.

Clariant is supposed to suggest 'chemistry, colours, clarity', while DyStar comes not only from 'dyeing', but also from 'dynamic', the company says. After looking at 'several hundred name suggestions', BASF and Hoechst chose Targor because it sounded 'dynamic and strong'. It also incorporates the word 'target'.

Logo and colour selection target other dynamics. Zeneca's logo incorporates a modern version of an ancient alchemist symbol, a crossed 'z', meaning 'to solve'. Ocean blue was chosen for its 'classic, timeless appeal'.

Clariant says its dark green stands for 'quality and tradition', the panache of yellow, red and blue represents 'dynamism, entrepreneurship and creativity'.

DyStar, for whom colours are money in the bank, places special value on its star and circle of colours logo. Gotta's two stylised reversed 'Gs', is dark blue, the colour of his grandfather's inkwell.

While selecting a name and logo is a first step, the new corporate identity is usually reinforced by costly image campaigns. In 1993, Zeneca spent $55m to establish its new name and logo. Overtaken by events, Clariant is likely to spend more than initially planned.

Its campaign had only just started when the decision to merge the Hoechst speciality chemicals businesses into the Sandoz spin-off was announced. Thus 1998 will see a relaunch, 'to create greater awareness for the name'.

While not all of the new names are equally popular, most are eventually accepted.

As Interbrand's former chief executive officer John Murphy told Zeneca: 'In my experience, whatever name you choose, everyone will hate it to start with because it represents change. However, once they begin to appreciate what the name stands for in terms of the new company's reputation and performance, they will begin to value it.'