The tricky business of corporate names – Today’s monikers reflect much, say little

January 20, 2005
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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Christopher Montgomery
Plain Dealer Reporter

Right after Commonwealth Industries Inc. and IMCO Recycling Inc. announced their merger in June, company executives devised a contest for their 3,200 employees: Come up with the winning name for the combined entity and win a cash prize.

The new name had to convey the full weight of the big changes that were afoot — the creation of a $2 billion manufacturer and recycler of aluminum and zinc, the melding of corporate cultures and operations. It also had to evoke feelings of starting afresh, which, in a real sense, could involve picking a new city for headquarters.

Several thousand submissions poured in, said Steve Demetriou, chairman and chief executive of the new company. Top executives were having trouble pulling the trigger. So they hired Daniel Moneypenny, a branding consultant who has made his name by naming companies and their products.

Moneypenny worked up a list of 1,150 names in four days, pared it down to 358 and then delivered it to the companies. About a week later they made a decision: Aleris, a combination of “alliance,” “aluminum” and “era.”

So it goes in the corporate name game, a contest populated by characters like Moneypenny who do battle with prefixes and suffixes, morphemes, Greek and Latin roots, linguistics, etymology, alliteration and assonance. Fifty thousand dollars will buy you a manufactured name that has no literal meaning but is designed to channel the quintessence of your corporation.

That’s all well and good. But what exactly is being communicated when so many company names — from Lucent to Livent to Essent — sound alike?

Looking at “Aleris” and its component parts in a vacuum — ignoring for a moment that it’s the name of an aluminum company — might bring to mind Alero, an Oldsmobile car. And the “-is” suffix has been adopted by legions of companies, most recently Novelis Inc., an aluminum spin-off of Alcan Inc. whose North American operations are based in Mayfield Heights.

Strikingly similar to other names, yes. But, as Demetriou put it, ” Aleris’ covered everything we were looking for.”

The merger was completed in early December. Aleris International Inc. was born.

And Demetriou, a former CEO of Brecksville’s Noveon International Inc., announced that the merged corporation, whose predecessor companies were based in Louisville, Ky., and Irving, Texas, would locate in Beachwood.

As for Moneypenny’s effort, Demetriou called it a “very efficient process.”

That efficiency has evolved through years of experience. Moneypenny, 54, has been in the naming and branding business since 1977. His four-person company, Emaginit, of which he’s the president and brains, is based in Silver Lake, north of Akron.

First and foremost, Moneypenny likes to be known as an idea man. And he’s got a lengthy list of companies – from Fortune 500 standards to mom-and-pop shops – who like what he’s selling.

“These things just pour out of my brain,” he said.

Other corporate names he’s sold include Complient, Netliance, Proliance and OnlyOne. Moneypenny-branded products include One Touch tape for Henkel Consumer Adhesives Inc. and Sensa-Trac shocks and struts for Tenneco Automotive Inc. He’s also come up with any number of taglines, such as “Give Your Car the MAACOver!” for MAACO Enterprises Inc.

Moneypenny wouldn’t disclose his annual revenues but said his fee for most projects lands in the $20,000 to $60,000 range. That can add up pretty quickly when you’re a floater like he is, usually working on at least a handful of jobs at any given time.

Starting the process

He starts most naming projects by meeting with corporate executives, pumping them for information about their company or product. He leaves the initial get-together with what he calls “collateral” – annual reports, financial statements, marketing pamphlets, anything that will aid the creative process.

Within days he’s usually ready with hundreds, if not thousands, of names, scribbled out first on yellow legal pads, and then put down cleanly in different fonts in a formal report. On an average day, even if he’s not working on a particular project, he said he tries to come up with about 150 to 200 names.

“I’ve taken attention deficit to a new level,” Moneypenny said.

Out of that pile of appellations, his clients will buy one, maybe a few more. The rest end up in Moneypenny’s database of 600,000-odd names and slogans. That’s the main reason why, beyond creative aptitude, he’s able to churn out names so quickly. Each job he’s hired for throws off reams of material that he can use for later projects.

Some Moneypenny names that are waiting to be purchased include Transera, Cyent and Consortia.

Names get less specific

While those names haven’t found a home yet, consider this brief list of companies – none of them Moneypenny clients – that opted for neologisms: Infosys, Unisys, Agilysys, Agilent, Aquilent, Consilient, Telegent, Omnova, Acteva and Advantia.

How many of those can you identify with their lines of business? Time was, you could tell what a company did by its name: Think International Business Machines, International Harvester, General Motors, General Mills.

The reasons behind the naming shift are clear. As companies became larger and ventured into new areas, sometimes becoming conglomerates in the process, they wanted less specific names that wouldn’t pigeonhole them in a particular industry. Marketing firms, and with them the offshoot naming consultants, grew in number and power, making naming a kind of pseudo-professional vocation.

Add to the mix the incredible pressures, which have only increased with time, of trademarking and finding available Internet addresses. Oftentimes the only way to clear trademark is to make something up.

Steve Rivkin, a naming consultant in Glen Rock, N.J., and co-author of “The Making of a Name,” said that more than 3,000 new trademark applications are added each week to the 3.8 million registered, pending and inactive trademarks already on file in the United States. In total, there are more than 14 million names of U.S. corporations and businesses. And that doesn’t touch names and trademarks in other countries, which are a factor for firms doing business globally.

“That creates a pretty high hurdle for companies trying to come up with something that actually works,” Rivkin said.

Naseem Javed, president of naming company ABC Namebank International in New York, said the history of naming can be broken down into several “mega-cycles”: from long names, like International Business Machines, to shortened or initialized names, to fabricated names that drew on geographical landmarks, zodiac signs, mythology and the like.

Then, he said, when the 1990s Internet boom arrived, the process devolved into a mess of names that “you couldn’t spell, remember or pronounce.”

“They would take a color, say, purple, and all of a sudden you’d have a company called Purple Dog or Purple Frog or Purple Martini,” Javed said. Survivors of that era include Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc.

Since the bubble burst, naming has become a more somber affair, leading to an exponential rise in the number of antiseptic “coined” names, the kind that don’t carry any meaning by themselves.

The challenge with that kind of name is getting your message across, said W. Benoy Joseph, professor of marketing at Cleveland State University’s James J. Nance College of Business Administration.

“They’re hoping that through sheer promotion and repetition of the name that their target audiences, whether buyers, consumers or investors, will eventually learn what it is that they do,” Joseph said.

Rivals grade ‘Aleris’

Danny Altman, in his office near San Francisco, which is probably home to more naming companies than any other U.S. city, has no trouble rattling off a string of complaints about coined names. He’s creative director for A Hundred Monkeys, a naming firm whose calling card is irreverence; some company names they’ve sold include Alfalfa, Calabash, Chuckwalla and Jamcracker.

The problem with most coined names, he said, is that they’re made by committee. “What usually happens is that the names that have any interesting texture or meaning, the ones that stick out, are the ones that get knocked off the table first. There’s a tendency to come up with something that no one can object to.”

Naming firms often have similar sets of rules: The name should grab you, easily impart its meaning and communicate the personality of the company. But despite their common goals, or perhaps because of them, they can be unusually cruel to their competitors.

The reaction to Aleris fell a tad short of cordiality. Altman called it “just another of these anonymous corporate names that don’t carry any meaning, don’t carry any emotional impact. It’s got a little bit of poetry, a reasonably nice sound to it, but it doesn’t make anyone smile.”

Javed, of ABC Namebank, whose creations include Telus and Celestica, said Aleris “sounds like some kind of disease or an allergy.”

George Frazier, a partner with the naming firm Idiom in San Francisco and one of the minds behind Imaginova, Predicant and Encysive, said he could only conclude that Aleris’ creators “wanted intentionally to be neutral or bland. It’s phonetically soft, not strong at all.”

It’s a cutthroat business, and everyone’s got an opinion. Moneypenny, for his part, said he can take the criticism.

“I consider it almost a compliment in a way,” he said. “What matters to me is that my client likes the name, and the board at Aleris loves it. I don’t want to think about what other branding firms think about me.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

[email protected], 216-999-4059
© 2005 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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