There was a time when the name of a company gave you a bit of a
clue as to its trade. Solid, no nonsense names like Tarmac, United
Distillers, and Cable & Wireless dominated the FTSE Index.
But these days, a company’s headquarters is more likely to be adorned
with a name that could be found hanging over a country cottage. Last
week it just got plain silly, when Scottish Telecom relaunched itself as
Thus and used the line: ’Let it be Thus.’
Recent name changes have included Tarmac transforming itself into
Carillion, and United Distillers becoming one half of Diageo.
So the birth last month of jmc, a package holiday company from Thomas
Cook, seemed a refreshingly lay-it-on-the-line approach to corporate
design. The name is the initials of John Mason Cook, son of the founder
of the parent company.
’The holiday market is full of aspirational, emotive names like
Inspirations and Sunworld. We wanted something that would stand out,’
says Franco Bonadio, managing creative director of Enterprise IG, the
agency that came up with jmc. ’We also needed something unique to
represent a new company, but with a nod toward its parent to harness the
goodwill of the Thomas Cook brand.’
Jmc might have bucked the trend but the current design climate over the
past few years has encouraged the use of zany corporate names. ’Clients
ask specifically for ’one of those touchy, feely names’,’ says Stuart
Mackay, partner at design firm Ergo.
Hutchison Telecom started the ball rolling in 1994 with Orange, created
by Wolff Olins, and was followed by Prudential’s Egg last year. They
might have attracted the initial bemusement of consumers and the sneers
of the press, but these names brought with them many advantages.
In sectors like telecommunications and financial services, which had
been dominated by purely descriptive names, they offered instant
’We were launching a service which was different to anything else on the
market and the name had to reflect this,’ explains Doug Hamilton,
creative director at Wolff Olins. ’We discovered that no company had
used the name of a colour before. Using Orange gave us the chance to
’own’ a colour that suggested optimism and was bright and warm. It led
directly to the strapline ’The future’s bright, the future’s Orange’,
and lent itself to many creative advertising opportunities.’
Wolff Olins was also behind the name Goldfish, given to British Gas’s
discount credit card. Originally named as the far more descriptive, but
less distinctive Vantage, Hamilton believes that Goldfish gives the
brand an image of ’challenging the status quo’.
Although new companies tend to grab the headlines, one of the major
reasons behind the selection of a new name is to give a new identity to
a company following a change in ownership, or merger.
Ergo created the Vericor name last year for a pharmaceuticals company,
which had bought itself out from the Grampian group. ’It was a big
decision for them, having had the same name for their 20-year corporate
life, but it was saying the wrong things about the company,’ says
’We recommended a name without specific meaning, but with enough
phonetic associations to suggest the idea of a progressive, scientific
company. The visual identity reflected this image with a set of
hexagons, similar to a camera lens.’
The rise of the apparently meaningless name has meant increased reliance
on phonetic associations that lead people to imagine the meaning. This
can also work with real words, according to Chris Cleaver, partner at
Brandsmiths, where ’there is a feeling or mood beyond the literal
meaning’ (see box).
Design consultancy Corporate Edge dreamt up the name Glanbia for the
company that resulted from the merger of Ireland’s Waterford and
Avonmore Dairies. ’If you pick a name that has been formed from the two
companies’ names, it reinforces the message that this new organisation
is two halves,’ explains Bridget Russell, managing director of Corporate
Edge. ’But give it a new, more unusual name and it becomes a symbol of
the new organisation.’
Glanbia’s conception was also influenced by the new company’s desire to
compete on a more international stage. ’We couldn’t have a name that was
too overtly Irish for this reason but, at the same time, we needed to
retain enough of the company’s roots not to offend its domestic market,’
The answer lay in using a word that would be familiar to Irish people,
but neutral to foreigners. Glanbia works because Glan means pure in
Gaelic, while bia is Gaelic for food.
The desire to keep international trade options open is also behind the
popularity of Latin and Greek corporate names in the past few years,
such as Novartis, Invensys and Vivendi. Apart from their natural
distinctiveness, they are understood in many European languages.
Choosing a new name after a merger also avoids senior managers from each
company having a battle of wills over whose former name will take
But not all mergers result in one new name. Lloyds TSB took the
diplomatic approach with an amalgamation of the two old names to retain
the loyalty of both sets of customers, while Commercial Union and
General Accident went for the dull but easily remembered CGU.
The increase in the number of mergers and acquisitions has meant a
continuing stream of new corporate identities. When companies acquire
new divisions it often accompanies a strategic change in direction for
the group, which eventually needs to be reflected in its name.
The Pennon Group, for example, was born out of the former South West
Water in August last year. Following privatisation, the company decided
to diversify out of water supply into waste disposal. After buying up
firms in these areas, the company realised it needed a change of
Two new names were decided on - Pennon is an old English word for
pennant, which was included in the old South West Water logo, while
Viridor (which became the holding company name for the new businesses)
means ’to make green’ in Latin.
’We wanted something distinctive that would sum up the way our business
is developing,’ says a spokesman for the group. ’Although their meanings
aren’t immediately obvious, we don’t feel they are too obscure.’
The internet is also having an influential effect on the choice of
corporate names. According to Clare Fuller, principal at Bamber Forsyth,
there are now no English-based single word URLs available to register as
.com, and very few as .co.uk., meaning that made-up words are popular as
web site names.
Giving a company an unusual name may increase the ease in registering
it. The explosion in mergers and the emergence of new companies is
eating into the range of new names available. The merging of the British
Trademark Register with its European counterpart exacerbates this
situation, giving a far longer list to check.
But there are limits to the zany name craze. Russell believes that the
style may be on its way out. ’Many marketers are keen to give their
company a consumer-friendly identity, but this phase will go down in
history as the late 90s fashion for silly names.’
Goldfish, she feels, is taking the desire for silly names too far.
’There’s a difference between a radical name (like the Corporate
Edge-created Egg) and a name that is used only to attract
’The more inventive names require a far higher level of marketing
support at launch, points out Helen Slater, account director at Carter
Wong. ’Purely descriptive names may be harder to register but at least
they speak for themselves.’
One of Slater’s recent projects was working on the launch by Royal Mail
of a service which encrypts sensitive data to be sent via the
’It was a difficult concept to explain, and the name needed to do part
of the work,’ she says. The agency considered various abstract ideas,
including Liberty, but Royal Mail finally went down the descriptive
route with ViaCode.
So could the era of the crazy name be on its last legs? ’There are so
many of these emotive names around now that it is becoming distinctive
to have a more simple moniker,’ says Bonadio. ’I think the pendulum
could be swinging back toward a popularity for acronyms, or a desire to
get what the company does in the name.’
Fuller believes that the days of the Latin or Greek name are numbered
because they are also becoming less distinctive with each one that
She suggests old languages as possible future inspiration. (Bamber
Forsyth’s name, Kelda, for the former Yorkshire Water means spring in
old Norse), as well as the return of initials and acronyms.
Marketing asked Andrew McCrum, an expert in sound symbolism, to analyse
the phonetic meaning of some of the more esoteric recent corporate
The results make interesting reading.
Word meaning works in a number of ways apart from that denoted by
definition (emu = animal) or context (sun = ’ball of burning gas’ not
son ’relation’, when discussing weather).
People derive associations from words by comparing with something
The second and more influential sound-symbolic method is formed around
the way that parts of the word are pronounced, such as the lip closure
for m in the words mime, mumble, mute. Initial and final sounds and
central vowels are the most sound-symbolically significant.
Carillion - Sounds like ’car’, ’Carrie’, ’carry’, ’carillon’ (also
pronounced ’carillion’) meaning ’a tune played on bells or an instrument
imitating bells’, Marillion, ’vermilion’, ’million’.
These generally have positive associations and that of ’peal of bells’
is strong. C/k is the most popular word-initial sound in English and the
commonest sound in the top 200 brand names. K- has connotations of
’power’, ’impact’ and ’communication’ because phonetically it is a
Generally, high(er) pitch sounds, as in Carillion, have positive
connotations of ’friendliness’ and ’smallness’. The final -n denotes
duration and resonance, as with a ringing bell, also proximity.
Egg - Vowel initial words that do not have affixes like -in, ex-, ab-,
denote concrete or abstract ideas - ’egg’, ’elder’, ’elbow’, elm’,
’elephant’, ’elk’ and so on. High pitched vowel (see above). The ’hard’,
plosive, ending or coda very broadly indicates ’hardness’.
Diageo - Patterning with diabolo may or may not be a problem by
Initial d-, for a number of reasons, indicates ’movement away, off or
down’ with a good deal of pejorative meaning. The word itself and vowel
chains are Italianate and vaguely positive, as is the ending, which
carries associations of ’energy, vitality’ found in Italian musical
terms like brio and adagio.
jmc - The initial j- has connotations of rapid and distorted movement as
in j-uggle, j-olt. The coda, see (or C), has a high pitch range with
Kelda - Influence from ’St Kilda’, giving this some meaning of ’the
North’, ’outlying’, ’distant’. Together with the Kel- link with Celtic,
there is a sense of racial distinctness. Initial K- indicates ’hardness’
and ’communication’. The vowel -e- is positive and the -a coda is
neutral to positive as a feminine inflection in both Italian and French.