The name game

'What's in a name? That which we call a rose...

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.’

– Romeo and Juliet

When the original Slick Willie first meditated on names, more than 400 years ago, his words became famous. According to the above passage, however, Shakespeare didn’t really see much value in names. He figured, one was pretty much as good as another.

Of course, in those days, naming wasn’t nearly so complicated as it is today. Nowadays, if you tried to name your head elf Puck, you’d get an immediate phone call from the lawyers for the National Hockey League. But in Elizabethan times, you could just stick your finger in a name book, select one at random, write it down, and hope you picked something a little better than Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.

Today, however, names are at a premium. Everybody has a company, everybody is madly launching new cyberproducts, and everybody needs a domain name. So naming has become an expensive science, with all the wonderful overthinking that we in marketing adore. And we still come out with a whole bunch of Guildensterns and Rosencrantzes.

An old insurance company down in Southwest Ontario didn’t like its name, Mutual Life, anymore. Too narrow for a modern financial behemoth. So OK, they changed it to Mutual Group. Then they got tired of that, and launched a big-deal name search, which, as I recall, got a lot of publicity in our industry. The name search yielded Clarica.

Now, they are spending their good money (well, their policyholders’ good money) running ads explaining that Clarica is not a pimple cream. Swell. Somehow, that benefit is not high on my list as a potential investor or insuree. Somehow, I don’t think they would be running ads explaining that The Mutual Group is not a pimple cream.

They picked a dumb name, and now they feel they have to justify it. I’m sorry, but – here comes a bad one, I’m warning you, I can’t stop myself – they obviously made a Clarical error.

The great big phone company just across the border used to be named Bell Atlantic. Just like the Mutual gang, they got itchy, and probably for the same reasons. ‘Bell Atlantic is too narrow, it does not describe our image as a limitlessly modern communications company, yadda yadda yadda…’

So they changed it. They changed it to Verizon. (I can hear the consultant’s words, and see the consultant’s bills, right now. ”Ver’, meaning truth, verity, trust … ‘Izon’, meaning horizon, boundless vision, immortal whoopee…’)

Except nobody can pronounce Verizon. I’ve asked a few people who don’t listen to U.S. ads, and it always comes out VAIR-i-zon. It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to be Ver-EYE-zon (I guess, like the big Internet retailer, A-MAY-zon). And old Bell Atlantic has expensive James Earl Jones using his wonderful voice demonstrating how to pronounce the name. Again, not exactly what I’d call a top communications priority.

Years ago, I was invited to participate in an official name-creating session, with all kinds of complex charts and guidelines. We brainstormed for hours on end, and the name that seemed to be winning, a real favourite with the client, was ‘Dymus.’ Well, your humble scribe didn’t like Dymus. So I pointed out to the client that, about three weeks after the name change, their suppliers would start calling them ‘Nickel & Dymus.’ (Say it out loud.)

My witty observation had two immediate results:

1. Dymus bit the dust.

2. I was not invited to any more name-creating sessions.

Back to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare said it ain’t the name of the rose, it’s the sweetness thereof, that counts. Burghardt agrees. A few years back, the Japanese gave a new car an awful name. Camry. Meaningless, strange, and seemingly unpronounceable – lots of people call it a Cam-ray – today, Camry is the largest-selling car model in North America, for one simple reason. They’re great cars. I’ve owned several.

Moral of the story: Name the baby quickly, then get on with the job of taking good care of it. The second part is far more important.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING • CREATIVE THINKING’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com