Onomastics Isn’t Enough!

Companies sometimes line up to change their names as if the shift of a name will lead to a shift of identity, reality and possibility, all rolled into one.

Onomasts are not psycho-sexual (or other) deviants…but rather those who study names and naming. They claim this study is a “science”.  That usually means it is awash in technical sounding minutiae — the trappings of any pseudo-science and the affliction of much applied science. However not even the most rabid onomast will claim that changing the name has much to do with changing the game.

Currently writing from the UK I read of the UK insurance giant changing their name from Norwich Union to Aviva. Viva Aviva! Meaningless, Latin-sounding new name changes are all the rage here as Tony Thorne has pointed out (Diageo, Altria, Solana). I remember the furor some years ago when PwC decided to call their consulting arm “Monday”. One person heard it as “mundane”. Another said it came about when they asked their marketing people if they had come up with a name, and they answered “perhaps Monday”. Unlikely to be true, but amusing.

When asked about the change from “Blackwater” to “Xe” (pronounced “Zee”), a spokesman for the now infamous security contractor said,  “There is no meaning to the new name. It was just a choice of a name, we thought of it internally.” Wonderful! We internally came up with something that has no meaning! And we thought we should be represented by a random, meaningless set of letters. It would have been interesting to hear less about the self-confessed mindlessness of the change of name and more about how they were aiming to transform themselves otherwise.

We change appearances, we change logos, we change names (The British Museum did so after some consideration, changing the “t” in “The” to uppercase!), we change everything it seems except that which matters. In other words we change the cosmetics, the incidentals rather than the essentials. If someone is silly enough to be hoodwinked by some change in the gloss on our lettering, that may be their bad luck. But it’s an insulting use of valuable resources…which in corporate settings can also include collective credulity.

Of course names have emotive content. And they either amplify or inhibit our ability to communicate who we are and what we do. We have to test drive names at times. But what we call ourselves matters less than what we deliver and offer, and how. Unless there is a change at that epicenter, spray painting a new sign won’t help.

When Andersen switched to Accenture, it took $100 million to communicate that change. When Cingular was dropped by AT&T, $2 billion was needed to communicate that fact! If that’s the best use of several hundred million dollars much less a few billion, that’s a  terrifying indictment of the value equation being engaged in by leaders.  Maybe a recession can be a sanity-restoring experience after all!

Change is an inside job, and it requires changes in more than the marquee. Change is needed in your leaders, your priorities, your reward systems, your team structures, your strategic and tactical priorities, your customer engagement…and indeed your market communication. But let that last accompany these other initiatives…not substitute for them.