CORPORATE DESIGN: The real meaning behind the name - The era of crazy company names may have limits

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.

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’.

Attention seekers

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,’

Russell adds.

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.’

Internet influence

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, 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

dynamic plosive.

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

’positive’ associations.

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.


Cannes Offer: 12 weeks' online access from just £12

Subscribe to Campaign before the end of Cannes Lions and save up to 71%


Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

1 Publicis Groupe withdraws from marketing and awards to focus on AI-powered platform Marcel

Publicis Groupe is pulling out of all marketing activity for the next 365 days - and won't be entering awards at Cannes next year - as it focuses its resources on developing Marcel, described by chief executive Arthur Sadoun as a ground breaking new platform.

Job description: Digital marketing executive

1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).

Just published