Value of brand name rises, falls with values of company

February 05, 2002|By Abe Novick

IN A renewed age of nominalism, where every waking moment is a brand-new brand experience, what's in a name is everything.

From the moment you awake and turn off your buzzing Sony clock, to squeezing your tube of Crest, to showering with Dove, to pouring your Quaker Oats - well, you get the picture.

The average American consumer comes across hundreds if not thousands of brand experiences a day. Or as James Twitchell, the author of Adcult USA, wrote about advertising, "It cannot not be found."

Our lives revolve around brands to the degree that our language, way of life and culture rely on them to survive.

Behind this hazy, mirrored world where brands exist in name is some kind of fourth dimension, where the puppet masters control the strings. But when, in Swiftian fashion, the great giant breaks from his lashes and sets out into dangerous territory, the brand police go into SWAT formation: Either rescue it or kill it.

Enter Enron. Or what was to be first named Enteron. After a merger of Houston Natural Gas and Omaha-based InterNorth, Ken Lay, with the aid of the so-called linguistically astute, came up with, of all things, Enteron. Unfortunately, "enteron" turned out to mean "intestine" - not a good thing for a company in the gas business. Hence, Enron.

Barring the scatological puns, the infectious need to name and rename is all around us. Sometimes it's for good reasons. Other times to create distance.

But in every case, the choice for a company name is critical. Not just for how nicely it trips off the tongue, but because of what's behind it and the brand value it provides to a whole host of audiences - customers, investors and employees.

ValuJet became AirTran in 1997, partly to distance itself from a name associated with disaster. After ValuJet's May 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 aboard, the company bought a smaller carrier called AirTran Airways and hijacked its moniker. But AirTran also reflected a new set of core values, as well as a new staff and management.

Dayton Hudson became Target, to project the spirit and values of its best-known chain across the entire corporation. It's also a brand now built strongly by leveraging all of the brands the retailer carries in its stores.

Enron, on the other hand, will forever be associated with something terrible. Perhaps even be known in a ghoulish afterlife as a verb - as in, they Enroned me.

If you're going to spin, at least know where and what you are spinning into.

I say this now as Arthur Andersen, the latest corporate bad guy, is in the hot seat, caught Edward Scissorhands-red, having tangled too deeply in Enron's dirty paper trail.

By association, are the days of the venerable titan Arthur Andersen now numbered?

Born of the same bean-counting checkbook, the former Andersen Consulting is now Accenture. Arthur Andersen remains one of the big five accounting firms. Now the question is, will Arthur Andersen ditch its name, currently synonymous with unscrupulous accounting?

The enormity and importance of maintaining the equity of all of these brand names and what they stand for are as large as the buildings that house their corporations and, in Enron's case, as vast as their 401(k)-less staff.

Ultimately, what's in a name is the brand. Advertising's main role is to give value to products and build them into brands. To do that, advertising needs to understand the values consumers are looking for and attach them to those products.

In many ways, therefore, advertising is the culture. And any advertising can only be as good as the truth behind the name on the product if it's to be believed by the culture.

By becoming an offshoot from advertising, naming has taken on a role of its own in the last several years.

Companies must realize that naming works best when it's part of a larger set of core principles, not a faM-gade.

The values generated from within a corporation can then, and only then, be made manifest through naming. Simply put, I best defer to the famous old line from the veritable American brand - Zenith: "The quality goes in before the name goes on."

Abe Novick is a senior advertising executive in Baltimore.

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