Faris Yakob unpacks the history of names, signifiers, and ultimately portmanteaus.
In April 2022, Accenture announced they were merging their agency acquisitions and renaming the $14bn ‘Interactive’ division Accenture Song.
They jettisoned a couple of much loved local names (Karmarama, The Monkeys, Fjord) but retained Droga5 as a conflict network, according to their CEO, Mr Droga. He explained that "Song symbolises the post-pandemic growth journey we're on with our clients” and that “our more than 40 acquisitions from over the past decade will begin to go to market as Accenture Song to strengthen our synergies in product innovation, experience design, marketing and commerce.” Now all the agencies can sing from the same consultancy hymn-sheet.
(By way of comparison, Song was also the name of Delta’s short lived low cost carrier and they explained the name saying "Just as a song is the harmonious composition of distinct yet related elements, our Song will be in harmony with each individual's self expression.")
I recently learned (thanks to a learned friend) that the same person coined the words linguistics, physicist, and astigmatism. William Whewell was an English polymath of great breadth and during his career as an academic he published on a wide variety of scientific topics, wrote poetry and translated the works of Goethe. Even in the nineteenth century this was unusual since it was a time of increasing specialism but his range seemed to make him remarkably good at coming up with neologisms that stuck. His approach harkened back to an earlier time when ‘natural philosophers’ dabbled in many fields but that term fell out of favor - thanks to Whewell, who coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1834. Some words work better than others, in the mouth, ear, and cultural context.
Shakespeare suggested he was a postmodern theorist, aware of the arbitrary nature of the signifier, when he wrote “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” This elides the fact that there are at least 150 different rose varieties (we could say brands), some with evocative names like Sugar Baby and The Fairy and some with less mellifluous ones like Kiftsgate. Regardless, in branding today there is a postmodernist sense that it is ultimately what the company does that adds meaning to the phonemes. This is of course true and yet not the whole story, for some names sound and signify better than others, which is worth considering when creating them. The Bouba-Kiki effect shows that 95% of people naturally assign the word ‘kiki’ to a spiky abstract shape and the word ‘bouba’ to a more rounded one when given the choice in research.
Historically, when coining new words, or names, in English we had a tendency to pull from Greek and Latin - but ideally not both (it annoys classicists that tele-vision is a hybrid). This approach was evident in the branding world around the turn of century when the UK’s Post Office rebranded as Consignia, which went down poorly and was consigned to the rubbish heap eighteen months later. Philip Morris became Altria in an attempt to insulate it from the issues surrounding tobacco and because it had acquired a controlling interest in food manufacturer Kraft. Kraft was soon spun off but Altria, with its hint of altruism, acquired the asthma inhaler company Vectura in 2021.
There were a number of other high profile rebrands at the time, several of which traced their origin back to a once much lauded brand that has become synonymous for massive corporate fraud. In the late 1980s a number of US power companies merged into HNG/InterNorth Inc. The new leadership realized this was a bit of a mouthful and set out to find a new name. Much research and consulting later they came up with Enteron, which sounded good until someone pointed out it was also the technical name for the alimentary canal (especially when referring to an embryo). Succumbing perhaps to the sunk cost fallacy, they shortened it to Enron. As an aside, their logo was the last professional project of legendary designer Paul Rand.
Enron went on to be a remarkably successful fraud. It was named “most innovative company in America” for six consecutive years by Fortune Magazine but as we know now, its innovation was primarily in its accounting. The company’s assets and profits were inflated or simply fabricated but no one noticed for many years until it all blew up in 2001. The share price collapsed from more than $90 to pennies and it declared bankruptcy.
As this started to unwind, scrutiny began to fall on the accountants and auditors where supposed to be keeping an eye on the books. Enron’s accounting partner was the storied giant Arthur Andersen. The eponymous founder was a “zealous supporter of high standards” and “argued that accountants' responsibility was to investors, not their clients' management.” That principle seemed to have waned since they were caught both ‘turning a blind eye’ and shredding documents and the firm ultimately gave up its license to practice and faded out of existence.
Part of the issue was the perceived conflict of interest that came about because the ‘big four’ accounting firms had developed consulting practices on the side. Advice from one arm could furnish the other with business. The collapse triggered the other accountancies to spin off their consulting arms to avoid the stink of impropriety. PWC spun off its consulting arm under the name Monday, that most loved day of the week, but the name only lasted about a week because it was acquired and became IBM Consulting. Arthur Andersen spun off their consulting arm and ran a global contest among its employees to generate names that would distance it from disgrace. A Danish employee created a portmanteau from ‘accent on the future’ and thus Accenture was born.
The trend for this type of invented brand name had a few more hits. Verizon combined the Latin word for truth with ‘horizon’. Diageo was another hybrid, fusing the Latin word for “day" and the Greek root meaning “world”. Eventually corporate branding moved on but names remain powerful, even if we aren’t completely aware of it. Various studies have shown that having a pronounceable stock ticker is beneficial because people seem to be more likely to invest in it, all else being equal, and those stocks tend to outperform the market. So, when creating a new brand, one might as well make sure the name sings its intention.