The name game, Part 1

Once upon a time, naming a brand was easy. You simply adopted your own family name, which also served to distinguish private enterprise from public: Heinz (1869), Ford (1903), Kellogg (1906), Hilton (1919, shown below), and again with his first name, Conrad (1985), and Marriott (1957).

Conrad Hilton, who made good use of both his names.
Conrad Hilton, who made good use of both his names.

As corporate brands developed, stature was established by stating origin and describing what you did: American Telephone and Telegraph Company (1885), Bank of America (1928) and British Overseas Airways Corporation (1940) – later British Airways (1974).

Professional firms like Deloitte (1845) and McKinsey (1926) and creative agencies such as Doyle Dane Bernbach (1949) and Ogilvy & Mather (1964) made a virtue, not to say an art, of etching their egos in stone above the door. At one point, the London outpost of DDB was known as BMP DDB Needham, accommodating the vanities of Messrs Boase, Massimi, Pollitt, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, Needham, Harper and Steers on the lintel.

As corporations succumbed to the urge to merge, abbreviation provided a neat solution to fitting such compound names onto a business card. International Business Machines (1924) was thus telescoped to IBM (1947) and hundreds of corporations followed them into the safe anonymity of initialism or acronyms: NASA (1959), UPS (1961), BT (1994), GSK (2000) and BP (2001).

The age of machines manufactured a jumble of founder names: Hewlett Packard (1939) and Dell (1984), and portmanteaus: Compaq (1982), an elision of compatibility and quality, Cellnet (1985) and most famously Microsoft (1975), a coded mash-up of microcomputer and software.

Postmodern branding initiated the trend for naming brands after an idea or philosophy instead of describing or projecting associative values. Apple (1976) suggested its human and user-centric approach with a friendly fruit and deliberately non-techie name. Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong transformed mobile communications with its entirely abstract brand, Orange (1993), which hinted not at all at what it did but focused single-mindedly on how it did it. The striking visible difference in name and logo symbolised a truly differentiated proposition and product.

The dotcom bubble of the late 1990s fuelled a land grab for cool brand names that would attract investment and stake out a valuable piece of internet real estate where often the name was more important than the business behind it, e.g. (1998). Securing a .com domain name became the main criteria for those charged with christening these promised titans of the new economy. As a result, brand names became sillier and sillier, e.g. (1998), (1998) and (1999).

When every usable word in the dictionary was taken, a new hybrid technique emerged – neologisms where random Latin and Greek morphemes were forced into arranged marriages to produce linguistic offspring for which a .com domain could be registered. Examples include Invensys (1999) and two of the few that remain today, Diageo (1997) and Accenture (2001). Even the British Post Office briefly rebranded as Consignia (2001) before, in the face of public opprobrium, admitting its error and beating a hasty retreat to the safety of description.

Very largely, this corporate branding activity passed the hospitality industry by. In a market characterised by high entry barriers (capital costs) and dominated by a handful of powerful legacy corporations, competition was low and there was little need for the differentiation that drives most branding, which remained an alien discipline to most hotel companies. However, as the millennium approached, all that was about to change.

Keep reading The Name Game (Part 2) tomorrow to find out how.