The sad decline of the sensible company name

Pilita Clark: Many modern businesses offer baffled outsiders no clues about what it is they actually do

Is this the NSA whose mass snooping was exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden? Photograph: Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images

Is this the NSA whose mass snooping was exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden? Photograph: Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images

 

It is not every day that I hear from a huge American surveillance outfit like the National Security Agency, the one whose mass snooping was exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

So I felt a smug tingle of excitement the other morning when an email landed in my inbox headed, “NSA calls on government to broaden its definition of skills in migration.”

“Wow,” I was about to say to a colleague, until I read down and saw the full name of the sender: the National Sheep Association.

On one level this was disappointing, as I imagine it was when people looking for news of Hulk Hogan at the World Wrestling Federation found themselves staring at a giant panda, symbol of that other WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature. The wrestlers now call themselves WWE, short for World Wrestling Entertainment, after a bruising court row with the conservationists over naming rights.

Names matter, obviously, which is why I am always cheered when I come across a body such as the National Sheep Association. It has a name that describes what it is. Even better, if you go to its website, you can easily see when it started (1892) what it does (speak for British sheep farmers) and who funds it (the farmers). It is all there in a few crisp sentences on a single page reached by clicking the “about” tab.

Wordy

If only things were that simple at, say, Accenture. Click on “about” and you will learn how it works with its clients and how it is cutting its environmental footprint.

Real dedication is required to find anything that describes the firm better than the wordy first sentence of its Wikipedia entry: “A multinational professional services company that provides services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations.”

It is not fair to pick on Accenture, which was called Andersen Consulting until a 2001 rebranding. For one thing, it is proof that changing your name to something meaningless and widely mocked is no guarantee of failure.

Also, it is far from the only firm that fails the Wikipedia test, meaning it is easier to find out what it does from the online encyclopedia than its own website or name.

It was not always like this. For a lesson in corporate simplicity, have a look at the companies that made up the FT30 stock market index in 1935. You knew where you were with a group like Dunlop Rubber. There was no need to guess about United Steel or London Brick, let alone the Austin Motor Company or Associated Portland Cement. What I particularly like about that older list is the dearth of baffling three-letter acronyms.

I was born in Australia, a nation of relentless abbreviators. No one who grew up in Melbourne blinks if you tell them: “I had a job in the CBD until the GFC but now I’m almost living at the G.”

Extra syllables

They will know you used to work in the central business district until the global financial crisis but now you’re always at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, once known as the MCG until people tired of the two extra syllables.

For outsiders, though, it is mystifying. I imagine they feel the same way I do when I come across a big listed company such as CRH. It supplies stuff like cement and asphalt to the construction industry, though you might not guess that from its website, which says it offers “highly-engineered products that close the building envelope and that provide expert solutions for construction projects”.

The serious objection to this twaddle is that it makes it harder for investors to understand what they are investing in. For companies themselves, though, having a sensible, relevant name saves on marketing costs, especially for a newer business.

They can surely do better, especially when the internet means names must do extra work as a web address, preferably one that draws traffic and therefore revenues.

I realise that relying on three useless letters has not bothered DHL, JBL, YKK or other businesses that have lasted in one form or another for decades. I can see it is perfectly possible to succeed with a name such as Google, Uber and other words that sound like a baby’s gurgle. But I will always prefer a company that simply does what it says on the tin.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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