Tim Rich : Playing the name game

Tim Rich asks why corporate rebrands are spawning such risible company names. He thinks the monickers of some of the consultancies involved could set a better example.

Diageo, Accenture, Elementis, Lettuce – sorry, Lattice; many serious companies have been given rather silly names. Strangely, many of the design companies involved in this epidemic of pretension have rather conventional names themselves. They are happy to rechristen their eminently sensible corporate client with some half-baked piece of gratin (that’s a cheesy bake of Greek and Latin), but their own company name simply lists the surnames of the founders.

Today, large corporations sound like design groups (Bright Station, V-is-on, et al), while many design groups sound like large accountancy firms (Wolff Olins, Citigate Lloyd Northover, Invoice Newell & Sorrell and so on).

“Putting your name on the door” became increasingly popular during the late-1970s as designers tried to look grown up and trustworthy by apeing the corporate manners of their clients. Inevitably, the louche velveteens of advertising had got there first. Agencies claiming to offer wild creativity adopted the professions’ approach to self-description.

Whenever ad agencies merged, the two roll-calls of surnames would be lumped into an even bigger gobful of egos. Eight or nine years ago there was a whiff of a rumour that agency Still Price Court Twivy D’Souza Lintas was about to merge with Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson. It didn’t happen – perhaps they saw the quote for printing the new stationery and signage. It would not have been a good place for an asthmatic telephone receptionist to work. Nor anyone with short-term memory loss. They could have initialised, I suppose – “Hello, SPCTDLSPDCJ, how may I help you?”

Having names on the door helps to personalise your company, and that can promote trust and convey character. It offers a stamp of commitment and responsibility from the founders. If the names are quite unusual then all the better, especially if the partners expect to stay in business together for many years. The problems come if the company grows and the names want to go. Those of a transient disposition should eschew the pleasure of seeing their name atop letterheads in favour of a more easily transferable company brand that can live on after their departure to early retirement and the Caribbean.

A name made up of names is certainly better than resorting to a play on the word design, however. Active use of the “d” word has a whiff of Yellow Pages about it and invites queries such as “How much for a logo, mate?”. It can also inspire irritatingly grounded inquisitions. What is a design bridge, for example? What two things does it connect and what does it go over? I wonder how Design Bridge explains to the literal-minded that it doesn’t actually design bridges?

The use of just one word for the company name has become very popular of late, particularly in EC1 & SE1. The industry now has a legion of mono-ckers; Spin, Banc, State, Bump, Mother, Rose, Sea, Wire, Blast, Milk, Circle, Circus, North. I like this approach (particularly Rose, as it’s unexpected and the letters also represent the initials of the two founders, and Circus, because that seems apt for a lively agency).

The one-word name is far from new, though. Pentagram did it in 1972. Was it because the founders were all practising Satanists, or was it because there were five of them? The latter, I think. As the company now has 19 partners it should really be called whatever the name is for a 19-sided shape.

But “Pentagram” now has a magic to it far greater than the sum of its founders’ names. This is what entrepreneurial start-ups should aspire to – conceiving, christening and raising a new entity, until it develops a personality clearly distinct from its parents and, if necessary, can be sold off to a suitor with a large bank account.

Recently, I’ve met a number of young designers planning to launch their first company. They all like the one-word approach, but they feel it has “been done”. Quite where they should turn for inspiration I’m not sure – maybe the music business. Though solo performers often use their own names, groups rarely do (the musical equivalent of the name-on-the-door design groups are rock dinosaurs like Emerson, Lake and Palmer).

Perhaps they should invent a greasy, indie band name for their studio. Something grimey or mildly offensive would be novel. How refreshing it would be to hear, “I say, Smith, who’s going to be doing our annual report this year?”. “Well, it’s come down to a paid pitch between Dead Popes on Smack, Funny Lawnsmell, and the Evil Weevils”.

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