Author: Leslie Budd

Of sticks and stones and names and bones...

Updated Monday, 8th November 2010
Are our assumptions about company names often as misplaced as the side we're drawn to support when start-ups take on incumbents?

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Growing up in the UK, parental wisdom always seemed constructed around some obscure (and frequently bizarre) saying: "a stitch in time saves nine", for example.

When I too often asked my father where he was going, he would reply "to see a man about a dog". The number of times he said it convinced me that we would become the local equivalent of Battersea Dogs' Home, but no dog ever appeared.

In response to some verbal insult children were told "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

Royal Mail sorting office, Hemel Hempstead
After Consignia was consigned to the branding dustbin - a Royal Mail sorting office

Well in business and life names can hurt you.

One of the late US country singer John Cash’s songs A Boy Named Sue became very popular. It is the tale of and who gave his son a female name, knowing that the opprobrium it would bring would make him tougher.

When the Post Office renamed and rebranded itself Consignia the public outcry was loud and long, forcing to the organisation to call itself the more acceptable Royal Mail. The damage to its reputation may live on in its current predicament.

Why do businesses spend large sums of money rebranding and renaming themselves?

It partly depends where businesses are in the development cycle. At start-up you may go with one name, but change as the business becomes established.

But does changing the name and logo of a market incumbent freshen up the company or are too senior many managements persuaded, against their better judgement, by the 'Mad Men’ of advertising and design firms?

Does changing appearance add any substance to the business, or make customers resist the charms of some new start-up who is challenging the incumbent’s market territory?

Or is it something more fundamental about the relationship between start-ups and incumbents?

The name of a business at the start-up phase may not be the same as when it seeks to become a market incumbent. But, history and tradition as embodied in the name may be important for some sectors.

In the financial services would an investment or hedge fund attract mush custom if it were called Gecko Asset Mismanagement or The Omertà Fund?

In the fashion business you may not want to take over the brand name of Joe Bloggs whose owner was declared bankrupt in 2009. But, given the ubiquity of blogging you may want to set up a fashion label called Blogger or Tweeter Jeans. As a start-up, however, gaining incumbent status in this competitive sector may need more than a name, especially if the fashion for social media becomes dated.

In Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose the relationship between master and apprentice is developed.

The former is a monk who, along with his charge, attends a theological disputation at an abbey. A mysterious death distracts them from their original purpose. But through exploring a series of meanings of the events surrounding the death and their contexts, he solves the mystery.

Eco chose a title he thought would be neutral and reflected on the fact that the rose had become so powerfully symbolic and rich in meaning that it now had become almost devoid of meaning.

What has a popular novel about monks and murder and names and meaning, written by an Italian philosopher, got to do with the power of names in business and the relationship between start-ups and incumbents?

Well, business could learn something from Eco’s ruminations. In a sense, start-ups are apprentice market incumbents and like any upstart, may not learn the lessons from a more masterful source.

Moreover, the meanings of names depend on their context whether personal or professional.

And, it is context and conjuncture in regard to the relation of start-ups to incumbents: they are not polar opposites.

Virgin Vodka
Short-lived Virgin start-up Virgin Vodka

Market incumbents frequently start new ventures and develop them or spin them off. You only have to look at the number of start-ups launched under the Virgin brand, some more successful than others.

This is also a useful competitive strategy against other incumbents particularly if the new business(es) are complementary to core activities.

It also allows the incumbent to re-invent themselves in their customers’ eyes.

Although this can be risky if the incumbent has a poor reputation for customer service, so that the new business may suffer from brand contamination.

There are a number of fictions that surround start-ups of which, perhaps, the main one is that they are the plucky underdog pitched against the giant incumbent. "We all love an underdog, so let’s embrace the new boys and girls on the block and ignore the playground bullies" may be a popular perception - but it is a false one.

Many start-ups exist on the basis of demand of large incumbent firms so name calling is irrational and may lead to sticks and stones being applied to the new entrant.

The one area where start-ups do suffer is in respect of government contracts. The approved contractor regulations of many governmental agencies in the UK are too onerous for start-ups and any public agent is likely to choose a 'name’ to undertake contracts as part of a risk-averse management strategy.

Names may never hurt you as a business, but the sticks and stones are those of which sector you operate in; where you are in the development cycle of business; and the business cycle itself. These are the things that can permanently damage a business.

Whether you are a start-up or an incumbent, changing your name may fracture business bones.

We only have to look at what happened to Shakespeare’s Romeo, after Juliet’s famous invocation "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."




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