Qwyx, Qume, Xebex, Epid. The jabberwocky of Silicon Valley corporate names reads like a list of new Third World nations or entries in a thesaurus written by Ogden Nash.
-- Michael S. Malone, "The Big Score: The Billion-Dollar Story of Silicon Valley."
The name game is being played with increasing fervor these days in the board rooms of America as deregulation, diversification, mergers and divestitures render more and more corporate names obsolete.
Airlines, utilities, banks, petroleum and communications companies are finding that their monikers no longer accurately reflect the type, location, ownership or aspirations of their current businesses. As further impetus, an enterprise may wish to transform its identity to better its image with the public or Wall Street analysts or increase its market share.
There are close to 200,000 companies in the United States, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And each year hundreds of them change their identities.
Name changing has become a growth industry, as specialists strive for the nom extraordinaire. It can take up to three years and cost up to $1 million dollars to implement a name change at a large corporation.
What's in today's name? Besides big bucks, it's brevity and basik spelling.
In his book, "The Big Score: The Billion-Dollar Story of Silicon Valley," Michael S. Malone lists some of today's names that "read as if the sign painter were on hallucinogens":
Litronix, Exonix, Chromatrix, Econics, Hematex, Heuristics, Liconix, Macronetics, Mardix, Onyx, Plantronics, Quantronics, Flextronics, Versatronex, Waltronic, Xynthetics, Xltronix, Alltronics and Mnemonics, which has to be pronounced twice in your head before you dare to say it out loud.
Traditional business names fall into several basic categories:
*A proper name or names, usually that of the founder or partner(s), such as W. H. Smith & Son; Merrill Lynch, Pierce Fenner & Smith.
*Location or region: Bank of Boston; Southwest Airlines.
*Generic or descriptive names: General Motors; United Technologies.
*Symbolic names: Apple Computer; Sentry Insurance.
*Initials standing for English words, acronyms, founders names or bearing their own mysterious significance: IBM, NASA, TRW, A-1 Liquors, AAA Rentals, BDM.
Although they are brief, initials have been overused and too anonymous, said Glenn Monigle, president of the Denver company bearing his name that helps other companies choose their names.
Brevity is important to get the maximum exposure with the biggest possible letters on a billboard or television screen. In selecting the name for Sovran Bank, Monigle relied on a simplified spelling of sovereign.
He said the name is symbolic, unorthodox and universal in that it dispenses with the regional name Virginia in preparation for interstate banking.
Since most suitable real words in the English language have long since been used and are therefore legally unavailable, corporations today often resort to bridge names, or fusion nouns such as BankAmerica or Hartmarx (short for Hart Schaffner & Marx), or Unum, a recent name change that is an amalgam of Union Mutual Life Insurance.
There appears to be a vogue for designing words with a capital letter in the center to attract the eye, emphasize the components and aid in pronunciation. Another device is combining two words that share a common letter, such as Goldome. QuesTech embodies both techniques.
How much differentiation does a capital letter make? Ask the president of Sar-A-Lee Inc., a salad-dressing manufacturer, who is dodging phone calls from bakers while trying to get compensation from Sara Lee Corp., the giant food company that changed its name this year from Consolidated Foods Corp. to that of its figurehead cake baker.
The most exotic names are those that are manufactured or coined in a variety of ways. An apocryphal tale tells that in 1888, the founder of Eastman Kodak named his camera -- and later the company -- after the noise the shutter made. The company history says only that Eastman fashioned a word so that it would be spelled and pronounced the same way in every language.
Sony, a Japanese company, was another pioneer in putting together easily pronounceable syllables to create a universal identity before products with Japanese names brought a premium. Conversely, an American computer entrepreneur performed the exercise and came up with a name, Atari, that incidentally sounds Japanese in a period when Japanese names were beginning to invoke an image of quality.
In 1948, the Haloid Co. used a word with with Greek roots to name the invention that has become almost synonymous in our language with copier: Xerox. In 1961, the company adopted the product's name for its own.
In 1972, Standard Oil of New Jersey changed its name for legal reasons from Esso to Exxon, following a three-year study. In one of the most celebrated computer searches in history, 100,000 four-letter words were generated by machine, 15,000 telephone directories examined for duplicates.
Finally, the committee selected Exon and doubled the X to make it distinctive. Total cost for changing the name of everything from signs to stationery, was an estimated $100 million.
Lippincott & Margulies, the dean of corporate identity consultants, is responsible for such well-known new names as Amtrak, Citgo, Humana, UniRoyal and Nynex. Recently it rechristened PSFS, the 168-year-old Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, Meritor Financial Group to reflect its nationwide expansion, including its recent move into the Washington area. The name is supposed to evoke the notion of merit, a name that was already taken.
L&M's president, Clive Chajet, stressed that sometimes his job is to dissuade a company from changing its name if it is too valuable to lose.
For example, although American Express no longer sees itself as a U.S.-based travel company but as a worldwide financial services company, it was persuaded not to become Amexco on the grounds that American Express is already recognizable all over the world.
The name generated by computer has come to symbolize high-tech companies. It all began with Signetics in 1961, wrote Malone. The executives of Signal Network Electronics took just five minutes to create an acronym that has "haunted the Valley every since." As high-tech companies proliferated, so did the need for available names to describe similar products or functions.
In addition to the "icks" (for electronics) suffixes, there was also a spate of "teck" suffixes, again noted by Malone:
Adtek, Avantek, Antekna, Caltex (a pun on the school), Disotec, Dionex, Measurex, the arrogant Mytex, the all inclusive Omnitek, Versatec, Xidex, Zentec, and ultimately, Supertex, then topping even that, Ultratech.
The '60s "took the luster off space-age names and opened up a whole new market of "mellow" titles that were dedicated to truth, health and Marvel comics," states the author:
Apple, Commodore, Cronus, Gemini, Halcyon, Odin, Phenix, Quest, Thor, Triad, Priam, Epic, Epyx and the perfect California name, Aquari Components -- a sort of high-fiber Conan-cum-Star Wars collection of names.
Valley names of the eighties reflect the power world:
Synergistics, Forward Technology, Perceptive, Cognito, Catalyst, Grid and the pragmatic Failure Analysis.
Many names of startup companies were self-generated because the firms could not afford the $35,000 plus fees of professional services. But today there are specialists like NameLab of San Francisco that thrive on renaming older companies. NameLab founder Ira N. Bachrach has generated such high-tech titles as Compaq, AmbiSet, DataGo, Mindset and Cognos by using computers to combine morphemes. A morpheme is defined as the smallest meaningful unit in a language, such as un- in the word undo. The word Compaq, for example, is composed of two messages: computer or communications with pac, meaning a small object.
Whether names are generated by computer or by the minds of linguists, advertising executives and design artists, the process is similar.
First there is an analysis of the company, its problems and its objectives. A list of potential names emanating from the imagination, dictionaries, history and guidebooks or programmed software, is winnowed to a few.
Before the final list is presented to the client, a legal check is made to make sure the name is not already owned and a linguistic check is made to be sure that the word does not have a ridiculous or obscene connotation in a foreign language, especially for companies or products that will be selling abroad.
Scrutiny saved an automobile manufacturer from marketing a car in Latin America with a name meaning "no go," an insurance company from naming itself after a Polish word for a bodily function, and a beverage company from advertising in China a drink so peppy that it "will make your ancestors come back to life."
Only then will a new name be selected, a new logo prepared and a corporate campaign designed to introduce the new entity.