Naming In The News

What to call it: your name or mine?

Post M&A, tricky issues with choosing moniker

By Kevin McKeough
January 23, 2006

Agentrics CEO Joe Laughlin learned what's in a name. After GNX and WWRE merged, his company considered more than 120 new monikers. Photo: Roark Johnson

When Chicago-based GlobalNetXchange, or GNX, merged last year with Alexandria, Va.-based World Wide Retail Exchange, otherwise known as WWRE, the deal allowed the companies to shed something customers never liked very much: their unwieldy corporate names.

The new firm, which provides online data synchronization and auction services for major retailers, came up with Agentrics, short for Agent for Retail Information and Collaborative Solutions.

"We're among the only (exchange) survivors left from multiple industries," says CEO Joe Laughlin, 41. "It was important to position ourselves differently in the market as the trusted agent in the retail industry, vs. being an exchange providing technology solutions."

Agentrics LLC is hardly the only new firm with identity issues. More than 750 U.S. companies changed their names in 2005, according to Bill Lozito, co-founder and president of Strategic Name Development Inc., a Minneapolis-based brand-name consulting firm. The overwhelming majority resulted from mergers and acquisitions, where the new company must decide whether to keep one of the existing names, combine them (think FedEx Kinko's) or discard them altogether.

This name-changing drill is more complicated — and more important — than you might think, conveying subtle but important messages to customers and employees.

"A name change is symbolic of some strategic shift," says Ed Keller, 44, director of brand strategy in the Chicago office of San Francisco-based Landor Associates, a branding and design consulting firm. So it pays to get it right.

Testing, Testing

In making a change, companies typically conduct intensive market research, often with the help of a naming agency such as Landor Associates or Strategic Name Development. These specialists enlist creative professionals such as copywriters and linguists. They also use computer programs to generate hundreds of potential names, and then check their availability against existing trademarks and Web domain names.

The costs run from $40,000 for local research to hundreds of thousands of dollars for nationwide studies.

"You ask a series of semantic differential questions," explains Mr. Lozito, 53. "Is it a brand I can trust, does it makes me proud to be seen with this brand? You end up with a profile of how the company name is perceived."

Agentrics produced more than 120 candidates. Many were scratched because they were offensive or peculiar in other languages, the Internet domain names weren't available, or the name infringed on trademarks — a common problem.

Before settling on Agentrics, the naming team winnowed its list to five: OneHub, Mercatior (Latin for "commerce"), Sero (Latin for "to join together"), Annona (Greek goddess of markets and commerce) and the eventual winner.

Whatever the end result, the naming process is similar across industries. When Detroit-based law firm Dykema Gossett Rooks Pitts PLLC looked into a change, its research found that most clients were referring to it simply as Dykema.

"We needed to establish an identity and thought it would be easier to do around a single name," says Michael Borders, 50, the managing member of the Chicago office of the firm, which adopted the brand name Dykema in December.

Getting The Word Out

Of course, once a company has picked a name, it needs to get the word out. Companies should first notify their best customers of the change through briefings and e-mails. The new name also needs to be grafted onto every part of a company's public face, including business cards, stationery, Web sites and even how the phone is answered. To help ease the transition, Agentrics has added "formerly GNX/WWRE" into its voice-mail messages and BlackBerry signatures.

Chicagoans are seeing red – Macy's red.

Finally, there's marketing and advertising. J. P. Morgan Chase & Co., which acquired Chicago-based Bank One Corp. in 2004, announced last October that it's spending $2 million on a comprehensive ad campaign to establish the Chase brand in the Chicago area; J. P. Morgan Chase also is installing new signage at 350 locations in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.

Still, research and ad spending doesn't guarantee success. Despite claiming to have carefully studied its customers' desires, Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc. has angered many Chicagoans by saying it will rename Marshall Field's stores Macy's. "The more a consumer identifies with a brand or a name, the more emotionally attached they are to it," Mr. Lozito warns.

For its part, Agentrics will spend $70,000 to launch its new identity. Mr. Keller of Landor Associates gives the Agentrics name a B+. "It's not that easy to say or spell," he says. "If they're tying to communicate the idea of 'agent,' the problem is, it's not 'agent-rix,' it's 'uh-gentrics.' If they can make their customers remember the idea of 'agent,' then I think they could be on to something."

Source: Crain's Chicago Business