Corporate Names: Emotions, Brands And Relationships

When General Electric was born more than a century ago, there was no more logical name to give it than General Electric. Same with Standard Oil, General Motors and General Tire. But today's companies — like Exxon and Verizon — have names that are much less logical.

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When General Electric was born more than a century ago, it went on to become one of many companies with names that implied universal appeal and consistency, think Standard Oil, General Tire. Now with General Motors and General Electric facing hard times, our generals are in retreat. Here's NPR's Katia Dunn.

KATIA DUNN: In the mid-1980's General Motors ran a commercial showing a generic-looking salesman slashing prices.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Nobody but General Motors offers so many deals on so many cars for so many people.

DUNN: The message in this ad is simple. General Motors has all types of cars and lots of people to buy them. At the time, that was a standard sales technique.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Standard Oil. More new car owners in the Midwest use our lead-free Amoco than any other brand.

DUNN: That ad ran in 1976 for Standard Oil.

MR. ROBERT PASKOFF (Brand Keys): And that's a commodity. That's not a brand.

DUNN: Robert Paskoff is president of Brand Keys. He says when these early large companies were building their reputations, they used the terms standard and general. It was simply the best way to introduce consumers to the products they wanted to buy for a good price. But in the late part of the 20th century, the ads all started to sound alike.

Mr. PASKOFF: By 1985, everyone was pretty much doing everything the same way.

DUNN: Companies needed to distinguish themselves from their many competitors, plus consumers were starting to control the information that came to them. They flipped the channels, they tuned out. If they didn't like the product, they didn't use it. Today, Paskoff says, rational name recognition is simply not enough to make the sale.

Mr. PASKOFF: If I say General Motors to you, you'd probably go, uh, and that uh is the sound of a brand that's dying.

DUNN: Now consultants say companies want consumers to form emotional relationships with brands. That leaves more to the imagination. And it's easier to do with mysterious names. Standard Oil of New Jersey becomes Exxon; part of AT&T became Verizon. Of course some companies have adopted these meaningless names in an effort to break up with consumers and start over.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Give me a cigarette, will you, huh?

Unidentified Woman: Don't say cigarette, say Phillip Morris.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh? Is there any other kind?

DUNN: In 2007, Philip Morris became Altria. Just last month the contractor Blackwater changed its name. The company got a lot of bad press after the Iraqi government expelled it. It's new name? Xe, spelled X-E.

Katia Dunn, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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