Why do companies attach abstract values to their names?

Choosing a name for a new company is tricky. It needs to be something memorable and recognisable to your customers, and ideally not have undesirable meanings in their various languages. It also ideally should be something unique, allowing for trademarks to protect brand identity.

Traditionally, company names might have been descriptive, reflecting what the firm produces – such as Germany’s Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (Baden aniline and soda factory) now referred to simply as BASF, as it has moved far beyond producing aniline dyes and sodium carbonate. Or they might derive from the names of the company’s founders, either directly – such as Thomas Swan – or as a combination of several names, like Johnson Matthey.

Does attaching brand values to a made-up word make customers more likely to believe that they are true?

But when merging companies to form a new entity, or spinning off a section of an established firm, those styles may not be appropriate. Or maybe you want to change the name to escape from historical associations and make a fresh start. In these cases, made-up words are ideal. 

So how should one go about making up a word for the name? Two recent spin-offs from large chemical companies demonstrate different strategies. DuPont’s excised performance chemicals branch has taken the moniker Chemours, while the MaterialScience division of Bayer will become Covestro.

Both firms have imbued their new names with a set of ‘brand values’. Chemours supposedly represents the fact that chemistry belongs to all of us, with a little nod to its history as part of E I DuPont de Nemours (to give the parent company its full name). The professed origin of the name Covestro is even more abstract – ‘co’ comes from collaboration, ‘vest’ from investment in manufacturing technology and ‘stro’ from strong.

These branding exercises perennially attract derision from multiple quarters, with the most common question being, ‘how much did you pay someone to come up with that?’ But behind that lies a serious question – why bother trying to justify the name at all? If that’s what has been chosen, does it matter to the customer where it came from? Does attaching a set of brand values to elements of your made-up word make customers more likely to believe that they are a true reflection of the company?

To me, the answer to most of those questions is no. From an external point of view, organisations are judged by their performance, and by the quality of their products and the service they provide. Only time will tell whether these catchily-named companies will live up to the values attached to their abstract appellations.