David Frum June 30th, 2003 at 12:00 am
A little while ago, I received an e-mail from a man whose grandfather had owned a
company called (let me scramble the name slightly to protect privacy)
“American Plier and Wrench.” The company made (again scrambling
slightly) — guess what? — pliers and wrenches.
How old-fashioned such a name now seems. Since the stock-market boom of the 1960s,
we have gotten used to the idea that a company’s name should tell us nothing at
all about the business it does. Andy Rooney — or was it Russell Baker? — used
to make amusing geezerish sport of names like Exxon and Citicorp. It’s gotten
to the point where a name that clearly conveys what a company does seems
somehow unambitious or stuck in its ways. Even the tradition-minded jettison
the full name in favor of initials: UPS or IBM or BP.
During the Internet bubble of the 1990s, though, corporate naming jumped forward into
a brave new postmodern world of irony and self-mockery. Hence Yahoo! and
Google, OneMain.com and CreativeCow.net. Or maybe you remember Red Herring
magazine? Liquid Audio? The half-dozen companies with Hedgehog in
their name — all now dead and buried?
At one point I joined the gold rush myself and spent a miserable weekend trying to
register a domain name. As I struck out again and again, I tried increasingly
absurd names — and found that they were taken, taken, taken. I was finally
reduced to the childish act of trying BarfingDog.com. That I could have.
Whatever else you say about it, the Internet is certainly a fine way to burn hours.
After the BarfingDog fiasco, I became curious about naming trends, and started
typing one name after another into the online registry.
AmalgamatedIronandSteel.com? Available. ContinentalRubberandTire.com? Available.
AcePetExterminators.com? Available. UnitedSteamshipLines.com? Also available.
For a brief mad moment, it occurred to me that UnitedSteamshipLines.com might make
a very clever title for an online travel magazine . . . and then I caught
myself. I realized that I was being ironic about the irony of the Internet age.
I was being ironically ironic. I was being post-postmodern. This nonsense had
to stop before I fell off the edge of the world.
In time, the nonsense did stop, although I can’t help noticing that one of the
favorite advertising firms of the Internet boom still markets itself under the
cuter-than-cute name “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” In slower economic
times, the business world reverts to basics — maybe not quite so basic as Amalgamated
Iron & Steel, but basic enough.
Last month, Vice President Cheney presented the 2002 Baldrige awards, the country’s
highest recognition of business quality. One of the three winners had a
nonsense name so old that it practically counts as English: Motorola. (Motorola
began life as the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation. It introduced the first car
radios in the 1930s, and combined the words “motor” and
“Victrola” to create a brand name. The company then took the name as
its own in 1947.)
The second winner goes by an acronym: SSM Health Care. SSM happens to be short for
Sisters of St. Mary, the Franciscan order that originally sponsored the
hospitals that have grown into the SSMHC chain. The acronym is a thin disguise
for an organization that forthrightly dedicates itself to “reveal[ing] the
healing presence of God.”
The third had the most stolid name of them all: Branch-Smith Printing. Believe it
or not, Branch-Smith Printing is a printing company. It was founded by a Mr.
Smith in 1910. His daughter and her husband, a Mr. Branch, took over the
company in 1954, and Branch-Smith Printing has been the name ever since.
Dan Henninger, the Wall Street Journal’s wry cultural-affairs commentator,
warns that this turn toward sobriety in the naming of businesses may be an
indication of the leaching of all the fun out of the work of business.
“[B]ack in the early days of what came to be known as Silicon Alley, teams
of very bright 20- and 30-somethings assembled new businesses in downtown
Manhattan, more or less hooked to the Internet, and worked insane hours to make
it go. And they worked those hours before the valuation poison hit. . . . So
what if much of it failed? What those infant entrepreneurs brought to the
economic culture was nonstop chatter about creation, problem-solving, stamina
and winning. The thrill, for now, is gone.”
If Henninger is right, then the revival of corporate names that Andy Rooney and
Russell Baker can understand is an expression not of plain English but of a
glum marketplace. And yet, the new literalism may after all yield its benefits.
Years ago, I rented an apartment in New York City from a psychiatrist who kept
his office on a lower floor. He had a very swank clientele: Limousines would
idle in front of his stoop hour after hour as their owners spilled their
I once asked my psychiatrist-landlord whether his rich clients came to him with
similar problems, and he said that they all came to him with the same problem:
They all felt like frauds. The world looked at them and saw corporate titans
and geniuses of finance, but when they looked inside themselves, they had no
idea who they were. Very sad, but maybe just a little bit of the problem was of
their own making. I mean, if I were CEO of Accenture, I’d have no idea who I
was either. But I bet the late owner of American Plier and Wrench never
suffered from the “Who am I?” problem. He was an American who made
pliers and wrenches — and isn’t that answer enough for anybody?
Originally published in The National Review