Brand Salad Surgery

What’s an Accenture?

I hate this word—or should I say this nonword, or should I say this meaningless corporate name? I know I should just let it go—in fact, since the test of time determines branding effectiveness, which is the whole point, Accenture and other so-called meaningless corporate names should not bother me. Besides, many of them are not as meaningless as they seem.

I still hate the name Accenture, which can’t even claim lineage to a Greek god or a volcano or some obscure Latin root. It’s a word smashed together with a suffix that just doesn’t belong there. It reeks of contemporary corporate marketing culture in which the name is more about creating a vaguely positive mystique about the company than about who founded it or what it actually produces. There are many similarly meaningless corporate names out there; I’m picking on Accenture because it has an Albany office and I know a couple of people who have worked there. I’ve asked them what they do, and what the company does, and I still don’t understand it. I do know that it offers management consulting, and “solutions” (don’t get me started on that word), and that it’s global and has lots of clients, and that it’s based in Dublin. I don’t care. “Accenture” sounds like it’s supposed to mean something even though it doesn’t. I hate that.

And it’s not in the dictionary; I checked it, along with a bunch of other corporate names, to make sure they aren’t real words before I added them to my (dis)honor roll of meaningless company names. If any of these turn out to be the actual last names of the founder, then, well, count me fooled. Here we go: Acquis, Altria, Arryve, Astadia, Aviant, Detecon, Exceeda, Extraprise, Innosight, Knowledgent, Nexera, and so on. There are hundreds, if not thousands. I collected only a small random sample before I gave up in despair, dropped my head into my hands, and pined for the good old days when companies either named themselves after their founders—Walt Disney Productions, Ford Motor Company—or chose names that directly related to what they produced—International Business Machines, General Electric, Xerox … um … oops … hold on a sec …

In the 1950s, the Haloid Photographic Company came up with the word “xerography” to differentiate its newly developing photocopying system from other existing technologies, using two Greek roots that together meant “dry writing.” Before long the company was Xerox Corporation, and for as long as I can remember, the word “xerox” has been firmly established to the point of being used interchangeably with “photocopy” as a both noun and verb (adjective too—think “xerox copy”). This longstanding reality has been both good and bad news for the company: you almost can’t have better branding than that, yet Xerox has actively fought against the use of its name as a verb, fearing the trademark will be declared generic by the courts.

In a blog post titled “10 Great Business Names That Started Out Meaningless”—from a website called Novanym, speaking of meaningless—Accenture is included with such iconic company names as Xerox, Sony, Häagen-Dazs, Kodak, Ikea, and the king of meaningless-gone-household-noun-and-verb, Google. (Actually, the name Google isn’t really meaningless, as it is a simple rearrangement of the word “googol”—the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros—and thus is meant to evoke large sums of information.) Google is arguably a “great business name,” but I still don’t think Accenture is, and I don’t think it belongs on this list. The other names here had to worm their way comfortably into the brains of a broader cross-section of society, as their companies sell consumer products as opposed to “management solutions.” And while they all contain an element of phony (none more so than Häagen-Dazs, the founder’s misguided attempt to sound exotic and perhaps Danish), none comes close to the creepy, insipidly corporate phoniness of Accenture.

I decided to scroll through the Fortune 500 list to see how the “meaningless name” companies were faring in the revenue race; for whatever reason, there are almost none in the top 100, with No. 13 Verizon Communications being the conspicuous exception. That name never actually bothered me, as it rolls off the tongue and didn’t seem to be trying too hard to mean something, even though it rhymes with horizon—so I almost wish I didn’t now know that it was conceived as a combination of the words veritas, Latin for truth, and horizon. Now I never got that from the name at all, and I’m not sure how “truth on the horizon” describes a telecommunications company anyway, but oh well.

Toward the end of the top 100, you get Aetna, so named to evoke Mount Etna, at the time (early 1800s) Europe’s most active volcano—works for me. Near it is TIAA-CREF, whose letters stand for something (two somethings, actually—look it up). I seem to recall that at one point maybe 20 years ago give or take, the folks marketing the company actually embraced the awkwardness of the name by enunciating it laboriously in radio commercials. More recently, they rebranded as simply TIAA in a concession to simplicity. At No. 124 you get the Greek goddess Nike, and No. 130 is AFLAC, also an acronym, the branding of which was enhanced by the introduction of a duck madly quacking the name.

So unless I missed one or two, besides Verizon, the first two in the Fortune 500 list to really push the meaningless-name effect are Exelon (134) and Altria Group (137), the latter more scornworthy due to the likelihood that the company was rebranded to sound less like a producer and pusher of carcinogenic cigarettes (Philip Morris) and more like a company with loftier ideals (does anyone else hear “altruism” in there?). There’s nothing quite like renaming yourself when your brand goes sour—just ask Erik Prince (you know, Betsy DeVos’ brother), co-founder of private security outfit Blackwater, whose contractors were found guilty in the 2007 slaughter of 14 Iraqi civilians. The company soon changed its name to Xe Services, and more recently, under new ownership, to Academi.

I read somewhere that two important considerations in choosing your meaningless corporate name are (1) whether it rolls off the tongue (it should) and (2) whether it means something silly or offensive in a foreign language (it should not). Then again, when your business involves murky government contracts to carry out security and sometimes collateral damage to civilians in foreign countries (Xe), maybe you don’t want the name to roll off the tongue.

So, Accenture—does it roll off the tongue? I suppose so, but not in a way I find pleasing. It joins a real word with a real suffix to make a compound that has no meaning or reference to the company’s services or mission. After the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen broke all ties with that company toward the end of 2000, an employee in the Oslo office won an internal naming competition with Accenture, supposedly derived from “accent on the future.” Uh-huh. I never would have made that connection had I not looked it up. But so what? Accenture doesn’t care what I think. And even as a B2B, its branding is pretty strong among a random sample of about 30 people who responded to my Facebook query, three in four who knew the name.

I’ll end with a little game for you. Can you rearrange these five nonsense names into actual nonsense corporate names: Aquartis, Enovo, Experent, Lenron, Novian?

Got ’em all? Great job. There may be a future for you in public relations at Accenture, or someplace with a name much like it.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


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