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July 25, 2007
Getting Hitched: What's in a Name?

I got a call the other day from the managing partner (let’s call him “John”) of a law firm looking for some thoughts on a tricky problem: how to design a name for a firm deep in merger discussions that could be sold to the partners. Everyone seems to avoid the issue until the last minute because the name cuts so deeply into the identity of the lawyers in each firm. Finding the words to give your partners and those on the other side of the deal is tough. Sound arguments fall flat in the face of your colleague’s emotional reply. At the same time, failure to make the sale will queer the deal.

John and I argued the math a bit. For example, if Firm A is 10 times larger than Firm B, then the conversation is over pretty quickly. Firm A wins, but the local letterhead reads “Firm A” followed on the second line, “formerly Firm B.” By 2 years at the most, Firm B is shed.

If Firm A and B are equal, then the resulting name is usually a catastrophe designed to avoid argument. All the names are used either in strict order or in some hideous syncopation. (Meanwhile, the marketing team goes insane trying to market the rose by any other name.) However, often there’s a hidden plan that is revealed after a year or so. Think Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr. Now the website reads “Wilmer Hale.”

The tricky part occurs when merging firms are unequal in size but not terribly so. So it was with John. John’s firm is only four times larger than the target. You might expect John’s firm’s relative size to give it the upper hand in naming. But the target doesn’t see it that way. They want the deal but value their name. Remember, each managing partner has constituencies that must be coddled, mollified and convinced. What would you tell them to say to their partners? I’d like to hear from you, but meanwhile let’s start a script:

  1. Your own partners must be reminded that, “no matter what the relative sizes, the word 'acquisition' is volatile. Let’s not even think it. We need to be focused on the future, on the new firm, on the combination. Yesterday is just that.” Bottom line: no one likes to feel he's been bought or acquired. No one likes to feel “one down.” It costs nothing to put your future partners on equal footing. Be generous. The former CEO of Herman Miller used to say, “The role of a leader is to bear pain.” “Pain” is superiority you feel, but that you must give up.
  2. “The most dramatic name change can be managed through marketing and public relations. Think Accenture.” If you fear the name will be lost in sands of time, you’re still focused on the past and not the future. Honor the past, but your obligation is to the future. In 6 months, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
  3. “ Research shows that buyers can remember only three syllables of a firm’s name. Not three words. Three syllables. Long handles disappear on the street. It took years for Merrill Lynch to realize its name was not Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, no matter how diligently the receptionist enforced the full name. Less is more in marketing.
  4. “85 percent of our prospects come to us via referrals. Understand that our website is probably their first tangible contact with our firm. Whatever name we use, let’s be sure that all the names we can conceive of point to the newly combined firm’s site. We’ll be teaching them our new name every time they hit our site. Does it really matter what our firm’s name is if all roads lead to Rome?”
  5. I’ve got more, but now it’s your turn.


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A recent Google search revealed 608 pages on Burkey Belser, discussing issues from crisis management to product usability to branding. His firm, Greenfield/Belser, has won hundreds of awards in every major category of graphic design from every national and international awards contest.

He is one of a handful of designers to have received the Presidential Design Award, in his case from Bill Clinton for the design of the Nutrition Facts label, noted by The New York Times as the most frequently produced graphic in the world.

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