Monday, December 09, 2013

What's in a Name?

Japanese have long been criticised for being overly conformist and insufficiently creative. This is  unfair, if not untrue demonstrated by the Nobel Literature Prize recently awarded to Murakami, and the increasing representation  of Japanese brands outside the realm of consumer electronics, and, I might add, Olympus Corporation's daringly-creative plan to sweep away $1.2bn of zaitech losses by burying them in the acquisition prices of several hokey takeovers.

Perhaps the most overlooked area of creativity in Japan however is the pith and humour employed in the naming of some of the their listed enterprises.  In America, Branding & Identity has long been approached seriously and (in my opinion) over-earnestly save the departure that brought us "Yahoo!" and "Google". So successful, in fact, was this attempt to fabricate a name that in one fell swoop conjures the image of the product, a sense of iconclastic fun, with fragments of some of the vertical's keyword or key aspects along with an almost certainly-contrived onamonapia (think Uber, Twitter,  Vimeo, etc.) that our brains are now filled with senseless near-names that all blend together in some Sand Hill Road pitchbook nightmare.

While the Japanese undoubtedly have their earnestly named companies, and have wrestled with the delicate identity issues (a fun read!!) that result from M&A, contrary to their boring and humourless stereotype, they also have a bevy of the most deliciously-named companies as outlandish and unusual as a dozen Elvis' in Yoyogi Park (at least to the western observer with a sense of the absurd).
Take code #6630, or "Ya Man" Co Ltd, peddlers of  ridiculous-looking "Weight-Shape Belts" whose function, even after close inspection, remains a mystery though it appears to have something to do with "toning". If their weight-shape belts hold no allure, then their Facerciser (avail in Pink White or Gold) might. While looks like a battery-operated roll-on deodorant vessel, it (allegedly)  "mechanically taps the face mimicking (sic) a professional aesthetician's (sic) hand massage" though it may secretly have other, more umm errr adventuresome uses. I am not sure if the "Ya-Man" moniker reflects the founders'  love of Reggae or the high-fives they give each other when some sucker buys their weight shape belts....

To combat the need for re-engaging branding consultants every time one changes business, #1408 has come up with the perfect solution by calling themselves "Something Holdings". This creatively-brilliant strategy insures that no matter business line they pursue, their company name will always be relevant (or at the very least not irrelevant).

Snobbishness of the patrician-sort conjured by venerable names like "First Boston", Morgan Grenfell, or Goldman Sachs" was not the objective of #8542, better know as Tomato Bank, a name that has not failed to sophmorically-amuse me for twenty-five years conjuring lurid visions of customers depositing tomatoes and withdrawing ketchup (or Catsup or Tomato Sauce for you Brits). Of course no one laughs at Apple Computer, but Tomato bank still seems a stretch even though a Chinese-owned FDIC-insured bank in California sports the same name.

Being creative is, however, hit or miss. Take #3845, rather frighteningly  called  i-Freek Co Ltd. not terribly sympathetic with its target audience of 3-to-6 years with web-based content. It sounds more like an on-line purveyor  of illicit paraphernalia and other nefarious stuff, but hey, maybe in Japanese it sounds a whole lot more warm and fuzzy than the name (and respresentative character to the right) imply.

At times "the miss" can be a veritable disaster or the corporate branding equivalent of an "own goal". Take relatively fast-growing fashion-retailer #2185,  which was formerly known as "Point Ltd", a rather innocuous but focused name that conveyed a stream-lined sense of purpose. But recently, they changed their name  to ummm ...errrr ..."Adastria" a worse-than-meaningless fabrication which  is a near-anagram for "DISASTER" - exactly the thing investors wish to avoid. Someone clearly didn't do their homework which is why all such rebranding exercises should be sent through the "let's take the team out, drink lots and ruminate about it" wringer. 

In case there are any doubts that the Japanese possess a sense of humour to balance their creativity one only need contemplate the brilliance of what was formerly #7553, known as "Sazaby", an obscure opportunistic hustler-of-firm who was Starbuck's original partner in Japan. How creative and opportunistic one might ask? Wanting panache and being desirious of instant-brand-name recognition, they thought the prefect name and image was the venerable Sotheby's, though this was already trademarked.... at least in English, and at least to the letter. Now, channel your best native Japanese, and imagine you wish to travel to London or NY to bid on some impressionist pieces (like  for example Van Gogh's 'Portrait of Dr Gachet'). Where would you instruct your assistant to make arrangements to? Sazaby's of course...

I have always found it difficult, however good the underlying business night be, to pull the trigger on the shares of accompany whose name could be construed as prophetic. I can imagine nightmarishly-replaying the scene where an investor gets sarcastic with me about #2674, asking how, pray-tell, I could imagine that "The Hard Off Corporation" had any possible allure outside its comedic value, irrespective of the quality bargains available in a shop selling used merchandise in a nation with a strong aversion to second-hand goods. So strong is this aversion, that there is a massive market in buying quality Kawai and Yamaha Pianos, and shipping these used beauties in bulk to all the major markets. Despite these attractions, there is something creepy about the name, so I continue to leave it alone.

#3165, Fuhrmeister Electronics is just plain bizarre. It is, quite literally, a made-up name, maybe even a joke-name like Naughtius Maximus or Biggus Dickus. The Japanese have a keen mutual respect for the Germans that  goes back a long way, forming the basis of many-a-strategic-alliance - particularly in auto-components where quality, engineering prowess, and order are important. And while "Fuhr" and "Fuhrer" are NOT the same thing in German, it is bold to go down THAT route to branding taking into account recent history.  Anyone with insight into this, please do tell.

Entrpreneurs are usually Do-Ers which sets them apart from armchair quarterbacks, and pub-dwelling know-it-alls. This is why investors might view #4287 with some trepidation. Perhaps if "Just Planning Co. Ltd" were an architectural firm, the name might be apt, but for a real estate developer, they could have done with something less descriptive of precisely the thing you want your developer to do with your investment capital: sit on their hands.

You would have to truly be one of the least curious human beings to not want to know precisely what  #4331, "Take & Give Needs Co. Ltd"actually did as a line of business. A pawn shop? A conveyor-belt sushi establishment? Private refuse collection? Personal valet service? Nope. It's a USD$275mm Wedding provider. Why did they name it so? One might romantically think it reflects the exchange of wedding vows but really it is because Take & Give reflects the Pump & Dump when it was run-up from YEN1000 to YEN20,000, before taking all investors' money enroute to YEN200/shr. It is currently in 'Giving" mode hovering at YEN2000 (from its pre-Abenomics level of YEN600.

Of all the things one might wish their business to be labelled, "quixotic" is probably not amongst them. Yet taking the proverbial bull by the horns (no pun intended) is precisely what #7532 did on choosing to call itself "Don Quijote". In true heroic fashion (again no pun intended) they overcome the burden of their name, and contrary to the prejudices it implies,  have grown rapidly,  and more or less continuously, rewarding investors who've backed 'the dreamer.'

Irony, too is present, in Japanese stock names and codes. While the meaning of symbols is different across cultures, I still find it odd to name your designer of infant clothes #7956, "Pigeon Corporation". Not that pigeons can't be cute - I am sure a good artist can conjure a cuddly likeness. But perhaps the somewhat obscure though humorous allusion between pigeons and babies was to the mess they both leave behind. Fortunately, the adjacent company #7955 is omnisciently and fortuitously-called "Cleanup Corporation". 

It is hard to say that changing #4631, the Dai Nippon Ink & Chemical Company's name to "DIC" was not without attendant risks. #2180 or "Sunny-Side Up" makes me smile whenever I see it which was likely their intention. But my favorite, as an english speaker, is the pure poetry of @2904 the seafood paste maker "Ichimasa Kamaboko".  I know in Japanese "kamaboko" sets the digestive juices in motion, but to me, it conjures images of a West-African beach, colourful Jimmy Hendrix style-daishiki's as the words Ichimasa Kamaboko roll off the tongue of Eddie Murphy fabulous parody (Merry New Year!) in what is likely every trader's favourite movie, Trading Places.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget 3657 JT - Poletowin Pitcrew Holdings.

Pigeon - once disclosed in a company presentation - claims to have named their company after the international bird of peace... oops!

"Cassandra" said...

Thanks for the comment. Though I have no reason to doubt the company's version as I told, I will continue to prefer my narrative which makes me smile more than trying to understand the connection between a pigeon, babies, and world peace….

I do wonder whether 2685 Point hired outside branding help in their name change, or whether it was an inside job...

Anonymous said...

I believe Murakami had a near miss.

Chris ( said...

Not forgetting gaudy handbag flogger and 90%-from-it's-post-IPO-price-retracer "Samantha Thavasa" (7829 JT). Named for the protagonist from Bewitched and her daughter, er, Tabitha.

markus (Sweden) said...

Murakami never got the Nobel Prize. I like his books but I seriously doubt he will ever get close.

"Cassandra" said...

mothermary&joseph you're right!! i cannot imagine how my dream-image of the award to murakami permeated my waking reality…wishful dreaming i guess….mea culpa