What's in a Name?

(originally appeared in Cleveland Magazine July 1979)

The people who write press releases and send them to newspapers and magazines may or may not know that people at newspapers and magazines usually throw them away unread. Any newspaperman worth the salt in his beer knows that news generally isn’t what the big companies want you to know. News is generally what they don’t want you to know, And so, reading publicity releases is almost always a waste of time.

And yet, I spent a better part of a morning recently absorbed by a press release. Well, not merely a press release. Rather call it a press anthology. When it arrived, it immediately captured my attention because someone dropped it on my desk, and the thud it made woke me up. It narrowly missed my left foot. If it had hit it, it would have broken it. As it was, it cracked my ashtray. An ashtray which cost me ninety-eight cents. So it was with a mixture of relief and anger that I lifted it from my desk to see who had sent it. It had come from CleveTrust Corporation.

Well, of course, seeing that, I knew what it must be about. There had been a story in the newspaper that Cleveland Trust was changing its name. It was going to start calling itself AmeriTrust. The newspapers had covered this startling and highly significant event a couple days before. Their coverage, had been, it seemed to me, more than adequate. Columnists had deplored the fact that Cleveland Trust, by removing Cleveland from its name, was turning its back on the city in a dark hour. A columnist myself, I know how it is with columnists. Privately, columnists are rarely upset. They know a great truth about life: Very little matters. Publicly, however, columnists are often upset. They are paid to be. One of the few things that does matter is making a living.

There was, however, one thing that was fascinating about this Cleveland Trust press release. And that was the very bulk of it. It came packaged in a brown folder, and inside the folder was a series of little stapled-together news releases. It seemed wonderful to me that anyone or any group of people could find so much to say about the substitution of five letters which changed the non-word CleveTrust to the non-word AmeriTrust.

The first release was from a New York (not Cleveland) company called Lippincott & Margulies, Inc. Its letterhead listed it was a “consultant in communications.” I rarely deal with consultants in communications, unless you count the information lady who answers when you dial 411. But I had heard of Lippincott & Margulies. I know that, a few years ago, they had been hired by the National Broadcasting Company to design a new logo. The National Broadcasting Company had come to the conclusion that NBC was an inferior symbol –– a conclusion that I found and still find absurd. Nevertheless, Lippincott & Margulies had been hired for thousands of dollars to design a symbol to replace NBC. Lippincott & Margulies had feverishly gone to work and, after much sweat-popping intensity, had announced that it had found the perfect new symbol. The new symbol was an N.

Everybody on both sides seemed delighted with the choice. Then, as often happens, a shadow fell across the blazing light of triumph. The confetti was still unswept from the Lippincott & Margulies victory celebration when news arrived that out in Nebraska, an educational television station –– quite independently and in one of those freaky coincidences where lightning strikes twice –– was already using the same symbol N. Probably because that is the first letter in Nebraska, you see.

But by this time, NBC was so smitten with the idea that it would soon be able to call itself N that nothing would do but that it would buy out the N out there in Nebraska. And so it did –– shipping some fancy electronic equipment out west in exchange for the exclusive rights to N. Nebraska caved in. Took the equipment. Relinquished its N. And adopted the symbol n. And is still living happy with it. And with a certain gleam in the eye.

Well then, here was Lippincott & Margulies back in action. This time going straight to a bank for its fee and eliminating the middleman. I read the release. It said: “Ameritrust –— the new name for Clevetrust –– emerged from a year of intensive research, analysis and planning …. Hundreds of names were generated and then culled to a list of thirteen final candidates. The finalists were subjected to linguistic evaluation and analysis, including foreign language applications. The final name was then selected.”

Now this I found impressive. And smart, very smart. I thought instantly of a family I know. The wife became pregnant with her first child.
There was no time for a year of intensive research into a name. Nine months would have to do. So husband and wife set to work. Hundreds of names were generated (in other words, thunk up). Finally the list was narrowed to two names –– one for a boy, one for a girl.

      In due course, a little girl was born. They named her Heather. And all seemed well.

Ah. But they had made a mistake. A mistake Lippincott & Margulies did not make. My friends failed to subject their choice to a linguistic evaluation and analysis including foreign language applications. And this was a fatal omission. And it showed. If you don’t believe me, ask Heather Dombrowski.

“Considering a new name for any established organization is an undertaking which demands the most painstaking care and caution,” wrote Walter P. Margulies in the news release. And again his words sent my mind ranging back into history, Back to Nancy St. Clair.
Nancy St. Clair lived across the street from me when I was a kid. I was littler than she was. She would haul me over to play dolls with her. I went grudgingly. But I went. She was nobody to mess with. Then one day she moved away.

Years passed. Then one day I was at college, a truly ravishing girl approached me. And it was Nancy St. Clair. Instantly I felt an overwhelming desire to play dolls once more. I asked her out for coffee.

But something had changed. Nancy St. Clair was not Nancy St. Clair any longer. She had changed her name. She was Anne St. Clair now.

She was not too vocal on the matter but, in talking to her, it had become obvious why she had done it. She thought Anne was a classier name than Nancy. She thought Anne gave her a better image. Just the way Cleveland Trust thinks AmeriTrust will give it a better image.

The problem was, I couldn’t get used to the idea that she was Anne. I still thought of her as Nancy. And I kept calling her Nancy. I kept calling her this in front of people who, hearing me, demanded an explanation. This made Nancy sore. And we never did play dolls.

Well, as I dropped the huge Cleveland Trust press release into my wastebasket, I reflected that the bank will probably be stuck with the same problem Nancy St. Clair had. It may have gotten Cleveland out of its name. It may have a fancy new George Orwell newspeak name that is classier. But I will still think of it as the same old Cleveland Trust.

So, I bet, will Dennis.
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