Naming in Today’s White-Hot M&A Environment
Learn the five best practices to get M&A naming right.
Despite the uncertainty of the global pandemic and recessionary outlook, M&A activity continues to surge across all industries, with a record $2.9 trillion in transactions in 2021, and 2022 is expected to be even bigger. While not every deal requires naming, the large transformation deals do. In these cases, a new name is the most visible, symbolic and longest-lasting M&A decision. It’s an opportunity to start fresh and signal unity to employees and customers alike. But shockingly, many companies still get it wrong.
Getting to a great name in these fast-paced environments requires significant care and attention. What sometimes starts out as “let’s brainstorm and come up with something cool,” can often turn into a highly emotional, intensely subjective process that can create leadership friction and decision-making paralysis, ultimately delaying a brand’s launch.
Following are five best practices to get M&A naming right.
1. M&A naming is not a democracy.
Since naming a new enterprise is something many executives experience just once in their careers, many leaders don’t want to make the decision alone. So, they invite stakeholders from every angle to weigh in. However, there will likely already be numerous decision-making voices at the table—including multiple CEOs, private equity partners, other investors or board members. In these multi-stakeholder environments, we believe the decision-making body should be kept to the right balance of as few executives as possible, but as many as necessary, with focused participation early in the process (yes, even CEOs).
Despite the perception that naming is a fun, creative exercise, the reality is that it’s a high-stakes, emotional decision that will carry your organization into the next several years, and maybe even the next several decades. With this in mind, getting lean on the decision-making team, and ensuring they’re active participants from the very beginning, will lead to a more successful outcome.
We also recommend that clients resist the temptation to test name candidates with employees—while inclusion is a noble goal, this step gives employees a voice in the decision, rather than treating them as an audience we want to inspire with our ultimate reveal.
2. The name you want is probably taken, but there’s a better name out there that isn’t.
This one is a tough pill to swallow. But with most M&A deals being highly global, getting a name to clear across many trademark classes and geographies requires deep, divergent thinking. Yes, ‘Mosaic’ is taken. No, you cannot have the name ‘Fountain’. ‘Iris’ does indeed tell an intuitive metaphorical story, but four other organizations already beat you to it!
While we wish it was easy enough to just call the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and ask for an exception, unfortunately, it’s not. But by exhausting creative exploration, you can uncover an adjacent or new idea that tells an even richer story. Sometimes that means you’ll get lucky with a simple, metaphorical real word that isn’t yet taken. Sometimes it’s about coining a gettable, “sticky” new word, and sometimes it takes getting comfortable with an idea that is more abstract—and more ownable. With an estimated 213 million companies in the world, naming isn’t just a creative game. It’s also a numbers game. And arriving at an answer that is inspired, strategic and viable requires diligence, objectivity and a willingness to push past your comfort zone.
3. Every name has varying degrees of legal risk—but not every risk is a deal breaker.
To add on to point #2, almost any name you consider will have some degree of risk associated. No name is ever given an ‘all clear,’ so getting legal involved early on can help you understand what degree of risk your organization is willing to take on, which will then influence the types of names explored. What’s more, different legal teams may employ different legal strategies to pursue or secure a name, from acquiring a mark to petitioning for co-usage with another party.
When Google launched Alphabet, even an enterprise of their size and influence couldn’t clear the pure URL of alphabet.com or secure the pure ‘alphabet’ social handles, which were currently being used by other organizations with the same name, including a division of BMW. But Google believed Alphabet was the name that best represented the story they wanted to tell, so they went to market understanding there were legal risks associated with that name and launched with another URL—the very clever www.abc.xyz. All to say, legal baggage associated with your favorite names can be investigated and often worked around, as long as you have legal embedded in your process from the very beginning.
4. Fast-paced M&A deadlines can work in favor of a successful naming outcome.
With all the critical decision points and process gates leading to deal closings and ultimately a new brand launch, getting a name identified, cleared, designed and launched can feel like a daunting process. At Prophet, we believe sticking to an objective process and adhering to a thoughtful naming brief as the source of truth enables teams to use time pressure in a way that works in their favor. Having less time can actually be the forcing function teams need to evaluate ideas objectively, leave emotion and biases at the door and make quick, but meaningful decisions. When there is no time to second guess or decide by consensus, teams often trust their guts and arrive at impactful answers.
5. And finally, remember that a name is a powerful asset—but not the only asset.
Although we always say your name is your most visible asset, it is not your only asset. This is especially important in M&A environments, where there are multiple parties coming together under a shared value proposition that is oftentimes broader and more aspirational than their previous strategies or stories. While the name can certainly signal part of this new experience, it cannot tell the complete story on its own. We help clients see their name in the context of other strategic levers, like the promise they make to their customers, their visual language, or the experiences they aim to create.
Naming in M&A environments poses its own challenges but launching a new brand at this scale and on the global stage—and doing so with a name you feel confident in and inspired by—is a deeply rewarding experience.