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Do Geographic Brand Names Limit Reach?

Drew Letendre

So you say you already are — or your ambitions are –- more than regional, making your name claustrophobic, limiting, and obsolete. Many acronymically-named businesses — known to you or not (and they are legion) — are so-named in order to shed what they see as geographic baggage made irrelevant by geographic expansion. Is that right?

Well, perhaps. But consider that Boston Consulting doesn’t confine its reach or its operations to Boston, Massachusetts. Nor does it consult with only New England-based clients. New York Life doesn’t limit its sphere of operations to the Five Boroughs; and Boise (formerly Boise Cascade) long ago burst the bounds of Idaho. And what of Columbia? Or Patagonia? Or Amazon? Geographic brand names don’t stop your brand at the border. Nor do they necessarily limit your brand. They’re just ‘a place to start’ so to speak. And that is usually the point: namely, honoring a point-of-origin, and no more. It’s a style of naming, an available naming convention or precedent — and by no means a bad one.

Not states, but state of mind. Geographic brand names — place-of-origin or headquarter names (call them what you will) — no more suggest a circumscribed geography of operation than eponymous names — e.g., Hewlett Packard suggests that the employee pool is limited to these two gentlemen, Hewlett and Packard. Indeed, sometimes geographic names are less about physical or geographic spaces, than about a concept or idea that those places have come to symbolically represent: depth, breadth, unparalleled scale — the largest resource of its kind. And Patagonia: for the natural world, grand, rugged, there for the exploring.

Still you may ask, “are not geographic (‘place’) names ‘bad’ because they’re meaningless? No. Geographic names stand for no IDEA, they have no meaning, other than a trivial or irrelevant reference to our HQ or a region of operations (perhaps obsolete). Such names are just generic addresses.

Places versus people.
A geographic or place name is no different than an eponymous name (founder and principal brands) like Wyeth, Edison, or Proctor & Gamble. The founders may in fact be long gone, but no one dares suggest that ‘good branding’ practice dictates removing their names from the door for that. The point of such names lies more with the association with a prestigious persona, a pioneer whose spirit lives on in the culture of the business.

So, even if you’ve moved away (or moved beyond) a historical address, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate your name.

Places versus things.
Specific geographic names, unlike generic names, for example, ‘apple’ or ‘caterpillar,’ is where the connection to the original meaning has been broken and replaced. It’s a form of moving the meaning someplace else. Moving the business literally moves the meaning of its name from an address to an idea. Name obsolescence is a vice that can be a virtue: because all naming and all renaming is the art of meaning creation (or ‘re-place-ment’, if you like). A meaningless name is a blank canvas, the content of which you can and must control. As Paul Rand once famously said of logos (and therefore names):
“(It) derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around. The direction of the causal arrow—if you will—is from Named to Name, not he other way around.”

Think ’10 Downing Street.’ Not a bad brand, unless you’re party isn’t in residence.