Magazine Issues » May 2021

Opinion: What’s in a name?

Fiona_RintoulHere in Scotland, hilarity greeted Standard Life Aberdeen plc’s rebranding as Abrdn plc. “Mdnss” tweeted Graeme Smith, former editor of Glasgow-based paper the Herald, summing up reaction in the financial services goliath’s homeland.

The company’s new e-free name – which, to put the tin lid on the mdnss, is to be pronounced, erm, Aberdeen – does feel like the final frontier in weirdo, consultant-led rebranding disasters. How did we reach this point? Did PricewaterhouseCoopers start it with its ghastly string of a name? I think it might have.

Many and great are those that have fallen into the grammar-trashing name trap. SSgA anyone? BlackRock? Certainly, the mania for deleting spaces has been with us for some time. I was once told by AllianceBernstein that I had spelt its name wrong in an article because I wrote “Alliance Bernstein”. No, I thought, you have spelt your name wrong. Ditching vowels in the manner of a teenager writing a text message is not new either. But it tends to be the preserve of small techy digital companies, which then go on to manufacture further ugliness in their URLs.

This takes us to the root of the problem with the Abrdn plc rebrand. The press release says that the new name will be part of “a modern, agile, digitally enabled brand”. But the company behind it is not those things. It is a monolith created from Standard Life, one of the oldest names in Scottish finance, and Aberdeen Asset Management. Founded in 1983, Aberdeen AM certainly was fairly agile. But then it merged with Standard Life.

Jim Wood-Smith, CIO private clients and head of research at Hawksmoor Investment Management, hits the nail on the head: “It is a mid-life crisis. It is as if I started to wear diamond earstuds and ripped jeans and posted things on TikTok.”

He goes on to predict that “this branding aberration” will lose Abrdn plc business and cost shareholders money. Who knows? Amundi Asset Management seems to be doing OK, and I remember rolling around on the floor in hysterics when the press release arrived that explained the airy-fairy reasons behind the rebrand from plain old Crédit Agricole.

But then the Amundi name, though made-up and perhaps a little silly, doesn’t crucify basic grammar and spelling. Abrdn plc does. And just as misguided name choices for sons such as Sputnik in Soviet times resonated through the generations in catastrophic patronymics, so the moniker of Abrdn is to be applied across the company’s family of funds.

This, says Wood-Smith, means users of the group’s platforms will see names such as “Abrdn Wrap”. For him, this calls to mind “hummus, crisp lettuce and some sliced red peppers”. Hmm.

Of course, it’s easy to poke fun. As we’ve seen, lots of successful fund management companies have pretty dire names. But these kinds of rebranding exercises do point to a deeper problem: a failure by companies to be honest about what they can and can’t do – what they are and aren’t.

Look at the “about us” section of many websites and you’ll find a hotchpotch of claims. “We are future looking and ambitious for your growth and want to build a brand that resonates in the sector, works digitally with our expanding customer and client base and is clearly distinguished and identifiable,” is the message currently on the Aberdeen Standard Investments site.

Well, I dunno. Back in the day, Aberdeen Asset Management was a dynamic company with a straightforward name. Future looking, I hope they don’t end up turning that on its head.

Fiona Rintoul, editor-at-large at Funds Europe

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