Column: A name is just the beginning

Dec. 02, 2013 @ 10:50 AM

What’s in a name?

It might be true that, as Shakespeare wrote, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

But we probably wouldn’t smell it much if it were called a horsebutt, or a vomit.

We’d move along to a flower with a nicer name.

It’s a principle that big businesses take pretty seriously as an element of what currently is referred to as “branding.” When business people talk about branding, what it boils down to is what people think of when they think of you or your business.

If you watch the local news on TV, you are constantly exposed to branding campaigns. When a TV news show has the slogan “On Your Side,” it’s not just a slogan. The news director and producers all try to find stories that fit the “brand” of “on your side,” because they want viewers to think of that station as being the viewers’ ally.

I’m not sure how long the concept of “building a brand” has been around. I tend to think business people just went about their business and figured that if they did their jobs well, people would think of the business the way the business people hoped they would. But now it’s something people devote time and energy to trying to craft.

Which is why you can bet the name Heritage Home Group did not just get picked out of a hat or at the last minute, out of nowhere, when KPS Capital Partners chose it for the new name of what until last Monday was known as Furniture Brands International.

Once upon a time, naming a business was a pretty straightforward thing. J. Ed Broyhill started a company in Lenoir in 1926 to make chairs. He named it Lenoir Chair Company.

Similarly, in the 1890s a couple of shoe companies were founded in St. Louis, Peters Shoe Co. by Henry Peters, and Roberts, Johnson and Rand Shoe Co. by Jack and Oscar Johnson and their cousin Frank C. Rand, with additional financing by John C. Roberts.

And that’s how it was. You started a company and named it after yourself, the place where it operated or something associated with either you or the place. By the 1940s Ed Broyhill had come to own several furniture factories in several towns, not just Lenoir, so he renamed the business but stuck with that principal and called it Broyhill Furniture.

But sometimes when a business got big, or it no longer was just a family business, the name changed. The shoe companies I just mentioned merged and became International Shoe Co. in 1911.

And then sometimes companies change names because they expand into new areas, which happened when the folks at International Shoe decided to get into apparel and retailing, so in 1966 they went with a trend toward names that were created by pushing words together: Interco. That’s not what we would call a brand now, just a name that says nothing and can’t get pigeonholed.

If the name Interco sounds familiar, it’s because in 1980 Interco decided to get into the furniture business and bought Broyhill Furniture for $151.5 million. Interco kept on buying furniture companies, and eventually got out of its other lines of business, so in 1996 it became Furniture Brands International.

I’m guessing from that choice that “branding” still was not a big thing in the 1990s, because “Furniture Brands” is a name that conveys only that the company has several brand names of furniture. It does not bring anything else to mind.

And by current business reasoning, that by itself would be reason enough to pick a new name, even if the name Furniture Brands had no negative baggage.

Heritage. Home.

What do those two words make you think of? Heritage: perhaps tradition, something solid, with deep roots. Home: a place that’s comfortable and safe.

If you’re in the business of selling furniture, those are some pretty positive associations, and you can bet that’s no accident.

But now comes the hard part: Branding is not just picking a name. Otherwise it would be called “naming.” The name is a starting point in creating a brand. The product and the company’s conduct have to back up the promise of the name.

If Heritage Home Group accomplishes that, then KPS’ investment will come out smelling like a rose.