TOC What's in a name? No accord possible for Toyota Your Turn

Speaking as I do week after week about personal data rights (see 5/23/06 fillip), claiming that justice will not be done until everyone be granted the privileges enjoyed by brands (see 6/13/06 fillip), I was bound to take on Juliet's question: "What's in a name?". For brands are names to begin with and ID thieves steal from credit worthy names.

So I was delighted to read the latest column by Mrs Moneypenny (*). The author tells us why she did not substitute her name, apt as it is for the small consulting company she controls, to those of the original founders. In this model of post modern irony, she omits to confide that her name is not her husband's. Tired one day of dealing on the market, she probably let her imagination slip a Bond too far.

So should we agree with Juliet that reality does not care about its given name or with Mrs Moneypenny that a chosen pen name creates a distinct reality? I dare not dive into such depths. But Internet has the power to greatly increase the confusion, as if we were in need of another Babel tower.

Confusion comes first from the public embrace of search engines.
As long as the keyword was in the hands of trained librarians, it was an invaluable tool. Its release in the wild, if the general public forgives me the metaphore, has had incalculable consequences. I would never accept to give back the benefits of this sudden expansion. Nevertheless one should not blind oneself to its side effect. Distinctiveness, the first goal of naming, is diluted beyond recognition. Making hay of the whole world wide web, search engines turn any URL into a lost needle.

  • to compare apples to apples, take a look at this Google search. Apples it seems, hardly grow on trees anymore. Granny Smith apples moreover leave a tart aftertaste even as a logo, witness the loss by Apple Corps of its most recent lawsuit against Apple Computer (1).
  • on an individual basis, it has never been harder to be named Smith. A French newspaper recently graded search engines by asking them about Armstrong (2). I must admit I feel lucky to be a Coueignoux, were people able to spell it right that is.
  • do not think the issue will go away as the public acquires the necessary skills and companies hire Search Engine Optimizers (3).
    Take a look at Google Trends. This is an excellent concept. For aggregating search statistics into trends is an added value only search engines can create and it could be done without violating anyone's privacy. But how can one trust a comparison between "Accord" and "Camry"?
    • Without qualifiers, "Accord" wins handily as it picks up common language references.
    • If one qualifies "Accord" with "Honda", shouldn't one qualify "Camry" with "Toyota"?
    • The more accurate and unbiased one becomes, doesn't the farther one stray from modeling the general public under study?

More confusion stems from the efforts of advertisers competing after an audience in data overload.
One can hardly dismiss Maurice Saatchi (**) when he declares that the future of advertising is in "one word equity", illustrating his point with Google's ownership of "search". However I would rather stress the growing gap between Internet rendition and real society.

  • use Google to search for search and Google. In Internet search space, Google totally dominates the use of its own name but keeps its presence well below its market share when asked about its "one word equity"
  • yet the increasing usage of the verb "to google", as in "I googled myself on Yahoo today", proves Maurice Saatchi right. But as Google becomes synomymous of search in people's minds, so its brand identity dissolves into a generic word joining the likes of frigidaire into websters.
The higher the stakes behind losing the name recognition game, whether through ID theft or brand evaporation, the further we need to mind the Confucian call for the rectification of names: "if language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant."

The greatest confusion results from recommendation schemes which try to cash on restoring the meaning of names while refusing to shoulder associated responsibilities. Some current trends are frightening:

  • credit report agencies have assumed this role for individuals.
    Notice that the cost of managing a free credit freeze in case of an ID theft is hardly a burden for a credit agency. Most costs of ID theft fall on the individuals concerned while the agency continues to enjoy free and unlimited use of other individuals' personal data (see 5/23/06 fillip), therefore turning ID theft into a growth industry.
  • attempts to assert one's own identity through advertisements.
    Little or no responsibility normally attaches to these claims. Of course when brand awareness reaches the point where the media will propagate any misshap as news worthy (4), the brand must accept oversized exposure as the downside of success.
  • popularity mechanisms like eBay's famed feedback system, best sellers lists and elections in the former USSR.
    If the mechanism itself can be gamed, if voters have no choice, can be bought outright or engage in some kind of mutual back scratching, the value of such recommendations drops rapidly to zero.
Confusion needs not have the last word. Here are some of the means with which to attack root causes.
  • the disambiguation page is one of my favorite features of Wikipedia.
    Forget the epic battle between Google and Microsoft. The real one is between search engines and editors' communities.
    e.g. look up Rose and find out how true roses live up to their given name
  • the contractual endorsement of unknown names by successful brands, such as Mrs Moneypenny or payment systems (5)
    Taking responsibility for enlisting merchants and arbitrating disputes, payment networks act as insurers (6). Were Mrs Moneypenny, so careful about brand name overextension, to recommend a promising female banker to the City, it should have real value.
  • the possibility of individual responsibility:
    • within its popularity mechanism, Amazon.com has introduced "badges" to identify reviewers who give out their "real names" and distinguish any celebrity who made his or her "real name" famous.
    • ePrio proposes a verifiable recommendation scheme whereby two unknown parties can rely on a third one to facilitate a mutual agreement without revealing any profile data to anyone.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*).. Called to account, by Mrs Moneypenny (Financial Times) - July 8, 2006
  • (**).. The strange death of modern advertising, by Maurice Saatchi (Financial Times) - June 21, 2006
    • (1) British Judge Allows Apple To Keep Logo on iTunes, by Eric Pfanner (New York Times) - May, 2006
    • (2) Google face ses concurrents, by Didier Sanz (Le Figaro) - June, 2006
    • (3) My search returned 59,600,000 quotes. Do you believe the last 59,599,990 references can help get your URL in the top ten?
    • (4) Dell's Exploding Computer And Other Image Problems, by Damon Darlin (New York Times) - July, 2006
    • (5) The weapon that makes you a giant killer, by Alan Cane ((Financial Times) - June, 2006
    • (6) Sears' attempt to exclude Visa cards from its stores to better nurture its Discovery card is an interesting case. As it battles Google Checkout, eBay might have to decide whether to be a better store, a better payment system or an ill-fated conglomerate.
July 2006
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