26 Jan 2016 18:59 IST

Place names do matter

Changing names won’t change a thing for the better; in all cases, they only make things worse

The late UR Ananthamurthy, a controversial Kannada writer, may go down in history, not only for his various works of literature or even the Padma Bhushan award, but as the person who fought for successfully lobbying the Karnataka government to rename ten cities, including the majestic-sounding Bangalore, to their pre-colonial forms.

Ananthamurthy was not alone in this quest to incite a combination of ethnic, cultural and nationalist emotions to undo names that had been well recognised around the world. Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Cochin, Mangalore and Baroda were all mercilessly butchered out of the global lexicon simply to satisfy the whims and fancies of elitists and local politicians.

What good did these name changes accomplish? Do peoples of these regions feel any prouder of their localities now than before? Have they been able to shed their colonial past and reclaim their native glory? Have the changes resulted in better investment opportunities?

Branding matters

There have been no studies done to date to measure the impact of the name changes but the fact that really smart people — those who live and breathe in the real world — stayed away from renaming their organisations ought to tell us something.

More than twenty 20 years after the Mumbai name change went into effect with much fanfare, IIT Bombay remains IIT Bombay, just as IIT Madras flourishes as IIT Madras. Chennai and Bombay are still known as MAA and BOM respectively in the universal language of aviation city codes. In business, we still relate to the Bombay Stock Exchange. The world continues to refer to the Hindi film industry as Bollywood. The Madras High Court has retained its cherished name. And the Bank of Baroda wisely did not become the Bank of Vadodara.

What the likes of Ananthamurthy never realise is that branding matters. The two most obvious features of a brand — the name and logo — identify a product, company or place like no other. A brand is a mark of distinction — a definition of what it represents. IBM adopted its name in 1924 and has held on to it for 90 years, although its core business is no longer deriving as much revenue from making business machines (hardware) as software and services. General Electric (GE) derives only a small part of its revenue from making electric machines. In fact, last week, it sold its 100-year appliance machines business unit to the Chinese giant Haier. It has taken the IBM and GE brands decades to build and nurture their identities, identities that don’t go away simply because a few product lines have changed.

Rebranding costs

When cities re-brand, there are obvious costs that are borne by millions of entities — and all these costs are in the form of unfunded mandates. Highway traffic signs out into neighbouring States have to be changed. Railway signage, systems and paperwork across the country have to be updated. Government and business stationery have to be modified. What is the financial return, or the benefit, for incurring all of these costs? Nothing. Zip. Nada.

Bangalore was called that by the British because the foreigners could not easily pronounce the “ru” sound at its erstwhile end. But generations of local residents grew up knowing that while the Bengaluru name made sense in Kannada, the anglicised Bangalore name became known around the world as a Pensioner’s Paradise, the Garden City, as the world’s IT back-office and, now, as a complete urban nightmare.

Avoiding confusion

In this sense, Bangalore’s residents were not different from the Germans, who call their country Deutschland in their language. Or the Swiss — Switzerland is known as “Suisse” in French and “Schweiz” in German. Rome is actually Roma in Italian. Japan is Nihon in Japanese. These places recognised that to change their English names after they have gained universal recognition sows confusion in people around the globe. Which is why a machine tool from Tokyo still proudly displays “Made in Japan” and not “Made in Nihon”.

City names also create derivatives. A Parisian is a resident of Paris. A Frankfurter is someone from Frankfurt. A Madrasi used to be from Madras but today he is a Chennaite. Luckily, Bangaloreans are not known as Bengalurueans or Bengalurunavaru (the Kannada term). One should be glad that Ananthamurthy didn’t think that far ahead.

Name-change enthusiasts meanwhile, who have little knowledge of marketing or branding, are not willing to lie low. They are truly pushing the envelope seeking changes that have little phonetic resemblance to current names: Pataliputra for Patna; Prayag for Allahabad and Karnavati for Ahmedabad.

The world has to take notice and stop this madness. Because changing names won’t change a thing for the better. And in all cases, they make things worse. Just ask IIM Bangalore and IIM Calcutta — organisations which know a thing or two about branding.

To read more from the Worldview section, click here .

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