A rose by any other name...

A white envelope that arrived in the mail at home a few days ago looked like a bill, with its cellophane window and business-style format. But the return-address name in the upper left corner was unfamiliar: a blue logo reading NSTAR.

NSTAR? What's that? Two words in smaller type gave a hint: "Electric. Gas."

Inside, a colorful flier tells the story. "New name. Same great service," it crows, explaining that this "energy company" represents a combination of Boston-area electric and gas companies.

As if to reassure confused customers, the company emphasizes that "making it easy to do business with us ... is so important that we're even simplifying our name."

But not, alas, simplifying the fact that this is still the gas bill.

Farewell, faithful old Boston Edison and ComGas. Hello, new-kid-on-the-block NSTAR. That name, a company spokesman says, is short for North Star, "the guiding light for our focus on our customers."

Still, a customer can't help wondering: Will electric and gas bills, which are expected to soar this winter, be easier to pay when the check is made out to a jazzy new name? Not really.

Just a few months ago it was the telephone company's turn to play the name-change game. Customers of BellAtlantic and GTE woke up one morning to find that those straightforward names had merged and been eclipsed by a new moniker, Verizon. The name combines horizon and veritas, the Latin word for truth.

Come back, Ma Bell, wherever you are.

Imagemakers have been equally busy at Amtrak. The new 150-mile-an-hour train on the Washington-New York-Boston run, scheduled to make its inaugural run Nov. 16, has been dubbed the Acela, a blending of the words acceleration and excellence. Amtrak hopes the name will shake off any negative images the public might have about the rail agency's previous service.

Farewell, Metroliner.

Even more name-based farewells have been taking place in banks around the country this year, thanks to a succession of mergers. Customers in New England, for example, have bounced from BayBank to BankBoston to Fleet. At the same time, Fleet's original customers - pay attention here, please - found themselves being switched to Sovereign.

Elsewhere in the area, Star Market is currently metamorphosing into Shaw's Supermarkets. And who can keep track of the endless changes in cable TV names?

Think of it as progress or merely necessary change. Either way, the trend illustrates the importance of "branding," creating a distinct and memorable corporate identity, which ranks as a hot corporate priority. Just pick the right name, the reasoning goes, and business will prosper.

Even the American Association of Retired Persons, eager to project a more youthful image and attract baby boomers now turning 50, has rebranded itself by dropping its long name in favor of its acronym, AARP.

Again and again, executives announcing a name change run ads professing their desire to serve customers better. Meanwhile, the changes raise intriguing questions:

Can USAir fly its passengers faster in its new incarnation as US Airways?

And can banks with new identities shorten the time they keep telephone customers on hold, captives to canned music?

Corporations and organizations represent only two segments of name-changers. In South Africa this month, communities are eliminating city council names that have links with apartheid or colonialism. As part of a new political order, Port Elizabeth will be known as Nelson Mandela. And the municipal council in East London will become Buffalo City.

Sometimes the best solution may be to keep a name, not change it. In the early 1970s, an organization in Barrington, Ill., called the Center for a Woman's Own Name served as a clearinghouse for women who did not want to change their name when they married.

At the time, says founder Terri Tepper, "It was just assumed a woman would take her husband's name." Working with state attorneys general, she helped to establish the legal right of women to determine their own names.

Where will the changes end? A logical possibility is a retro-movement, determined to bring back all the old names. We can hardly wait to pump a tank of Esso again, no matter what the price.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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