Empty Vessel Company Names: The Fortune 500’s Secret Weapon

By Ben Weis
January 8, 2015
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Filed under Branding, Naming, Positioning, Writing

Cigna, Avnet, and Alcoa are all Fortune 500 companies. Each has what we call an “empty vessel” name—a moniker with little meaning for a given audience. Empty vessels are extraordinarily popular with large companies in most industries. Names are an opportunity to tell the world who you are. Why, then, would anyone choose an empty vessel?

First, and most crucially, empty vessels are tough to shoot down. The less a name means, the harder it is to say, “I don’t like it—it sounds like ____.” That lack of surface meaning becomes an advantage: big-company names have to overcome dozens of opinions, focus groups, and corporate ideologies before landing on a press release. Your CFO might really hate the taste of Apples. Maybe in-house creative had a bad experience with a Caterpillar. Empty vessels have a better shot at flying under the radar than something sharp and meaningful.

An ordinary, everyday name graveyard
An ordinary, everyday name graveyard

Empty vessels also allow you to tell almost any story you want. That’s useful if you’re the kind of person who gets sick of party lines and elevator pitches. If you’re a conglomerated company, an empty vessel lets each division tell the brand story from its own perspective.

Finally, these names create imaginative space for the mind to play in. Fiction writers, especially American modernists, do this all of the time: give one detail, and the reader’s mind will fill in the rest. Raymond Carver, in his story “I Could See the Smallest Things,” gives us this line:

“The moon lighted up everything.”

It’s a simple detail that prompts a much more interesting question: “What did the moon light up?” Empty vessels do similar work. They’re simple, quiet names that ask the question “What does that company do?” If the name has done its job properly, the question the name prompts is louder than the name itself.

It should be obvious by now that empty vessels come with their own set of problems, too.

By their nature, they can’t describe the businesses they name. Descriptive names and empty vessels are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Take the company formerly known as Philip Morris. Its (relatively) new name is Altria, as empty a name as they come. Its subsidiary, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, is purely descriptive. It means what it means, no more, no less. Description is a great strategy if the sign on your front door is the only way customers are learning about your business. Otherwise, an empty vessel can work.

"Honey, what's the new name of your company? You know how bad my memory is these days."
“Honey, what’s the new name of your company? You know how bad my memory is these days.”

A second disadvantage concerns the brand story. For unknown companies, a compelling, consistent brand story is gold. Empty vessels make clarity difficult, so leadership will need to clarify the story for the rest of the company. This results in a third problem, a kind of seriousness around the name—anything that needs explaining isn’t funny. Again, this isn’t a problem for larger companies, and brands that want a lighter touch can couple an empty vessel name with playful design and copy.
Without a marketing budget behind them, empty vessels are easy to ignore. Getting off the ground and making oneself known to an audience can be accomplished in a number of ways—naming is just one—but an empty vessel can’t do that work. Naming your water flavoring “Mio” isn’t going to attract attention, but ridiculous commercials will. Fortune 500 companies have serious marketing budgets. They have the infrastructure to promote brand stories. They don’t need a name to describe what they do. So, given all of the disadvantages attached to empty vessels, who else should be interested in them?

Startups that may pivot can make a case for an empty vessel name. It won’t tie them to any sector, so whatever brand equity they build won’t be squandered in a pivot. (At the same time, it won’t provide the traction and visibility that startups so badly need.) Mergers, too, provide an opportunity for these names when neither company’s name has considerable cachet. Companies struggling with copyright in a crowded industry may turn to empty vessels in hopes of finding an easily defensible mark. Finally, any naming project going through a committee is likely to end on an empty vessel, whether the intent is there or not.

Empty vessels can work well for the big guys and, occasionally, be useful for the small. Problematic and problem-solving, meaningless and generative of meaning, they’re a style of name for which companies pay north of a million dollars. If you want one for yourself, give us a call. We’ll do our best to keep it under seven figures.