Fake Names for Authentic Organizations? Thornberg & Forester

by cv harquail on July 3, 2008

Is this organization being authentic by giving itself
a fake name?

photofrom digitalcontnentproducer.com

There’s a funny little news tidbit in Sunday’s New York Times Business section, right below Tommy Hilfiger’s engagement announcement (as if that’s business news?). It’s a paragraph about a design & communications firm, Thornberg & Forester . Neither Thornberg nor Forester exist or ever existed as real people. Thornberg & Forester is an advertising agency with a fake name .

Is there any way that giving your organization a fake name is a good idea?

Sometimes, fake names can work.

There are lots of organizations with fake business names, names that don’t refer to any real person or place. Often, these fake names are retail brands (e.g., Hollister, Victoria’s Secret, Gilly-Hicks). While it sometimes does bother me that these brands have fake origins, they can be effective when the names are used by the people within the organization to craft the organization’s products. The fake name is supposed to keep organization members aligned around the aspirational brand identity that the name evokes.

The name ‘Thornberg & Forester" is supposed to sound stodgy. The name follows a naming convention that, in advertising as well as other industries, is intended to establish the credibility of the organization on the basis of the reputations of the founders (e.g., Saatchi & Saatchi ).

If Thornberg & Forester was trying to present itself as something it was not, by choosing a name that conjures up images of a white shoe law firm (like a Sidley & Austin ), we’d think of is as a poseur. We would fault it for pretending to be something it is not– a sure definition of being inauthentic .

But Thornberg & Forester isn’t trying to fool us by presenting itself as it wishes to be seen. Instead, Thornberg & Forester present itself as being the opposite of who it wants to be .

Why the fake name?

Supposedly, the organization chose their fake name as a way to get attention for the organization (which is small and new) by helping it stand out. The firm’s founders argue that this name makes the organization distinctive.

Tim Leberecht , writing over at cnet news.com/Matter/Anti-Matter and his company’s frogblog, explains it as:

…the fake name that promises one thing and delivers another , a situationist way of manipulating the public perception."

Leberecht applauds Thornberg & Forester for this organizational-branding strategy, concluding:

Nowadays, you must meta-tag your brand if you want to stand out from the crowd. You must generate attention by distraction. Your brand story is the story of your brand.

But does this fake name really work for Thornberg & Forester?

Beyond getting them attention (e.g., the NYT mentions, a few blog posts ) what does this fake name do for them?

The fake name demonstrates the organization’s cleverness. The name is a "joke" If you are in on the joke, Thornberg & Forester looks like & itself to be (maybe) lighthearted, playful, unconventional, and so on.

But for how long does the name get read as a joke? People get tired of hoaxes and jokes . At what point does the fake name work against them, by not supporting the identity that they really claim or want?

— The fake name might be an effective tool for sorting out potential clients. On the plus side, clients who are in on the joke might be attracted by the organization’s sense of humor. The name might help Thornberg & Forester attract clients with a soupcon of rebelliousness or a comparably lighthearted approach to parts of the business. Maybe clients who are in on the joke are more inclined to appreciate the kind of creativity that characterizes Thornberg & Forester’s work.

On the negative side, clients may approach the organization expecting the firm to be like its name… those who are attracted initially by the the surface symbolism of the firm’s name may be disappointed, if not annoyed, to be mislead in this way. As PR guru Ed Moed explains, Thornberg & Forester’s fake name is, at best, confusing.

Thornberg & Forester’s use of a fake name also raises some important authenticity questions:

1. Why didn’t the three founders use their own names? (Was "Thornberg & Forester" just a way to around fighting over who got first billing?) What’s so wrong about being Keihner, Matz, & Meredith ?

2. If you listen to Thornberg & Forester, it says that the firm

… believes all projects and campaigns must start with a powerful
message coupled with the right medium to communicate it. The team
brings together innovative people who deliver bold ideas by generating
creative with a strategic backbone.

But, what exactly is the ‘powerful message’ from Thornberg & Forester that starts their relationships with potential clients? Can effective corporate communications, and relationships, start with an intentional misrepresentation?

Is this organization being authentic by giving itself a fake name?

What do you think?

Share your comments, below. And, if you enjoyed this post, use the ‘share this’ link to email it to a friend.

Originally posted  June 16

Technorati Tags: brand building , , corporate names , , , ,


Julie Therien August 5, 2008 at 3:26 am

Kohlberg, Matz, and Meredith are creative geniuses, mostly in the work that they do, but also in the naming of their company.

Whoever said
“Why didn’t the three founders use their own names? What’s so wrong about being Keihner, Matz, & Meredith?”
MUST be kidding.

Have you really overlooked the fact that its beauty would be lost if it stood for something? Can anyone deny the fact that “Thornberg and Forester”, while conveying utterly ironic corporate-ness, also rolls of the tongue?

Such comments made me hesitant about dignifying the post with a response.

However, I cannot help sending a word on the subject to the masterminds of Thornberg & Forester:

Brilliant my dears, simply brilliant.

CV Harquail August 5, 2008 at 4:36 pm

Hi Julie-

Thanks for your comments– I hadn’t really thought much about the euphony of the name(s)…but considering that now, the name “Keihner, Matz, & Meredith” sounds pretty good to me. It fits the old-fashioned ad agency convention — like “Doyle, Dane & Bernbach” and is easy to smush into just KMM. But that’s a personal preference, and more about the idea of what they ‘could have’ named the agency, rather than about the effects of what they ‘did’ name the agency.

But about the name they did choose– you’re right, the ‘beauty’ both in the sense of the inventiveness and in the sense of the ha-ha joke, would be lost if they named it after real persons who were not the agencies founders, like Lewis & Clark, for example.

But, as a person who appreciates the cleverness of the joke, what do you think about the concern that the joke will grow stale, or the idea that by being intentionally misleading, the name tricks people (assuming that tricking them is not a good thing)? Do you have any thoughts about that as a person who appreciates the creative move of the fake name?

i’d love to hear you take on it. Thanks again! cvh

JT January 6, 2009 at 7:06 pm

I am not worried about the joke going stale. I don’t think they are either. I have a feeling you are reading into this quite a bit more than they ever intended. I doubt it was about tricking the public or being witty comedians. They probably just thought it was a good, ironic name and went with it. I agree and think it was a nice choice.

I can’t imagine what you are worried about in the realm of “tricking the public”. Who is it that you are afraid is going to be had? I find it unlikely that someone would hire T&F, pay them good money for an ad campaign, and then upon its completion realize, “Oh crap! This is a cutting-edge motion graphics agency?!?!?! I thought they were doing my taxes!”

I simply don’t understand what the problem is here. Nothing about T&F seems controversial to me. They are a solid company doing solid work. Enough said.

John Rothburg June 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Old comment, new reply.

Julie, I have to admit, you’re missing the point of the whole article, and am surprised to see such an obvious obfuscatory & sycophantic response take the place of serious discussion. After all, the blog is entitled “authenticorganizations”; I couldn’t think of a better place to discuss this subject matter.

You should google “straw-man argument” because what you’re doing is side-stepping the discussion and cutting it short when you feel pressed to explain yourself. Julie, the idea here is to discuss the authenticity of a intentionally fake-name. The defense that it was strongly considered evaporates when you yourself claim that we are giving it more thought than even they intended for it to have.

I have a feeling that you’ve never been faced with the choice of having to name a company. It’s usually either a very thought-out process, with a deep multi-tiered weeding out of potential candidate names, or as you imply, a name chosen on a whim, with not much story behind it.

As it stands, you aren’t a very convincing advocate for their name, and arren’t arguing effectively. When I hear their name it it grates on me for its trying too hard attempt at being clever. If they wanted to open a law firm, then they should have opened a law firm.

As it stands there is confusion about what they do as a company. Are they an advertising company? Are they a design firm? Are they a production company, live-action, post, animation, vfx? All of the above? What exactly are they?

Not sure, but the name doesn’t exactly help their story get developed one bit. Their tagline Design is Law sounds like they lean towards the design firm ethos. They are represented by Bernstein & Andrulli, an artist management agency. Now it sounds like they are an artist collective. They aren’t listed as a member of the AAAA (American Association of Advertising Agencies). They are however, listed under the AICP (Association of Independent Commercial Producers), and in that listing, they list they services as Design, Animation and 3D for all platforms.

Wow, pretty confusing, isn’t it? Why would the author of this article get confused by labeling them an advertising agency? Who knows, but a sneaking suspicion leans towards their name as a culprit.

Greg December 19, 2009 at 5:59 pm

There is so much that goes into a naming schematic for a business. Personally, I struggled with this concept as I have a very, very common name and just about all forms of my personal first, middle, and last name are equally common—already taken. So, using a professional sounding, short, and easy to remember name –even if fictitious–carries different factors for its use. NOT deception. Clients should recognize that they’re paying F&T for their quality work…not the name. If I pay a firm for a service that increased my business and saved me time…I would not care about how or where the name came from.
Question: In today’s business arena (with so many REAL names that are silly and unprofessional soundin…What’s wrong with using a name that is catchy, easy to recall, and commands attention?

Let your work speak for itself. A fake name (to me) doesn’t translate into dishonesty or deceptive…given the naming challenges I spoke about above.

I like it. My firms name is derived from a greek translation based on the core business, but it’s not easily remembered, and I have struggled with how to not e over looked.

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