Business Columns & Blogs

Corporations test the norm in digital age

Here is some stuff I know – the end-of-the-year desk cleanup edition:

 • Something was missing from last week’s column discussing television viewing habits in the age of cable and the Internet: The exclamation point at the end of Click’s name.

Time was when those naming companies were content to slap the proprietor’s name on the door (Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Nordstrom, Russell) or use some sort of descriptor name to indicate what line of business it operated in as well as where (Puget Sound Bank answers both questions). The most exotic bit of punctuation that would appear inside a corporate name was the ampersand (American Telephone & Telegraph).

Such standards and traditions of naming began to fall apart in the age of the conglomerate, when corporations whose subsidiaries sprawled across multiple unrelated industries needed a single name to cover them all. That led to the adoption of generic and sometimes made-up words that wouldn’t be affected if the parent company added or jettisoned a holding.

But the plague of cutesy corporate names really took off with the rise of technology companies, especially dot-coms, which wanted to signal their hipness, their cutting-edge philosophy with extraneous punctuation marks (Yahoo!) and random capitalization (eBay, the iPhone).

Newspapers have been fighting a constant battle to keep the business pages from resembling the results of spilling type on the floor, then picking it up by the handful. While some companies have insisted that their corporate style is to have every letter of their name capitalized, the general rule is that only true acronyms retain their capital letters. Combinations of letters that can be pronounced as a word go caps-and-lower-case even if the word was at one time an actual acronym (an example would be Safeco, which way back in its history was the Selective Auto and Fire Insurance Co. of America).

The News Tribune’s style is to accommodate oddball capitalization styles in corporate names. Even so, most publications draw the line at allowing such frivolities to trump the basic rules of grammar that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. We don’t care how big you are, eBay – if your name begins a sentence, a paragraph or a headline, you’re getting a capital E, and that’s that. (The next development may be no capitals anywhere. Washington Manufacturing Services, a Mukilteo organization, is changing its name to impact Washington.)

Those publications, The News Tribune included, have also concluded that readers’ sanity might be aided, and the republic will not fall, if exclamation points like those employed by Click are dropped.

Continued vigilance will be necessary, because graphic designers will continue to insist that the way for a company’s name to stand out is to write it with nonsense symbols, or spellings, or upside down. It’s only a matter of time before some bright young thing notices there’s a whole row of punctuation symbols on the top row of the qwerty keyboard to the right of the exclamation point just begging to be used.

 • One of the points made in this year’s edition of Readers Rate the Ads (you are compiling your list of loved and loathed ads for next year, aren’t you?) is that viewers can be so entranced or annoyed by an ad that they forget, or never knew, who the sponsor is.

A perfect illustration of that came from the nomination of a reader who targeted “those stupid stupid ads for Bud where they take allegedly actual answers made by actual coaches at press conferences and they change the questions. They might have been mildly humorous the first few times, but are not fresh or funny any longer.”

The ad certainly made an impression, but the sponsor didn’t. Another reader pointed out that those ads are sponsored by Coors Light, not Budweiser. Rather a crafty strategy, however inadvertent: If you like the ad, remember our name. If you don’t, blame it on a competitor. (The reader who pointed out the error and correctly identified the sponsor says he likes the ads, but not the product itself.)

 • In the least surprising news event of the year, Weyerhaeuser Co. last week said its board has authorized conversion to a real estate investment trust. The timing of the conversion still has to be worked out.

Real estate investment trusts get huge federal tax breaks, provided they derive at least 75 percent of their income from real estate-related activities (of which timberlands count) and distribute at least 90 percent of their income annually. They can own what are known as taxable REIT subsidiaries, which is where the company’s current manufacturing operations would go.

Consumers and investors have long been told that making tax consequences the prime motivation for a financial decision is a poor idea. Getting a tax break from the mortgage interest deduction is a nice perk of buying a home, but shouldn’t be the deciding factor to do so.

Yet that’s what Wall Street has been leaning on Weyerhaeuser to do for years. The tax-advantaged status of a REIT will magically unlock millions of dollars in unrecognized value for the company’s timberlands, which in turn will flow to the stock price.

Or so says the theory. Even if that’s true, is that the only way Weyerhaeuser can gig its stock price? Will this new corporate structure limit Weyerhaeuser’s ability to capitalize on new markets and opportunities in the forest products business that don’t meet the real estate-related criterion?

Perhaps so, and perhaps the owners of the new Weyerhaeuser will be perfectly content with that. But don’t be shocked if, in a decade or so, the message that Weyerhaeuser is getting from Wall Street is, “Look at all the money you’re leaving on the table. What you need to do is convert from a REIT.”

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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