The buzz in publishing last week had to do not with the debut of Conde Nast's new business magazine--it had been expected for months, although it won't hit newsstands till May 2007--but with the unveiling of its name: Conde Nast Portfolio. The New York Times devoted more than twice as much ink to this christening announcement as it did to Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt's later in the week.
What was interesting about the Times story was the amount of detail it contained about the naming process, something the public rarely hears about.
"Portfolio" was generated in in-house brainstorming sessions and tested in two waves of online research, where it "popped to the top." Other internally generated names included B, Currency, and Conde Nast Business; the most serious contender was Quote, which was disqualified because of its similarity to the defunct and disgraced Talk.
Not surprisingly, Portfolio's new editor-in-chief, Joanne Lipman, likes the name. (It will, after all, appear on her paychecks.) She pointed out that it conveys several meanings: a corporate portfolio of brands, a personal financial portfolio, and a collection of artwork.
The Times devoted five paragraphs to the reactions of branding-industry heavyweights to the name. "Doesn't make you work too hard to figure out what it's about" and "clever and compelling" were the cheers; "flat," "one-dimensional" and "generic and pragmatic" were the jeers. "It should have been more disruptive and presented an aspiration for a new vision of what it means to be in business today," sniffed Marc Gobe, chairman and chief executive of Desgrippes Gobe and author of Emotional Branding. This is a for-publication way of saying "I could have come up with something better."
But name development--especially for big, established companies like Conde Nast--is almost always about consensus rather than "disruptiveness." And with few exceptions, CN's family of publications represents the high end of the mainstream rather than the fringes of innovation. Consider Vogue, Bride's, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet--all descriptive names with a whiff of elitism (two French names out of five). Only Wired, Lucky, and Domino break the mold by sounding edgy, impudent, or illogical; Wired was an acquisition, and shopping mags Lucky and Domino (like their recently slain sibling Cargo) were "inspired by" similar ventures in Japan. If you want to suggest hip, young, and Japanese, a non-sequitur name can be just the ticket.
Now consider the business-magazine competition: Business Week, Forbes, and Fortune. In order: a generic name, an eponym (named for its founder), and an aspirational title chosen in the depths of the Great Depression. (If you named a magazine Fortune today, it would sound ironic.)
Against this landscape, Portfolio sounds like what Conde Nast no doubt wants it to be: serious, mature (average age of target reader: 42), male (note the "o" ending), and elegant without being effete--just the sort of thing that will look good on the corporate jet.