Proudly unveiling a disemvowelled company name, Abrdn chief executive Stephen Bird said the change from Standard Life Aberdeen created a brand that was “modern, agile and digitally enabled”. Quite why consonants are agile and vowels are stiff is not immediately obvious. In truth, the renaming of Standard Life Aberdeen does make sense, but the strange choice tells us something important about the relationship of business to the society in which it is hosted.
The creation of Abrdn has immediately joined the list of infamously ludicrous corporate renaming. The top prize will never be taken from the Post Office. In 2001, explaining why the company had dropped a name that had served it since it was created in 1660, John Roberts, the chief executive, said that Consignia “describes the full scope of what the Post Office does in a way that the words ‘post’ and ‘office’ cannot”. The public decided that the words post and office were entirely comprehensible, thank you very much, and “Consignia” lasted just a year. Meanwhile, Andersen Consulting really thinks that the neologism Accenture will make people think of “an accent upon the future”. And Philip Morris tried to become Altria. Maybe it could be Phlp Mrrs. That would fool us into thinking it doesn’t sell cigarettes.
The creation of Abdrn, though, has more strategic sense to it than that. Underneath the silly name, for once, there is clear thinking. The new company consolidates the confusion of five brands into one, which will save money and, in time, make more sense to customers. It will bring together various investment platforms, used by half of the 27,000 independent financial advisers in the country, into a single system. If all this makes the company more profitable, that will come as welcome news to shareholders who recently suffered the first cut to the dividend since Standard Life demutualised and became a publicly listed company 15 years ago. The clue, though, to why Abrdn is a silly name lies in that last fact. The process of listing on an exchange is known in the trade as “going public”. The language is a reminder of the origins of the joint stock company, in the laws of limited liability that were defined by a series of company law acts in the 1850s and then confirmed in the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1862. About which Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an extremely unlikely musical called Utopia, Limited.
The important point here is that the connection between the private enterprise and the underpinning public law was written in from the start. The liability of a business was limited by decree of the state’s authority and the private enterprise bore a public obligation in return. When contemporary capitalism is acquisitive and predatory it is because its practitioners are ignorant of their own heritage. In the case of Abrdn, the public connection is deeper still. The company of which it is a part was founded in 1857, in the midst of the debate about limited liability, as the Pearl Loan Company. Its first office was the Royal Oak public house in Whitechapel.
In these early days of the company plenty of people became filthy rich. Regulation was non-existent and labour was treated as a mere commodity. Utopia, Limited it absolutely was not. But there was one aspect of business that, from the Victorian era onwards, the entrepreneurs understood and that we have forgotten. They understood, or at least most of them did, the public nature of the enterprise in which they were engaged. And the clue to the connection is in the language they used.
This is a quotation from Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s The Human Factor in Business, published in 1921: “This book… largely consists of a description of the way in which the directors of the Cocoa Works, York, have tried to solve some of the human problems of business administration. I deal with the subject under five heads – Wages, Hours, Economic Security of the Workers, Working Conditions, Joint Control – and in each section I indicate the end we have in view, the means by which we try to achieve it, and the extent of our success.” Set the clarity of this statement against any corporate communication today. Set it against the statements Abrdn put out to accompany its name change. The only improvement on taking out all the vowels would have been to take out all the consonants as well.
Where did it all go wrong? Why do the high priests of business these days speak a kind of voodoo? The problem started with the detachment of business from the conduct of everyday life and the attempt to turn business into a separate discipline. The best depiction of the transformation is Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. This is Chaplin’s satirical shot at Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose 1911 book, The Principles of Scientific Management, purported to adduce the four principles of optimal efficiency. The principles were put into practice in Henry Ford’s factories and, though nobody manages that way today, Taylor’s greatest legacy is the MBA programme at Harvard Business School, where he was one of the inaugural lecturers. From the 1920s on the business schools flourished and so did the discipline they invented.
The very idea of a business school turns business into a discipline of its own. The Rowntrees would not have seen it like that. The real lesson of Standard Life Aberdeen’s attempt to turn itself into a character from a Georges Perec novel is that the abandonment by business of ordinary language is damaging to business and dangerous for the rest of us. In 2008 the jargon of financial markets made wrongdoing sound innocuous. British business needs more than a great vowel shift. It needs to learn to speak English again.
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas