Real name: Smellie. Fake name: Arbuthnot? Bentley? Wellington?

Actually, my headline is unfair to the distinguished 18th century Edinburgh anatomist William Smellie, who kept faith throughout his life with the surname he’d been born with. But I don’t think he would have if he’d founded a 21st century financial advice business: in all probability, he’d have given it a fake name instead.

I don’t know why brands named after fake, or fictitious, founders annoy me so much. Of course I accept that you can call your brand anything you like, provided only that you’re not trying to pass it off as someone else’s, and the name you choose will reflect the perceptions you wish to create.  And in many areas – financial advisers/wealth managers, estate agents, wine shippers, classic cars dealers, art galleries, made-to-measure tailors – a good way to create perceptions of upmarketness and exclusivity is to give your business posh-sounding people’s surnames.

Originally, I suppose, these would indeed have been the posh-sounding names of the businesses’ founders. There was a banking family called Coutts, and a jeweller called Faberge, and a W.O. Bentley.  Very often, posh founders came in pairs: Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Turnbull & Asser, Mappin & Webb, Strutt & Parker, Berry Bros & Rudd. Even if the names weren’t inherently all that posh, they could quickly achieve poshness by association: I don’t suppose the names Knight or Frank inherently sound as posh as, say, Savills, but attach them to one of the very biggest of posh estate agents and the association works its magic.

Anyway, that’s all very well if you want to start a posh business and you’re called Saville or Coutts or Bentley or whatever, but what if you’re called Sidebottom or Smellie (I had a science teacher called Smellie, who in hindsight hadn’t chosen an easy career path) or Lipschitz?

Well, there may be other options readily available. When J. Rothschild Assurance needed a posh new name, it was fortunate that the London office was located in St. James’s Place and not Railway Cuttings. But more often than not, Messrs Sidebottom and Smellie just rummage through the phone book – or stroll around the streets in Mayfair where posh-sounding named brands hang out – and wait for inspiration to strike.

I haven’t researched most of the examples that follow, and I may be completely wrong to accuse the brands named of “synthetic” poshness. It may be that Aston Chase, an upmarket firm of estate agents in St John’s Wood, really was founded by a Mr Aston and a Ms Chase, for example: but I strongly suspect “Aston” was nicked from “Martin” and “Chase” from more than one posh source but primarily “Manhattan.” “Chase” also appears elsewhere as a poshness-signifier, BTW, raising my suspicions in the name Chase de Vere (“de Vere”? Really?).

But there are plenty of other names which arouse my strong suspicions, even without conclusive proof either way. You can Google pretty much any posh name you like and you’ll find a firm of financial advisers of that name – I tried “Bentley,” “Wellington”  and “Wellelsley,” and got a result every time (although I should say that I found two entirely separate Wellesleys, one of which had indeed been founded by a chap called Wellesley). Among double names, I’m not sure about Wren Sterling or for that matter Brooks Macdonald, but Punter Southall and Smith & Pinching have to be for real because nobody would make up “Punter” or “Pinching”.  The same goes for the leading estate agents in my home town, Guildford: “Gascoigne” sounds as fake as anything, but no-one would ever have invented the full name, Gascoigne-Pees.

Anyway, sometimes it’s more straightforward. I’m writing this blog because I was irritated today by a trade press article about an IFA consolidator called Ascot Lloyd, which has 15 offices but none in Ascot and no apparent connection to Lloyds as in Banking Group or as in Of London.   And I also saw a piece about another firm called Berkeley something, but to be honest I can’t remember what the “something” was and Googling “Berkley” and “financial advice” doesn’t help because there are loads, including one called Berkley (sic) Square Private Clients, who are of course located at 14B Market Place…. in Chippenham. And then there’s the controversial one, Berkeley Burke, which was caught up in some rather dodgy business to do with SIPPs recently. And then a few years ago there was another rather dodgy one called Berkeley Berry Birch, which raised the possibility of hybrid fakery in which a real Berry and Birch associate themselves with a fake Berkeley.

As I say, I don’t know why I find this fakery so annoying. Other kinds of fabrication don’t annoy me at all: on the contrary, they strike me as entirely defensible exercises in brand positioning. Name-seekers can rummage about in plenty of other pockets of language offering instant (fake) poshness, for example turning to words lifted from hunting, shooting and fishing; architectural terms; Latin; mythology; art; or classical music, especially if Italian.   I’m fine with all them. But for some reason, it’s obviously-fake people’s names that really wind me up, leaving me expostulating “Ascot Lloyd my arse.”

Thinking about it, I reckon perhaps I know what it is. I really wish they’d bite the bullet, and play the hand they’ve been given. I’m sure they could do something much more memorable if they stuck with Sidebottom & Smellie.  

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