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It’s safe to ask what’s in a name

Safeco Field.

(Paul R. Kucher IV, Wikimedia Commons)

Notwithstanding assurances from their CEOs that the sale of Safeco Corp. to Liberty Mutual Insurance will result in little outward change, Crosscut sports writer Mike Henderson was right to ask “with Safeco gone, what will we call the Field?” Not just because the era of permanence in sports facilities’ names is over, nor that the naming rights were only good for 11 more years anyway, but because the Safeco name is likely to meet the same fate as that of Airborne, the Bon Marché, Immunex, Shurgard, Seafirst, and — pace Kerry Killinger — Washington Mutual.

In Liberty Mutual CEO Ted Kelly’s defense, it is true that “many of Liberty Mutual’s acquired companies, gathered into its Agency Markets business unit, continue to do business under their own names” — Golden Eagle Insurance of San Diego is still called that, 11 years after being purchased by Liberty Mutual. But take a look at this pretty map that shows the geographic distribution of Liberty Mutual’s independent agent companies (and note “Liberty Northwest” of Portland), and then click through to their Web sites. See the Statue of Liberty and the common typography in the upper-left-hand corner? Reminds me an awful lot of the Bon’s 2003 rebranding, complete with the Red Star of Macy’s.

My thought is this: There’s no sense in having the Safeco and Liberty Mutual brands compete nationally. Safeco won’t have anything to do with the next Katrina. Yet its name has much stronger local resonance, so for now it will replace Liberty Northwest as writer of policies for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. (Had you even heard of Liberty Northwest before?) But the brand is dead. Safeco’s corporate colors will go from red, black, and white to blue, white, and grey; Lady Liberty will make her apperance; and one of these days (if not sooner, then certainly when Liberty Mutual is taken out by Allstate, Travelers, or AIG) the name will be gone, too.

Except for one peculiarity of insurance companies: Their names never seem to fully die. For liability reasons, most are legally families of “separate and distinct” underwriters — Safeco itself consists of 15. I am a Safeco auto policyholder, but the name on my insurance card is Safeco Insurance Company of Illinois, though my broker is in Lynnwood. (It used to be General Insurance Company of America, the name under which Safeco was founded in 1923.) If General’s name can survive 40 years after it was supplanted, so likely will Safeco’s… but in far diminished form. We’d better get cracking on renaming the home of the Mariners, fast.

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