A name by any other name

I was at the Smart Company Smart 50 Awards last week, chatting to those who had made the list and enjoying hearing their stories about how they keep their promises.

Just before the official announcements got underway, I was asked the following question to think about while gongs were handed out: “How do you kill a brand and how do you move a brand?”

Hmmm, I needed more information because, otherwise, I had a sneaky suspicion we weren’t going to be talking about the same thing. In fact, the question really being asked was: “How do you get rid of a name and choose a new one?”

The confusion is a common one. The leap that brand = name and vice versa happens with alarming frequency. Even seasoned journalists and long-time marketers get the two mixed up.

To be clear, your brand is the result of the promises you keep. Your name is a marker and point of connection, important but of little value without the infusion of meaning provided by those promises.

I believe there is only ever one reason to change the name of an organisation, entity or product – the current name is a complete barrier to success, gets in the way, stops people from getting to you and does so to such as degree that it can’t be solved by other means such as marketing and communications.

Mostly names get changed for all the wrong reasons. For example, they are thought of as “old-fashioned”; the organisation is trying to change how it is viewed; the name doesn’t reflect who the organisation is anymore; as a diversion from what the problem really is. Just to name a few.

The reason I say the ONLY valid reason for changing a name is when it is a barrier to success is because the cost of changing a name is always high. And I’m not talking the dollar cost (although that is considerable and increases exponentially with size of organisation). Any name that has been around long enough to be seen as a problem has a strong and long legacy. Even a problem name will have strong attachments.

Customers past and present will know it, employees work under it, partners, suppliers, investors all have a connection. Every single one of those relationships needs to be fully transferred to a new name. No small task. And then there is the inevitable confusion and loss of awareness that come with any name change. Even the most carefully managed transition will run into road bumps, if not outright rebellion.

And then there is the new name that just won’t stick. An organisation I know changed its name three years ago and customers, employees and the marketplace overall still automatically use the old name!

So if you are thinking about changing your name, do it carefully. Is it really a barrier?

The so-called top 10 valued “brands” in the world have rarely changed their names. (A couple have contracted to an acronym as their primary name, but that’s a topic for a different blog.) Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Google, GE, McDonald’s, Intel, Apple, Disney, HP have all remained quite steadfast in their names despite sometimes dramatic shifts in their businesses and business environments. For example, Coca-Cola didn’t change its name from Coca-Cola Company to Drinks and Sweets Company when it expanded to sell things other than Coke.

If your organisation has failed to keep your promises, or otherwise acted in such a way that people think badly of you then changing your name is unlikely to help. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Clean up your act, keep your promises, communicate and demonstrate honest intentions and it will turn around.

A number of years ago Philip Morris decided to try and distance itself from tobacco. After all, it now had numerous businesses and wanted to try and clean up its image – The Altria Group was born. But no one was fooled and, over a decade on, tobacco still casts its long shadow.

More recently and closer to home, Gunns is just one of a long list of companies who have considered a name change for what appear to be all the wrong reasons.

But back to the question at the Smart 50 Awards – “How do you get rid of a name and choose a new one?” My question in return, “Is your current name a real barrier to success?”

Turns out there was a good chance it could be, but before they jumped into the naming fray I suggested they go through a “ripple effect” exercise to evaluate the potential positive and negative cost of a name change across the whole business and fully explore whether there was no other way to address the problem.

I’ll be interested to see what the outcome is.

For more on naming for a new entity you can read my previous blog on the topic here.

Michel is an independent adviser and advocate dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at michelhogan.com. You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan


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