Should you change your company's name? Not if you can help it

Item: San Diego's Wild Animal Park changes its name to "The San Diego Zoo Safari Park" Good move? No.

Item: The YMCA changes its name to the 'Y" Good move? Yes.

In the last half-century, the bank currently known as Union Bank, has changed its name approximately a half-dozen times. From National Bank of San Diego, to Southern California National Bank, California Bank, Union Bank, Union Bank of California -- and now, back to Union Bank.

I'd like a dime for every hour I've spent discussing the pros and cons of name changes with clients -- and a quarter for each that didn't heed my advice. Because, while excitement and creativity abound around a potential new name, I more often find the rationales for doing so weak -- and avoidable. Often, too, companies lack a corresponding commitment or know-how to effectively drive a new name home in the marketplace.

Not that there aren't good reasons to consider a name change.

A Bloomberg News report once noted that of those companies changing their names, 52 percent changed because of mergers or acquisitions; about 44 percent wanted to better define themselves.

These may indeed be viable reasons. Others may include:

  • A change of ownership (yet many still choose not to change names for this reason. Consider the l00-plus-year old law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps ... where these days, no attorney is so named.)

  • Declining business. A fresh name and graphic look can jump-start a company -- but not in and of itself. It must be accompanied by announced philosophical, directional, product (etc.) changes as well.

  • Changing marketplace. When fried foods came to be regarded as unhealthful, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed to "KFC." This enabled them to re-define themselves but still retain their fried product. (An extreme example of a product suffering from this, as well as the next point, you may remember, was the diet candy called "Ayds." Uh-uh.)

  • Tarnished name and reputation. A product recall, a crime, an accident. Sometimes the only way out is to erase history is by re-inventing yourself altogether. However, the Tylenol tampering case of l989 demonstrated that effective crises management can actually strengthen the brand name. Tylenol has remained a strong brand.

  • The name does not describe your company's business. When Boston Chicken added other meats to their menu, they chose an easier path with a version of their existing name, to Boston Market. Still, name recognition nearly always trumps accuracy.

    While these may be compelling reasons to change, avoid it -- if possible:

  • You give up marketing equity. Most companies spend years driving recognition of their name, hoping to develop their brand or niche, and become strongly "top of mind" with their buyers and clients. If you have succeeded in this, changing your name will throw away all that you've achieved and force you to begin the process all over again

  • You often create confusion -- not clarity -- in the marketplace. I recall an old saying about how difficult it is to become memorable: get people to remember you; then, get them to remember why they remember you; get them to care why, etc. Even if you've achieved parts one and two of this; you can lose it fast when you insist they remember something new altogether.

  • Re-marketing your company name is expensive. Unless you are prepared to underwrite the re-design and printing of collaterals (logo, cards, letterhead, brochures, etc.), plus, implement outreach such as direct mail (name change announcements), advertising, and media and web publicity (to explain the rationale, which may be of interest), the change may take a very long time to solidify. I strongly hope San Diego's Wild Animal Park is prepared to underwrite their name change -- perhaps to millions and as long as five years.

    If you decide to change

    Your choice of a new name is another -- and exhaustive -- subject altogether. But, evaluate for yourself the decisions that led to the following changes -- and I guarantee that the decisions cost countless hours and dollars!

    The merger of Coopers & Lybrand with Price Waterhouse became "PricewaterhouseCoopers," really (check out lack of spacing and sudden caps). In San Diego, the Centre City Development Corp. proposed changing The Embarcadero to... the Waterfront, (yawn). (This subject miraculously -- and sensibly -- evaporated.)

    Some changes may have substantive rationale, but to the consumer are gratuitous and unintelligible -- Datsun to Nissan, Lidak Pharmaceuticals to Avanir Pharmaceuticals, and the most unexplained of all: The National Conference of Christians & Jews (NCCJ), to The National Conference, to The National Conference of Community & Justice (still called NCCJ) Radio Shack, which by now pops easily into our consciousness, calls itself "The Shack," but may have gotten cold feet, since it's still unclear whether the change has actually taken place. The only rationale to imagine is that it's a "shorter" name, or that the word "radio" is passé.

    ResearchWorks (a San Diego-based company), whose president Dr. Moshe Engelberg developed an Identity Touchstone System to help organizations capitalize on the marketing equity in their names, says, "Ideally, a name should distinctively position an organization, product or service based on what makes it most unique to its target audience. "

    Engelberg often advises clients that "if you can't fix it, feature it!" as Smuckers has so successfully done with its tag line, "With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good!" Most important, he says, don't risk guessing or acting on what you think internally. Undertake research to understand the perceived value of your name.


  • The reasons you wish to change. Can your problem with your current name be solved through re-marketing? If so, you will have only image to change, and not both name and image. Changing the "official" YMCA to the "Y" is likely to be the least expensive and easiest change, since we've been referring to the organization as "The Y" for decades,

  • Is the name you've chosen available? Your attorney's search can answer this, or you can find help and resources through the Patent and Trademark Office website:

  • Is the name memorable? Test this rigorously with representatives of your various target markets. Test both internally and externally.

  • Can the name be presented graphically, in an attractive, clear and interesting way? Can it be reproduced in both color and black and white? (It may be too expensive to print all your collaterals -- such as order forms, etc. -- in color.) Does it work in social media -- either in its entirety or short-cutted, say, for Twitter?

  • How does the name work in a sentence? As a possessive?

  • How does the name stack up against its competitors? Is it easily distinguished? Does it convey your unique message?

    The process of deciding not to change may also be exhausting, but in most cases, it is reinforcing, inspires marketing creativity -- and, at least from here, comes highly recommended!

    And, the validation for the change of Union Bank of California to Union Bank? The bank now has branches in numerous other states. I'll buy that change.

    Walcher is principal public relations counsel to JWalcher Communications.

  • User Response
    0 UserComments