COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LAURA WALCHER

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

Item: San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau changes its name to San Diego Tourism Authority.

Marketing minds ask, why?

In the last half-century, the bank currently known as Union Bank, has changed its name approximately a half-dozen times. From 1st National Bank of San Diego, to Southern California 1st National Bank, California 1st Bank, Union Bank, Union Bank of California — and just recently, back to Union Bank.

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

A Bloomberg News report noted an Anspach Grossman Enterprise survey that said the number of name changes among U.S. corporations recently broke long-time records. Of those 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 to change. Others may include:

* A change of ownership (yet many still choose not to change names for this reason). However, consider the l00-plus-year-old law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps; new owners must constantly refer back to “Luce Forward …” in order to identify themselves.

* Declining business. Often, 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 the company to re-define itself but still retain its 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 1989 demonstrated that effective crisis 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 its menu, it chose an easier path with a version of its existing name, to Boston Market.

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

* 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 some old saying about how difficult it is to become memorable. The task: 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 long time to solidify.

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 (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 idea 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. Radio Shack, which pops easily into our consciousness, was reportedly considering changing its name to “The Shack.” Years of marketing would have tumbled down the tube, and the only rationale to imagine is that it’s a “shorter” name, or that they imagined the word “radio” to be passé. Well, better minds prevailed.

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 advises clients that “if you can't fix it, feature it,” as Smucker's has 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.

Consider

* 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.

* 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: http://www.uspto.gov.

* 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.)

* 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 change of Union Bank of California to Union Bank? Union Bank now has branches in numerous other states. I’ll buy that change.

Walcher is principal public relations consultant to J.Walcher Communications.

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