Changing a Brand Name

This bit of prose does not retread the familiar ground in brand naming. A plethora of articles, papers, blogs and books already exist to inform you about the elements of an excellent brand name. A few of them will even share the methodologies that uncover names like Pinterest, iPad, or SoyJoy (too few because most naming consultants consult a thesaurus and then write up an invoice). All of these jottings suggest the name is the linchpin of one’s entire brand strategy.

What is covered here is an aspect of naming not discussed by brand owners and agencies. That is, making the decision to change the name and the emotions and trepidations felt by the decision-makers. When I encountered hesitation or fit-brainstorming-sessionopposition to changing a corporate or product name from clients in my earlier days, I became frustrated. Having witnessed this psychology through the years, I understand the reluctance and now have proper guidance to frame and address these concerns. These I happily share here.

Historically, I have dealt with clients who have made the firm decision to change their brand name. There was no discussion or debate on that accord. Any discussion and debate was held until naming options were presented. Now, clients have recently engaged my services with the intent to rename but with no firm commitment to follow-through. This has been fascinating.

There is no difference in the process between these two scenarios. However, in the latter where commitment is not assured, there is an expectation of a firm rationale to help those in doubt. What makes this challenging is the vast majority of branding and brand management decisions are not guided by a spreadsheet. Yes, a brand is a quantifiable economic asset and, yes one can determine the cost of new letterhead 18naming1-copy-master1050-v3and signage if one changes a name but most decisions in branding are made by intuitive logic rather than a numbers-laden business case.

This may be true but it offers no comfort to a client. They are taking two risks that are no small matters. The first is the very real risk in changing the name and the second is entrusting the process to a consultant. Clients are not naïve or ill-informed. They know that such a move can damage their business’ commercial reputation and imperil their own career. The gravity of this situation makes for interesting behavior.

So let us delve into some context to frame the discussion. First up is why change a name at all? The catalysts for change I frequently come across include:

The original name just was not right. This happens more than is reported. I see it frequently with start-ups who were too quick to choose a business or product name.

The name has lost its relevance. Brands evolve and so does consumer preference. A name has to keep pace. For example, a trend for Association brands is to shorten and simplify their often five word-long names.

The name no longer makes sense. A product, service or the market has changed so the name does not reflect the actual business.

The name is undifferentiated. Brands and their names can lose their luster. Competitors may have similar names causing a cluttered mess in a particular category.

The name has negative associations. A name change can distance the brand AB3-098from an unfortunate event.

The name has bumped into legal issues. It is not frequent but trademark and ownership issues can prompt a (quick) change.

The name does not reflect a new combination. Mergers, acquisitions and even joint ventures can initiate a change in name.

The name does support the strategy. This is my favorite reason. I love it when a client has revamped their business strategy and a fresh name helps introduce the new direction.

Any of these are legitimate reasons to explore, if not, change a brand name. At this point the decision-makers want to know the risks. In fact, they overly focus on the risks. I am always surprised how little time is spent on the potential rewards. So this 18naming2-articleLarge-v2is where the issues start and can set the wrong tenor for the exercise. The questions tend to take this form:

  • How expensive will this be?
  • Won’t we confuse our customers?
  • Will we lose equity from the current name?
  • Won’t revenue dip in the short-term?
  • Will our competitors capitalize as we transition?

These questions are valid, however, in the absence of discussions regarding opportunity, they put clients in the wrong, defensive position. Herein lies the rub. All of us in business are always pressured to make decisions in the absence of desired or complete information. Yet, for some reason this uncomfortable situation is exacerbated when it comes to changing a brand name.

When this takes place I witness the same reactions and behaviors. For each of these I have recommendations to help with the process of deciding to change a name.

Fear of Change. Twenty years ago I was a consultant at Price Waterhouse. For a time, I focused on change management and have employed those principles ever since. The biggest insight I discovered was that people do not fear change, what they fear is uncertainty. That is why in every engagement, I lay out a clear road map with an approximation of the destination. If a client can see where they are going, they 5558177215_470c0a371c_zare less susceptible to doubt and fear.

Comfort with Subjectivity. How do you rate a brand name or a logo? The first time you see it, you employ personal biases. We subjectively assess them. I always tell clients that if 51% of people immediately like your new brand or rebrand you have a runaway success. A brand takes time to make sense in the market. It takes courage to put it out there especially when the client themselves may not be sold on the new name.

Trust of Objectivity. It is easy to say it but the client has to place faith in the consultant. The only way this works is by the client committing to the process while the consultant must empathize not only with the business situation but with what the client is feeling.

These feelings and emotions run the gamut. Clients can be insecure having never been through a name change before. They may feel exposed given the critical nature of the work. The one that presents the biggest challenge is they are skeptical. Skepticism is dangerous as it seeds doubt and neuters the momentum and boldness required when contemplating such change.

  • I try to remove trepidation and doubt by:
  • Offering up a fresh perspective at every juncture
  • Avoiding any retreat without real evidence of risk
  • Never forcing one solution but offering a professional point-of-view and legitimate options
  • Never pulling punches so they know they are getting the truth
  • Challenging the assumptions and helping root out any false ones
  • Putting the issues in context because few problems are completely unique
  • Having a sense of humor to diffuse any tension
  • Helping them think it through by separating emotions from logic
  • Painting a vivid picture of what a new name could provide

As promised, not much of what is written here covers the craft of brand naming. The 18naming3-articleLarge-v2content covers the counseling component of consulting that can never be underestimated or undervalued. The client and consultant relationship is an amazing thing whose best aspects come out when challenges and opportunities are equally great. A name change represents both. It is in both client and consultant’s best interest to approach a name change boldly and with confidence.

When done right, the right answer presents itself without a spreadsheet. once made, it demands a unified commitment to supporting the brand with all the resources at hand.

1 reply
  1. Shelly Margold
    Shelly Margold says:

    So true. I have experienced this a few times in my career both as agency and client. It is all about counselling.


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