Anatomy of a Rebrand (Part 1 of 3): Should You Dump Your Brand Equity?

If not for one critical decision made in 1997, we’d all be checking our “bmail” accounts and saying creepy things like, “I’m not sure… Let me backrub that and get back to you.”

Yes, Google went by the name BackRub in its first year of existence, before founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin registered the current name.

It’s hard to imagine a world where we lace up our Blue Ribbon Sports running shoes (instead of our Nikes), stop for lunch at Pete’s Super Submarines (instead of Subway), and then enjoy a refreshing Brad’s Drink (instead of a Pepsi) later that afternoon.

Those are famous cases of company name changes that worked. But there are just as many examples of rebranding failures—from Pizza Hut’s and RadioShack’s attempts to be known as The Hut and The Shack, respectively, to embattled insurance company AIG’s switch to “Chartis Inc.” for a while, and then switch back.

A complete brand reinvention is no small feat. And though I can think of six good reasons (see below) to attempt a companywide makeover, there are far more reasons not to.

If your target audience recognizes you, knows who you are, and understands what you do—and your reputation is still intact with a name that still well represents your business—that’s a great case for leaving well enough alone.

If, on the other hand, one or more of the following six situations applies to you, it might be worth sacrificing some brand equity—temporarily—for a change to a new name and identity.

1. You’ve outgrown your name

Is your organization still doing the thing it was founded to do? A company’s mission can evolve significantly over time—or maybe even in the first year or two, as was the case for both Pinterest (originally Tote) and Instagram (originally Burbn). And, sometimes, the original name no longer fits.

In 1911, three businesses merged and became the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R). The company rebranded to International Business Machines Corporation in 1924 and quickly adopted the acronym we know today, because “the company’s business had expanded both geographically and functionally,” according to IBM history.

In my career, I’ve led two rebranding initiatives that demonstrate this idea on a smaller scale. First, Applied Voice Technologies, founded in 1982, evolved to the point that the majority of the business had nothing to do with voice. In 2002, we successfully rebranded to Captaris. (The firm was later acquired by Open Text.) Second, the SaaS software firm AtTask, founded in 2001, had expanded to encompass the complete lifecycle of enterprise work—far more than tasks alone. We rebranded to Workfront in 2015.

2. Your name has a negative association

After a major scandal or public relations problem, all that brand equity you’ve worked so hard to build can actually work against you. Here are a few examples of efforts to hide a bad reputation behind a new name:

  • Bailout recipient AIG temporarily masquerading as Chartis Inc.
  • Cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris rebranding to Altria
  • ValuJet becoming AirTran Airways after a 1996 plane crash

Sometimes your company doesn’t change, but the world around you does:

In an unfortunate example of the need for a two-step name change, Belgian chocolate maker Italo Suisse changed its name to ISIS in 2013—just a year before the terrorist group of the same name started making worldwide headlines. Now its name is Libeert.

Years ago, as the adverse health effects of fried foods gained increasing media exposure, Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded to KFC.

3. You’re frequently confused with another company

Even if you serve different industries and geographical locations, thus eliminating trademark issues, having a business name or acronym that’s too closely associated with the name of another company can cause challenges, especially when securing Web addresses and online search traffic.

4. You’ve been carrying around a bad name for years

Bless the founder’s heart, he or she just saddled your company with an unfortunate name from the beginning. Maybe it’s an acronym that doesn’t stand for anything, or it includes a bad pun, or it’s way too long or complex, of it includes illogical punctuation or capitalization, or it doesn’t reflect what you do and never has (AmeriTechTronCorp, as a fictitious example).

5. Your name is not suitable for the Internet

If your name is too generic, it will take significant time and effort before you rank in online search engines. (If Apple were founded today, would it be called Apple?)

URLs are also a consideration: Some company names are fine when listed as two or three separate words, but they say something else entirely when the capital letters and spaces are removed.

It’s not hard to find lists of risqué examples online, but here are a few examples that are more suitable for work:

  • Choose Spain = choosespain
  • Teachers Talking = teacherstalking
  • Children’s Wear = childrenswear
  • Old Man’s Haven = oldmanshaven
  • WorkSlate = workslate

6. No one can remember it, spell it, or say it

If there are several possible ways to pronounce, spell, or punctuate your company name, it will be hard for your audience to remember or find online, which will cripple your ability to build lasting brand equity.

Saucony, Chik-fil-A, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House are apparently getting away with it, but that doesn’t mean smaller companies can.

A company by any other name may not smell of sweet success

Your name matters. And it’s only getting harder to choose a moniker that’s unique, memorable, meaningful, short, and easy to spell and pronounce—not to mention BackRub… oops, Google-friendly.

Nevertheless, if one or more of these six rebranding reasons rings true to you, an overhaul may be in order.

Stay tuned next week and the week after for the remaining two articles in this series; I’ll cover the basics of selecting, building, and promoting your new brand.

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