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On the Traumas of Re-naming

Drew Letendre

This is the second of two blogs in a series, on the psychological experience (‘traumas’) of re-branding. This one specifically addresses re-naming. Unless you’re a start-up—a completely new, built-from-scratch business—all branding and all naming is really re-branding and re-naming—two far more disruptive events.

Renaming a company may be the single most difficult branding exercise there is. Not (just) because of steep trademark hurdles; or the near-impossibility of finding available, affordable, exactly-matching URLs; or the difficulties of inter-translation, etc., but because accomplishing sell-in and buy-in against passionate resistance to change is sometimes all but impossible. And it goes beyond the annoyance and expense of re-designing and producing materials like business papers, web pages, business cards, and architectural signs—annoying and expensive as all that is. It goes ‘deeper’ than that.

To get some sense of the difficulty, imagine the following hypothetical scenario:

Your name is John Smith and you receive a thick, serious looking envelope from Sacramento, California, the Seat of Government in that state. Atop a thick fold of forms within, is a letter from Governor Gerry Brown informing you—“regrettably”—that due to a huge proliferation in the number of citizens named ‘John Smith,’ you have been assigned a new name, by impartial lottery and will henceforth be ‘Sean Getty.’ You will have to relinquish the name you have had since birth and essentially ‘don’ a new identity. But, it’s for your own good, John. Did I say ‘John’? I meant ‘Sean.’

‘You see,’ the Governor writes, ‘with literally tens of millions of John Smith’s throughout the state, the problems with misdirected and lost mail, identity theft, and other forms of fraud have become rampant, and are costing individuals, private entities, and the State hundreds of millions of dollars. So, in order to protect you and all the other John Smiths—not to mention the many private and public entities adversely effected by this problem—we had no choice but to ‘conscript’ your now-former identity and assign you a new name.

‘New identity documents and data’—he continues—‘such as driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, Passports, information in State and Federal databases, and Birth Certificates will be generated and re-issued at no expense to you, with no required effort on your part. However, you will be responsible for informing friends, family, and co-workers, not to mention credit card companies, banks, debtors, magazine subscriptions, etc. and pay whatever fees and undertake whatever measures are necessary to establish your new name and identity. Your ‘core identity’ data should make these changes less troublesome than they would otherwise be. However, we know this will still cause considerable disruption. California apologizes for the inconvenience.’

Sound far-fetched? If you’re a company or corporation instead of a person (and the law does not much distinguish the two), it isn’t far-fetched at all. It is reality for a lot of companies. And the corporate experience can have all of the marks of the personal experience: shock, loss of identity, disorientation, resistance, anger, a sense of ‘violation.’

It is ‘not for no reason’ that corporate identity is referred to as, well, identity. It is the most visible and ‘concentrated’ sign of what (or ‘who’) a company ‘is.’ it is the symbol that captures and communicates uniqueness. The ‘catch’ is that symbol and reality can blend so seamlessly into one another, that the loss of the name (the ‘mere’ outward sign) is experienced as tantamount to the loss of the reality it denotes.

But, let’s take a deep breath because, in reality, there is some truth in the Shakespearean principle that ‘a rose by any other name smells as sweet.’ There is a real sense in which the ‘name-named’ relationship is utterly arbitrary: calling John Smith, Sean Getty doesn’t make him so (whoever Sean may be). Still, it is important to acknowledge that this is no small or merely cosmetic change, Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding.

There are various reasons or motivations for corporate name change ranging from the necessary (e.g., response to aggressive trademark litigation to relinquish use of a mark/name) to the ‘elective’ and strategic (e.g., category expansion that makes a narrowly descriptive name obsolete and limiting; or a merger that ‘forces’ decisions about how two or more companies must move forward as one).

Setting aside the issues that burden, complicate or vex any naming initiative—trademark and URL availability; inter-translatability; material re-design, production, and expense; launch/roll out campaigns—let’s address, head-on, what I take to be the 3 primary psychological ‘barriers’ to accepting a new name.

  1. Loss of equity | this is a legitimate worry, but sometimes—perhaps often—an exaggerated one. An employee’s sense of name equity or awareness may be out of synch with market perception where, for example, product brands/names are the real carrier’s of value.
  2. Fear of marketplace confusion / Loss of market share | Again, not a concern to be dismissed, but still often exaggerated—and easily reparable, in any case. Confusion will ensue name change ONLY IF the company that implements it fails to do a good job of prepping the market (and the employee pool) for the coming change—explaining the drivers, and ‘getting the name out’ as quickly, consistently, and coherently as possible, across the entire platform of communications. Also, especially in the B2B realm, where relationships matter ‘over’ products (or ‘participate in’ product value to a high degree), name change will not ‘over-ride’ stable relationships between sales representatives and account managers and their clients—this is the real locus of market share; where it is ‘held,’ and where the change (and any potential ‘fall out’) can be managed effectively, in person.
  3. Loss of identity (“crisis”) | It depends. Some name changes are not really radical at all. They can be as subtle or ‘evolutionary’ as visual identity makeovers. Examples: the merger of Exxon and Mobil into ‘ExxonMobil’ was a ‘change’ but one in which nothing was ‘lost’ and everything gained (Conjunction). The acquisition of WellsFargo by NorWest, but under the WellsFargo brand/name ‘conserved 50% of the merger equation,’ under the brand whose superior equity and awareness was validated by market research (Absorption). The 3-way merger of European Arbed, Aceleria, and Usinor culminated in the ‘synthetic construction’ Arcelor, the world’s largest steel manufacturer (Blending). To site yet another example, the adoption, by FairIsaac of the name of its product, FICO, as its corporate moniker (Elevation) is another relatively pain-free path. In each case, equity and awareness are preserved through a strategy of partial change. To be sure, there are more radical instances: the change from Anderson Consulting to Accenture is a prime example, where no hint of the Anderson legacy ‘living on’ in the new name is apparent. Shouldn’t this have spelled disaster? No. And it didn’t result in it either. This is a ‘normative’ study in how even the most radical of name makeovers can be enormously successful (even a catalyst for success). The former Anderson donned its new wardrobe with gusto (and a huge promotional budget), implementing the new name, brand, and identity so robustly as to establish it (and quickly) as an accepted fixture in the market. Indeed, it is arguable that it effectively superseded the Anderson legacy in record time, without regret and emerged stronger. But what hasn’t been remarked (yet) is just how much is left in place ‘underneath’ and ‘through’ these changes at the level name, brand, and corporate identity. Taking an inventory of those ‘items,’: personnel, intellectual property, physical assets, clients and client relationships, infrastructure—the list could go on—should be a palliative to anyone contemplating name change or attempting to cope, midcourse, with its implications.

In conclusion, fears about Loss of Equity, Loss of Market Share, Marketplace Confusion, and Identity Crisis associated with name change can often be misplaced or exaggerated. The risk of each can, in any case, be mitigated or averted entirely, depending on the executional solutions and disciplined management and implementation of the change. That’s where branding agencies can help: by quelling anxieties, based on the experience of successfully navigating clients through similar ‘shoals; by developing comestible solutions, based on a clear understanding of the tolerance levels of a given corporate culture; by getting an accurate read on the external perceptions and factors that should inform decisions and shape the solutions; and by working hand-in-glove with clients on the planning, implementation, and roll-out of ‘NewCo’ to ensure its eventual acceptance and success.

Long story, short: “Don’t try this at home folks.” Call the professionals. We really can help.