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What's ON a Brand Name?

Drew Letendre

One of the most challenging, and from the client perspective, disruptive business experiences is ‘re-branding’ (or corporate re-identification, as it was called in another day). When I say ‘re-branding’ I want to be clear that I am excluding the case of re-naming, even though it fits under the former idea (and is even more unsettling). By ‘re-branding’, I mean graphic dress — the typographic, chromatic, and symbolic rendering of the corporate moniker.

The internal resistance to this kind of identity ‘make-over’ — and there almost always is resistance — is often formidable. There are pragmatic reasons for this, to be sure: the time, expense, and labor-intensive changeover of scores of applications, from business cards to signage to websites, cannot be gainsaid. This is no inconsiderable burden (and the larger the business, and the more varied and complex its brand-able assets, the more lengthy and uneven the transition will be). It is a bit like living in a house under reconstruction — inconvenient, uncomfortable, even ugly.

There are ‘deeper’, business reasons too. Concerns that the new suit of clothes won’t quite work in the customary markets, that clients, and prospects will be confused by the intended ‘message’. Or that awareness, familiarity, and equity will be squandered and the anticipated lament that ‘leaving well enough alone’ would’ve been the better course. Those are not unreasonable or unwarranted concerns. There is risk in all change and lots of work to be done, in any case. But if the concerns are not unwarranted, might they be exaggerated?

I think so. I think they are exaggerated at least in the particular case at hand, the case in which the visual wardrobe changes, but the name does not. I would argue that a brand name is the primary repository of brand equity. By remaining the same through ‘identity refresh’ or ‘makeover,’ it serves to stabilize awareness, equity, and even ‘trust’. A point I’ve made in this space before, which corroborates this, is that the name per se — unlike its visual rendering through identity design — is more far-ranging: it lives in speech and conversation; it lives in copy and plain text; and it is handled ‘there’ even by third parties. The name ‘goes places’ where the identity cannot follow — if I say EYE-BEE-EM, Paul Rand’s blocky, zebra-stripe pajamas can’t follow; if I write ‘UPS’, I have to put down the shield. This suggests two further points of relevance: (1) in the oral/aural medium the brand/identity changes not at all—its sound, spelling or pronunciation are unaffected; and (2) precisely because it ranges so much farther in its pure oral/aural form, it arguably ranges further—it has a larger role in and effect on expanding awareness—if not building equity—than its visually dressed alter ego.

This is important because it marks out the function of the name as an anchor of equity, through the high seas of transition. Often, a business has to signal — and balance — change with stability. The aforementioned companies — IBM and UPS — are cases in point. The former ‘International Business Machines’ is a company whose evolutionary arc has taken it from a manufacturer of computational hardware to, in its latest incarnation, a software-and-services firm. UPS has developed from physical parcel delivery to a broader, more sophisticated, and more intangible ‘logistics’ offer.

From one pole to the other — and through various permutations in between — the logo identities of these two storied corporations, have undergone occasionally dramatic, occasionally gradual, but virtually continuous metamorphosis. And here is the point to note — with anything but disastrous results. On the contrary, refresh seems to have served them well. While the names — and certain other features of the visual wardrobe — remained the same or similar, suggesting a reassuring continuity ‘underneath’ — the changes likely signaled smart adaptation to evolving business realities…and opportunities.

Think of this on the model of a sandwich: the top slice is a fixed and familiar name, the bottom is a ‘multi-grain’ made up of the multitude of operational, financial, human, and other assets most of which do not vary with brand ‘renewal’. In the middle then, you are free to insert the comestibles of your choice, as a matter of both nutrition and good taste. This is a lot harder — perhaps impossible — to handle or swallow, without the bread. Well, perhaps a culinary metaphor is not the best choice, but the point is this: that the anticipated disruption and foreseen risk of identity refresh are obviated or diminished, in the best of circumstances, by two supports: your name and everything else that constitutes your business.

So, be not afraid! Be emboldened! This is a dish BrandingBusiness knows how to serve up. Contact us if you’re hungry.