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Good History Makes Up For Bad Names, But Can Great Design Rescue Them?

By Michael Dula

I wanted to extend some thoughts laid out in a recent blog post by my colleague, Drew Letendre, titled: Giving Offense: A Secret to Brand Naming Success”. Drew’s a brilliant writer and I love what he had to say about good brands with bad names. Like Drew, what I find interesting is that in spite of “bad name origins,” the respective brand names, brand identities and brand reputations of Aetna and BR are extremely successful, in the eye and mind of the consumer audience. Unlike us, it seems, nobody appears to have noticed that the names—at least when taken on the merits—should’ve been or could’ve been an embarrassment and objects of public sport.
I’ll look at Aetna as a case and points:

Case: In 2010, Aetna, for the third consecutive year, was selected by FORTUNE magazine as the most admired company in the Health Care: Insurance and Managed Care category. In 2012 Aetna introduced a new logo in hopes of redefining the insurer—broadly—as a “health services”, or “health solutions,” company. Aetna changed its logo font from a variation of Bodoni to a newly designed word mark. It also brought back the ligature between the A and E used for 151 years, until it was discontinued in 2001. In the new logo, the ligature returns “as a unique symbol of our brand and our heritage — reinforcing our 160-year-history, our dedication to building relationships with our constituents, and our promise of a connected health care experience,” as stated by the company. Beyond the elegance of it and the re-appropriation of a part of its history, careful scrutiny of the ligature reveals an almost subliminal ‘hc’ for ‘healthcare,’ a nice stroke of design, both conceptually and executionally.

First point: I think Aetna’s current identity (the newest one), is on the money. Visually, it’s human and personal, in its lower case design trend – and most important, the outcome of the design delivers a story and visual thread about the endurance of the Aetna brand (on a side note, I’m thankful that Aetna dropped the symbol of the human figure with outstretched arms, as I’m tired of seeing this trite image, repeated ad nauseam, in healthcare identities (i.e. the new Cigna identity). For years now, I’ve seen companies all over the world, all-too eagerly stripping their identities and identity systems of historic artifacts or references, as if to say (scream): “See, we’re new and improved!” Yet recently, I see a trend: companies with decades of solid performance, are striving to ‘evolve’ their identities another notch (and perceptions of their brand in synch with them) — by looking back into their visual history to resurrect elements that demonstrate endurance and proud legacies.

Second point: Aetna makes no apology for its name. And it doesn’t need to. The company is one of America’s oldest and most well-known brands, with a solid reputation among consumers, that consistently inspires confidence and trust. Aetna has had over a century to make of their name what they want, to overcome the associations and meanings of its original and primary reference. The volcano is dormant, dead, and long ago left behind. Yet “new” and/or “evolving” companies should beware: even a great identity can’t rescue a bad new name. Names, especially new ones, receive a lot more media scrutiny today than when Aetna adopted its moniker. The point is that you better have a proven track record of success, or you’ll need a shipload of money to compensate for your misstep, that is if you burst out of the blocks with a ‘Vesuvius’ – then, all the design talent in the world probably won’t save you.
As for Banana Republic’s name, I am still trying to figure out how they ever overcame the origins of that name, but that is a topic for another time and another blog.

What are your thoughts? Would love to hear them.