Changing brand names: is the risk worthy of the reward?


With Yo! Sushi reportedly considering a change of name as part of a brand overhaul, Roger Perowne, chief executive of brand consultancy Morar, examines the pitfalls and opportunities of giving your brand a fresh moniker.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But is this true when it comes to brand names? The older amongst you might remember Marathon and Opal Fruits; Jif, anyone, or how about Andersen Consulting? Now Snickers, Starburst, Cif and Accenture respectively, many of you will still remember these brands from a time when they used their former monikers.

Brand names are fascinating creatures. Sometimes their literal meaning is entirely ignored as a result of the emotion associated with them. Carphone Warehouse, for instance, no longer sells car phones and they would be disappointed if you described their 700+ locations as warehouses. However, this has not stopped them from being the leader in their field.

When it comes to brand names, there’s little doubt that brevity, positive associations and international suitability are all major benefits. It was only a few years after the very expensive process of creating the PriceWaterhouseCoopers brand, that it was changed to PwC (not before it entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest brand name).

So can a brand’s name hold you back? Well Yo! Sushi think it might be. Would a new brand or dropping ‘Sushi’ help overcome the negative preconceptions that some people hold about raw fish? Could a change encourage more of the 80% of people who are aware of the brand to make their first visit?  Or will it reduce the substantial brand value that they have created?

If only there was a simple answer. History has shown that changing a brand’s name can be extremely successful, but is often expensive to pull off in terms of marketing investment, PR strategy, signage, stationery to name a few. The change from Andersen Consulting to Accenture in 2001 was considered to cost well in excess of $100m and at the time was slammed by many as an expensive failure.

But 15 years later the story looks very different. The investment in their brand has supported a 7x increase in their share price since then, with a company value in excess of $75bn. And even the most magnanimous of their managers would have struggled not to feel a modicum of schadenfreude when their estranged sibling, Arthur Andersen, collapsed due to its part in the Enron scandal.

But for every success, there are as many or even more failures. Who remembers Monday (again one to chalk down to PwC, albeit during the tech bubble when nearly all momentarily lost leave of their senses)?

Or perhaps Consignia: the failed rebrand of Royal Mail. Or was that the Post Office, or Parcelforce? I am not sure anyone even knew at the time. Changing a name established for three centuries is not to be undertaken lightly. Reverting back after 15 months and wasting millions in the process is farcical.

So what can we learn from the slings and arrows of naming over the past few decades? First, short is good; but it is important to focus on syllables not letters – think TransWorld, rather than TWA.

Second, ensure that your brand name can last the course, both over time (avoiding reference to the technology of the day) and overseas. The Chevrolet Nova was unlikely to be a success in Spanish-speaking countries, where the name literally means “it doesn’t go”. The Mazda LaPuta (“prostitute”) and Mitsubishi Pajero (“wanker”) probably didn’t sell too well either.

Finally, being associated with timeless and positive associations is best of all; Dove, Google, Sprite, Visa, Orange, Lego, Facebook, Verizon, Goodyear, FedEx, Intel and Pepsi are all pretty special. At the risk of disagreeing with one of the greatest wordsmiths in history: I’d suggest the name rose is an integral part of its appeal.

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