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When should you change your brand’s name?

I was thinking back to all of the naming projects we’ve done here at Boardwalk and the reasons our clients had for engaging us. Very few were asking us to name a new brand, right from the start. When people think of a new business or a new product, the very next thing they do is think of a name for it. Usually, they’re already in love with the name by the time they get to us. They can’t think of their business or product existing with any other name. And even if we see they’re making a huge naming mistake, it’s almost impossible to talk them out of it. Not then. But, if they have made a naming mistake, it will come back to haunt them eventually. Almost all of our naming engagements have been with clients who wanted to – or were forced to – change their existing brand’s name. What sorts of things compel management to take the huge step of renaming their brand?

After all, renaming an existing company, creating a whole new brand identity for it, is a big deal. It drains a lot of resources away from everyday operations. It almost always seems like an unnecessary distraction, one that has no real upside. But when you have a problematic name, it’s almost impossible to establish a strong brand relationship with your market. You can’t establish that YoY revenue growth that all the best brands enjoy. So let’s review some of the reasons management teams have to bite the bullet and change their names.

When you have to for legal reasons
These are our favorite kinds of clients. Usually they are referred to us by their attorneys. They’ve been spending way too much on legal fees trying to defend a trademark that is indefensible. They are totally in love with their name and really resent the fact they have to change it. That they have to spend money on professional services to make that change just rubs salt in their wounds. They are the hardest clients to please because, in their mind, no new name will ever live up to the old one. But we love these clients because, as hard as they are to please, they end up being the most grateful for the solutions we provide.

When it’s based on outdated technology
Is there some hot new technology that’s given you an idea for a business? Great. Start that business but be very careful about referencing the technology in your brand name. Technology has a way of becoming obsolete very quickly. Nobody wants to be stuck with names like Hi-Fi Sound or 3G Solutions. This reason relates to the next cause for a name change.

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When the business has to pivot
Recent startups, especially, often discover they’re not in the business they think they’re in. Either the technology changes (see above reason) or the market does. Or, sometimes, they just decide they could make more money by adopting a completely new business model. To a very large extent, business strategy drives brand strategy. And brand strategy drives naming.

When it’s confusing people
Sometimes entrepreneurs think of too-clever-by-half names like the restaurant called Bad Sushi (for real). The market is not amused by namers who attempt to demonstrate superior humor, intelligence, expertise, etc. The thinking is that an outrageous name will get market attention. That may be true but then poor sales, word-of-mouth, and Yelp reviews usually force a name change to something less off-the-wall.

When it’s offensive
There was the poor, immigrant retailer who opened a dress shop called Final Solution. His reasoning was he wanted a brand name that would convince his customer that she had found the perfect clothier and she should look no further. He was horrified when he learned the name’s association with the Holocaust. We shouldn’t pick on this guy too much. He was unaware. But there are plenty of professional sports teams who know better and should have changed their names years ago. Almost all college teams, who had names based on indigenous people, have already changed their names with no ill effects whatsoever. It’s past time for the pros to follow suit.

When it translates poorly
Even if you’re only selling locally. It’s an intercultural world today. The classic story is of Chevy’s family sedan from the ‘60s, the Nova. It sold poorly in latin America because “no va”, in Spanish, means “not going”. But today, Chevy wouldn’t release a name like that even in North America. Because now they recognize it would alienate a huge percentage of the domestic market. Names that have not been vetted in multiple languages often need to be changed.

When you’ve outgrown it
Readers might have heard of a firm called Vari-desk. They launched by making desks that can be raised or lowered so you can stand or sit at them. But they grew beyond just that one product. They started making other types of office furniture and even entire office plans and systems. So they recently changed their name to Vari. It’s a good solution because it retains some equity from the old name, plus Vari-desk still works as a name for their original product and, finally, the new name is abstract enough to succeed no matter how the business grows in the future.

When your brand architecture changes
Google had a hard time selling their subsidiary business, Goggle Glass, in large part because it carried the Google name. They responded by creating a parent company, Alphabet. This gives them the freedom to place new technological innovations in the parent brand that makes sense. Anything that naturally fits into Google’s suite of applications goes into Google. Anything that’s outside of Google’s core competencies, like Google Glass, will now get a stand-alone name, reporting directly to Alphabet.

Management teams that are facing a name change, often in less than ideal circumstances, should look at the situation as an opportunity, not a chore. A refresh of the brand identity gives the business a moment to draw attention to itself, to get some positive press. The renaming should be positioned as the business reinvesting in itself, repositioning to exploit a bright future. A rename is a rebirth. That’s a good thing.

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You have to figure out what role you play in their lives. What purpose do they have for you?

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