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 Morar, examines the pitfalls and opportunities.
Paddy Sutton

July 12, 2017

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 recognise 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 carphones 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 $100 m and at the time was slammed by many as an expensive failure. 

However, 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 $75 billion. 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 (this one a failed rebrand of Royal Mail, or was that the Post Office or even Parcelforce; to be honest I am not sure anyone even knew at the time). Changing a name established for three centuries is not to be undertaken lightly. Re-changing a name after 15 months and costing the company millions in the process is farcical.

So what can we learn from naming’s slings and arrows over the past few decades? First, short is good; but it is important to focus on syllables not letters – think TransWorld, rather than TWA.  Also starting out with an abbreviation can be a challenge – it’ll need meaning and character fast, which can be expensive in marketing pounds or dollars. Second, ensure that your brand name can last the course, both over time (e.g. avoiding reference to the technology of the day) and overseas e.g. the Chevrolet Nova was unlikely to be a success in Spanish-speaking counties (literally meaning ‘it doesn’t go’), but then again the Mazda LaPuta and Mitsubishi Pajero probably didn’t sell too well in some Latin countries either.  Descriptive names like British Airways or FaceBook are the simplest but they can be tricky in a world where just about every word in the English language is registered by someone for something. Capturing timeless and positive associations is best of all; Dove, Google, Sprite, Visa, Orange, Lego, Verizon, Goodyear, FedEx, Intel and Pepsi are all pretty special.  These abstract, associative and made up names all come pre-loaded with character which can be very useful for a brand on the move. My favourite of all time – hobnobs!

At the risk of disagreeing with one of the greatest wordsmiths in history, I’d suggest the name rose is actually an integral part of its appeal.

First published in Campaign Live 05/09/16

Morar HPI Limited is part of MIG Global and part of the Next15 Group.

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