In some ways, naming a startup is easy: you have a blank slate and nothing but potential. Renaming an established company or product can be a trickier proposition. Your customers and employees know you by the original name, and selling them on a new name can be costly, arduous, and even alienating if it isn’t done right.
That’s why it’s important to know when to undertake a renaming project and when you’re better off focusing on other business matters. Here are some guidelines and caveats.
Do consider a name change when the name is no longer telling the right story. You may have gotten too big for a startup-style name, or you may have made a major change in the nature of your business. The name may be confusing, as in this New York Times story about a personal-care company that was originally called Ms. & Mrs. (Customers mis-read the name as “Mr. & Mrs.” The new name: Pinch Provisions.) Or the name may be tied to a time, a place, or a specialization that is no longer relevant.
An example from my own experience: I was hired by a manufacturer of field-programmable gate arrays whose original name was M2000. The M stood for “Metasystems” and 2000 was the year of the original launch. Unfortunately, “M2000” sounded like a specification for a component, not the name of a global company—whose employees, to further confuse matters, pronounced “2000”at least a dozen different ways in a dozen different languages. Besides, “2000” sounded obsolete by 2001. We renamed the company to convey a larger benefit and purpose: Abound Logic.
Don’t consider a name change only because you’ve had an upper-management change or only because you’ve added a product line. A strong company is more than the sum of its parts, and a strong name reflects a bigger purpose than personnel and products.
Don’t consider a name change if you can’t afford it. This may seem too obvious to mention, but I’m mentioning it anyway. In addition to fees for name development, you’ll need to pay for trademark review and filing, logo or wordmark design, new business cards (at a minimum), and website redesign. You may also need to budget for buying a domain from another owner. Which leads us directly to the next caveat:
Don’t consider a name change without first developing a naming strategy. Every naming project needs to begin with a written naming brief that spells out the reasons for changing the name, the objectives a new name must fulfill, and the linguistic criteria it should meet. Names are inherently subjective, but a well-thought-out strategy can remove a lot of the subjectivity and substitute concrete directions and goals. Careful strategizing will clarify your budget requirements, too.
Before you commit to a renaming project, ask yourself:
- Is design the problem? Is your logo dated or confusing? Is your web site optimized for current platforms, including tablets and mobile devices? Can customers find the information they need on your package, advertising, or website, or are they getting lost and giving up?
- Is story the problem? Remember: a name is the title of your story, not the story itself. Are you working with a professional copywriter to tell your story clearly and compellingly? (Sometimes a professional proofreader can make a huge difference in the impact of your web content and marketing copy. Spelling and punctuation matter, folks.)
- Is strategy the problem? Are you reaching the right audiences in the right markets? Is your product priced realistically? Has customer service been slipping?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, don’t expect a name change to miraculously improve your company’s or product’s performance. Address the fundamentals instead.
Once you’ve decided to rename, don’t expect 100 percent consensus, internally or externally. One of the most pointless and costly mistakes a business can make is focus-grouping a new name to death. Names chosen this way are bland and unmemorable. It’s unlikely any focus group would have given an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Virgin Airlines (sounds like an airline run by immature amateurs!) or Google (sounds like baby talk!).
If you feel compelled to test a name, limit your questions to “What does this name make you think of?” and “Do you have any negative associations with this name?” (These questions work for cross-cultural name evaluations, too.) Never ask “Do you like this name?” because, trust me, the answer will almost invariably be “no.” Everyone thinks he can name stuff, and everyone wants to shoot down someone else’s name.
Better to hire a naming professional—have I introduced myself?—and a good trademark lawyer and get the benefit of expertise and experience instead of unhelpful subjective feedback.
Seven ways to go wrong with naming, my February 2012 post.
How to tell if your rebranding is a house of cards (Fast Company, via Russell Meyer).
Recently the GreyPower Insurance company, with great fanfare, changed its name to GPI.
About 6 months later, somewhat more quietly, it changed its name to ... can you guess ... GreyPower Insurance!
I can't help thinking that they must have spent a fortune (including name recognition capital) on these changes.
Posted by: malkie | September 20, 2012 at 10:14 AM
My favorite: when The History Channel became History. Of course, when speaking about it you still need to use the word "channel" in order to be understood.
And thanks for the good advice about trademark counsel!
Posted by: Jessica | September 21, 2012 at 07:54 AM