Editor’s Note: We write this fully cognizant that Substance Strategy & Creative recently changed its name. So trust us, we do believe in the validity of name changes – you just need to be thoughtful about them. You can check out our rationale for our own name-change decision here.
Let’s start on a very blunt note: Name changes are brutal. They are one of the most fraught processes in all of branding and marketing. Why? Well, let us count the ways:
- Name changes are subjective: Want to spend a whole lot of time arguing with internal stakeholders? Well, naming is a great way to lose some friendships by having a bunch of very subjective arguments about what certain words mean and whether they will really advance your business interests.
- Name changes cause your awareness to go straight down to zero: Have you built up any brand equity over the years? Well, guess what – that equity is about to drop to nothing. Yes, with your existing customer base you’ll probably quickly pop back up with some fast-track awareness, but still – any prospects on the bubble need to be re-educated about your company name and what it stands for.
- Name changes don’t fix everything: Understand that names aren’t everything in the marketer’s playbook. Think about it – Apple means nothing without all the marketing that Apple has done to make that name mean something. Just because you’re changing your name doesn’t mean you are changing all the ways people might define your brand.
- While name changes don’t fix everything, they trigger everything to change: Your website. Your website URL. Email addresses. When you change your name, literally every name under the sun needs to change right along with it. It’s a not-very-fun, expensive, time-consuming and laborious process.
- Name changes are a legal “thing”: If you read the news, you may have seen that more and more trademarks are being eaten up every single day. Finding names that actually pass muster with US Patent and Trademark Office is just plain-old hard.
Basically, name changes are not to be taken lightly. With that being said, they can have value in the right scenarios when solving for the right business problem. Names are the first introduction to your company. And in many ways, they are therefore the ultimate awareness and perception driver. If your company name is “Delicious Flowers Hand Sanitizer” there is an instant association with the word for your brand (it probably smells good). If your (totally fictitious) company name is “Trump Hand Sanitizer,” there is an entirely different, instant association with your name (and no Democrat will ever buy your product).
Here are some instances when you should consider changing your name:
M&A is the most obvious trigger for a name change. If two large companies are merging – neither with any clear and obvious brand credibility over the other – then a change can be warranted, especially because it can set aside some of the inevitable internal politics and cultural silos as employees from each entity start competing to be the ‘big dog’.
But to our point on just how painful name changes can be, read about the merger of BB&T and SunTrust (now Truist). The company has reportedly spent $125 million on its name-change effort. Ouch. Don’t they wish one of them had simply said “SunTrust sounds optimistic and trustworthy. Let’s use that name going forward.”?
You’re Early in Your Business Lifecycle
Younger businesses have less awareness, less collateral…less everything. And that means that a name change is simply less painful for them. In many ways, younger businesses thinking about changing their name should move sooner rather than later. Why? Because the sooner they rip the band-aid off, the sooner they will start building brand equity for their new name.
Your Name is Sewing Fundamental Confusion About Your Product or Service
If you’re selling apples and your company is named “Oranges” – you’ve got a problem on your hands. Companies whose names are causing perception confusion in the marketplace need to consider a name change. The reason is simple: Likely no amount of marketing or messaging can solve this brand issue because the name will always get in the way of building the right perception in the marketplace.
Your Brand Has a Deeply Negative Perception in the Marketplace
A brand with a history ridden by scandal? Sometimes a name change can signal a new chapter for a company that is changing its ways. At the very least, in this scenario with your awareness generally going back to zero, a name change means you can start building your brand anew.
But with that being said, it’s important to remember that a name change in this scenario will not fix all of your problems. Does anyone really trust Altria (formerly R.J. Reynolds) just because they changed their name? People will still say “Oh, that’s the old [Former Company Name]. They haven’t changed their ways.” As such, you need to always pair a name change in this business scenario with messaging and activities that signal a broader change in your business and brand.
Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that sometimes you can reverse perception issues without a name change. Making a bold business shift (hiring a new CEO, stopping a contentious business activity, etc.) can signal that you are a different company without a name change. If R.J. Reynolds had stopped marketing its cigarettes altogether…well, then we might be inclined to think about them differently (maybe).
Nothing Else Will Fix the Issue
Honestly, a name change should only be done if there is no other avenue to fixing whatever issue you are trying to resolve. Because of the pain and costs associated with changing your name, you need to make sure it is a step you have to take. Ask yourself if advertising or PR could help to fix your issue. Or if an upgrade of your logo, identity and messaging could signal a new era. Or even whether making a bold business move could signal that you are a different kind of company.
Basically, exhaust all options before making the decision to change your name.
If You’re Changing Your Company Name, What Should You Do?
An entire article could be devoted to this. But here are some quick thoughts on steps you should take:
- Make It an Objective Process: Use research and insight to drive the internal name-selection process. You need to do everything possible to get your naming process out of the subjective sphere and into the objective sphere. That includes getting lots of internal stakeholders involved in the naming process to make them feel like they have ownership in the development process.
- Socialize the Name: Make sure the potential name doesn’t cause confusion that you aren’t seeing or thinking of during your internal process. You want to socialize the name with your audience – whether it’s qualitatively or quantitatively (if you can afford it).
- Vet the Name: Make sure you are running trademark searches and Google searches to directionally shape your naming process. You don’t need to be spending 20 hours arguing about your newly conceived telecom company named “C-Mobile” if a certain pink titan in the space is sure to sue you when you launch.
- Work With a Lawyer: On that note, please, please, please vet any naming options with your lawyer before you move forward. While it doesn’t always guarantee a clean bill of health in the trademark process, you can at least make sure that you are relatively safe if you move forward with your name.
Finally, never only do a name change: As we said, a name change alone will never fix all your issues. The change must be paired with a broader brand message and identity that can help define the name in the marketplace. Pair your name change with a big, bold message and here’s why – when you do change your name, your audience will be listening.
Tell them what you want them to hear.