Brand Names: Do I change mine?

Changing brand names

A great deal of investment goes into building a meaningful brand name, so when, if ever, do you change it?

Perhaps the name is not exclusively yours. Or you have a compelling reason to create an entirely new brand name. It’s also possible that you like and plan to keep your brand name but want to change the emotional associations of the existing name.

Let’s examine ways you might go about changing your brand name by looking briefly at examples of each of these.

PEN America brand

What if—despite long years of building emotional equity—you have many others sharing your name? This is the case for the PEN brand.

Brand names: PEN America New BrandWe recently completed a branding project with PEN America, the largest of 140+ centers of PEN International. Each PEN center operates independently, so PEN America does not always have a hand in the work of many other PENs around the world (English PEN, PEN Canada, or PEN Center USA in California, for example). This sometimes leads to confusion, misattributions in the media, or an occasional check sent to the wrong address, but the PEN name attaches PEN America to an important global network and it represents over 90 years of brand equity. Dropping it was not an option.

Instead, PEN America has reinforced its primacy in the world of PENs through a subtle name change (from PEN American Center to the more direct “PEN America”) and a complete reworking of its visual identity. Together with GreyBox Creative, we developed a brand identity that is distinctive enough to avoid confusion with any other PEN and flexible enough to be applied in a wide variety of contexts. Going forward, these changes will reduce the impact of some inevitable brand name confusion.

Cadence Health

In another very different case, what if you feel the need to create an entirely new brand name?
Brand names: Do I change my brand name?

The energy required to infuse a new brand with meaning is tremendous.

Cadence Health is an example of an organization that created an entirely new and differentiated brand for itself after the merger of Delnor Hospital and Central Dupage Hospital in Chicago. The new brand name had nothing to do with either of the old names. It was a new invented name. When you do this, you have to exert a great deal of energy to fill the new name with meaning. Cadence Health did this. When they were later acquired by Northwestern Medicine, the new name disappeared and the merged hospitals each got their original names back. This example shows the tenacity of well-established brand names—in this case the hospital’s original names, not the attempted new one.

Marlboro

What if you want to change the emotional associations of your existing name?

Any dramatic shift of this kind will usually also require a dramatic operational transformation to support it.

The most famous example of this is Marlboro, the women’s cigarettes of the early 20th century that was remade into an icon of masculinity through mid-century advertising. This is a parable for a “go big or go home” strategy when it comes to repositioning a brand. It’s also a case that should not serve as a model for most brands because cigarettes are a product for which the brand experience is almost irrelevant. Does a women’s cigarette need to have any functional differences from a men’s cigarette? Does it need to be any different at all to deeply satisfy its nicotine-addicted customer? This kind of 180 repositioning cannot be easily accomplished in more typical brand situations. Any dramatic shift of this kind will usually also require a dramatic operational transformation to support it.

Do I change my name?

Among these three very different approaches to brand name dynamics, your own path will depend on your situation and objectives. Do competing brands meaningfully hinder your progress in your intended customer’s mind? Do you have the stamina to create an entirely new brand name for your organization? Are you ready to change how you deliver value so dramatically that the emotional experience of your brand will transform? At the end of the day, whatever your path, the juice must be worth the squeeze.

The investment in a name change reaches far beyond the brand system and physical changes to your website or buildings. The new name, if it is to surpass the old name, must be infused with all or more of the emotional value that your brand consumers associate with the existing brand name. If your brand—as it is understood in the marketplace now—is positive, the act of transferring all those associations to a new brand name requires an effort one might describe as Herculean.

Brand advertising campaigns are costly and “awareness” is possibly the most expensive thing you can buy. Poor strategy—including insufficient clarity on the exact market being addressed by the campaign and insufficient understanding of what is truly of value to this market—is the cause of much waste. There are, in fact, so many ways to waste marketing dollars: failure to clarify objectives, failure to focus on one key audience for a campaign, failure to deeply understand the actual drivers of behavior of that audience, failure to operationally deliver on promises made … the list goes on.

Questions to consider:

  • What will the new name give our brand that we cannot get any other way?
  • What real equity in the minds of our customers or prospective customers does our current name actually have?

If you must have a singular and clear association in the mind of your target customer, then every local “freelancer” that is using a similar name may pose a problem for your brand.

In the case where your brand is not 100% owned by you, perhaps the most relevant concern revolves around expansion. Do you intend to develop a truly national brand? What is the real impact on your customer from your lack of control over other entities sharing your brand name? If you must have a singular and clear association in the mind of your target customer, then every local “freelancer” that is using a similar name and not delivering your level of service may pose a problem for your brand. The magnitude of this problem depends on the nature of your plans and whether your target is the same target as that of the lesser “me too” brands that clutter your brand space in your target’s mind.

Like all strategic decisions, the right decision largely depends on thoroughly understanding the opportunity landscape. It is unlikely that there is an easy answer, but a strong strategic hypothesis can and should be obtained by carefully plotting your business objectives over the in-market perceptions of your brand. Using this insight, you can see how much brand control you will actually need in order to achieve your goals.

Asking the right questions deeply enough may yield enough clarity on the issue to make the right path obvious. Sometimes it works out this way. More often, the issue boils down to an informed but difficult strategic choice.

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