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What’s in a name?

January 30, 2009

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight, Chrissie Douglas reflects on a recent branding decision that has hit the national press and discusses the importance of good branding.

Whilst flicking through the Sunday papers dominated by doom, gloom and impending recession, a light-hearted article on a recent re-branding decision focused my attention.

The article in question described how Watercliffe Meadow primary school in Sheffield dropped the word ‘school’ in favour of a ‘place of learning’. The head teacher believed that the word ‘school’ has ‘negative connotations’ and that the traditional description sounded too ‘institutional’. At the same time, the local authority renamed many of the traditional school support services. For example, lollipop ladies became “school crossing patrol officers”, teachers are now known as “knowledge navigators”, libraries as “ideas stores” and dinner ladies as “education centre nourishment production assistants”!

On the one hand, the content of this article is light-hearted and funny but on the other hand, changing established names that have become almost institutionalised over hundreds of years borders on ridiculous. This focused my attention on the seriousness of the re-branding decision.

So what’s in a name? A brand name is the label by which people recognise something and when they think of that name some image or values are conjured up which are special and unique. These are often built up over many years as the name becomes a familiar front end to the values and perceptions associated with a particular company. The name becomes a reflection of what the company stands for.

Let’s consider a few examples. In March 2001, Royal Mail – the UK national postal service – changed its name to Consignia at a cost of £500,000. The brand lasted little over a year before public outcry forced the group’s return to its original Royal Mail signature at a further cost of £1 million.

What the Royal Mail failed to do was transfer the awareness and perceptions of the brand which had been built up over 400 years to the new name. That is, they failed to recognise that Brits are a proud, culturally-heritaged bunch and that centuries-old traditions and values were encapsulated in the name. Consignia had no association or meaning to the population, sounding more like an Italian airline or, ironically, an American branding consultancy. Not the sort of organisation the Queen would trust her correspondence with. However, if Royal Mail had been called Consignia when it was first created, would the company and its businesses be smaller or larger, or otherwise significantly different? The answer is probably not.

Other not so well known examples include the re-branding of Backrub to Google, and Marafuka to Nintendo. What makes these two examples different is that the brand names were changed prior to any large-scale commercial success or before the world established any values or associations with those terms. A reversion back to their original form is now near impossible as they are a fundamental part of our global vocabulary.

So the key message is that naming is not something to be taken lightly. In an ideal world the trick is to get it right first time. If you don’t get it right first time, it’s a lot more difficult to change once the name becomes established and the values, perceptions and identity of the company become entrenched and almost inseparable from the name.

That’s not to say that the successful re-naming of an established brand is impossible (there are a number of success stories – for example the creation of Aviva from the 200-year old Norwich Union and CGU insurance brands) though it is important to question whether it is really necessary (is it really necessary to replace the term ‘school’?). If it is, the trick is to transfer the good from the old brand to the new.

So how do you go about re-branding? Good branding is not about original thinking. It’s about focus, consistency and doing the right thing. Although there are no hard and fast rules, some criteria suggested by researchers as factors which affect the recall and recognition of names are as follows:

• Brand names should be simple so that they are easy to understand, pronounce and spell. Two words in the name should be considered the maximum.
• Brand names should be vivid in imagery so that the mnemonics present strong memory cues.
• Brand names should be familiar sounding so that much of the information to which the name relates is already stored in the mind.
• Brand names should be distinctive so that the word attracts attention and does not become confused with other brands.

B2B International is an expert in branding and re-branding, and has developed a unique and tested model for analysing and building a strong corporate position that has been endorsed by some of the largest companies in Europe and the US. To learn more about how B2B International can help you, contact our Branding Research Team.

One thought on “What’s in a name?

  1. [...] and values to name but a few. But can there be any doubt about the importance of a brand name? In a Thursday Night Insight article last year, Chrissie Douglas gave us some hints on selecting a brand [...]

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