The game of the name

Andersen Consulting was reinvented as Accenture. The Post Office became Consignia. And now Yell (formerly the Yellow Pages) is to be known as Hibu. The corporate image industry is now a multi-million pound business. But can a rebrand ever turn around a failing business?

Like a balding man buying a sports car, when a company comes up with a whacky new name, chances are there's some kind of crisis going on. Yell yielded to the temptation of a zany name change this week as the Yellow Pages publisher announced it was spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a quirky new moniker that even its boss admits is meaningless.

Hibu, pronounced "high-bo", will be the new name for the Yell group and its online services, while the Yellow Pages division will retain its name.

Unveiling hibu as Yell announced a £1.4bn loss for 2011 and warned that "material uncertainty" cast significant doubt on its future, the Christening appeared to break rule No 1 of marketing nomenclature.

"The first step to a rebranding fiasco – decide to rebrand from a shaky position," said Paul Walton, chairman emeritus of The Value Engineers consultancy and author of Bluff Your Way in Marketing.

As he revealed the name, Yell chief executive Mike Pocock projected a mixture of bemusement, desperation and honesty. He argued that the company needed a new name, before heading off potential ridicule by dismissing the importance of names.

"The Yell brand was a dinosaur and was not relevant to their lives. We needed to change the name of the company to get at the influencers [especially among the under-35s] and the archetypally noisy 'soccer moms'," he said.

"When Yahoo! and Google and Apple first became known, their names didn't mean anything. They were just words. Hibu doesn't mean anything. It's what you do with it that matters, Mr Pocock said, adding: "What else can we do in the circumstances?"

Although it's unlikely that a name could make or break a business, many companies have spent fortunes changing them – with frequently disappointing, sometimes disastrous, results.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' consulting unit was established as a separate company and named Monday in May 2002 in a widely ridiculed branding exercise that cost $110m (£70.3m). Few were surprised when IBM dropped the name after buying the business five months later.

Andersen Consulting was renamed Accenture – derived from the phrase "accent on the future" – in 2001 following a complex legal US ruling requiring the company to change its name.

Philip Morris, the cigarette company closely associated with tobacco products, is now known as Altria, while food manufacturer Unigate changed its name to Uniq.

Perhaps the most infamous example of misjudging the public mood came when the Post Office decided to ditch its stuffy old image and pep up the vibe. Unveiling the new name in March 2001, after two years of intense brainstorming, the Post Office spent £2m changing its name to Consignia.

"The new name describes the full scope of what the Post Office does in a way that the words 'post' and 'office' cannot," the company's then chief executive John Roberts told bemused customers at the time.

However, 16 months later, with its plans to move into overseas markets in disarray and the apparently meaningless new name a household figure of fun – the company came up with a new brand: Royal Mail.

Except that, according to Keith Wells of the Dragon Brands Consultancy behind Consignia, the name was actually far from meaningless.

"It's got consign in it. It's got a link with insignia, so there is this kind of royalty-ish thing in the back of one's mind. And there's this lovely dictionary definition of consign which is 'to entrust to the care of'.

"That goes right back to sustaining trust, which was very important," Mr Wells said of his child, about a year after it was born.

So if Consignia passes the relevance test – and some may still insist it doesn't – what was the problem?

"If you want to fail, it's key to pick something that is pretentious relative to the category," said Mr Walton, revealing rule No 2 of his steps to staging a successful rebranding fiasco.

So maybe that was the problem. Perhaps the Post Office should have gone for the Ronseal approach and do exactly what it says on the tin.

Of course, it's very easy to criticise, but so much harder to deliver. You try coming up with a name that ticks all the boxes.

"Finding a name that hasn't been used before and doesn't mean something rude in one language or another, is extremely difficult.

"What's left is a dark mass of letters that don't mean anything, but can be sonically distinctive.

"Maybe a sonic, catchy name is the best you can do," said Zaid al-Zaidy, the chief strategy officer at the TBWA advertising agency in London.

Furthermore, being charged with changing a well-established name can definitely prove to be something of a poisoned chalice.

"You discard a brand name at your own peril. Yell, for example, had decades of meaning built into its name, but they clearly decided that Yell cannot carry them into the new world they want to occupy," Mr Zaidy said.

Pointing the finger partly – and fairly – at the media for "loving a good branding fiasco", Mr Walton said changing the name of a product dear to a consumer's heart "feels like an emotional betrayal from a friend".

His top example of this came way back in 1990, when the Marathon chocolate bar changed its name to Snickers in a move that still rankles after all these years. Consumers complained that the name change – implemented to give the bar the same name internationally – in its own small way, took their childhoods away, Mr Walton said.

The lesson seems to be that, unless you really have to, don't change your name. But sometimes, when two companies merge – or a new business is formed – there's no way round it. In which case, what do you need to do?

"It's got to be catchy and instantly memorable, or obvious and with an instant meaning," said Mr Zaidy.

Silvia Rindone, a director in Deloitte's consumer business practice, said: "The name needs to create an emotional connection with the user, trigger a positive association, generate curiosity and be understandable.

"The emergence of digital and social media, like Facebook and Twitter, means customers are more powerful. This means they can really do damage if they don't like a name and really help if they do. So you have to be extra careful," she added.

Indeed, some firms have sought to harness the power of social media.

In August 2009, after Kodak's new, Zi8 rugged, waterproof, pocket-sized video camera was praised for its performance – but ridiculed for its name – the company launched a competition on Twitter to come up with a name for a successor.

Aimed at the consumer with an active lifestyle, PLAYSPORT was born. At a cursory glance, the name appears to tick all the boxes.

Sadly, with Kodak in administration, it may still end up in the graveyard of names.

 

This article previously stated that Andersen Consulting was renamed in order to distance itself its parent company's role in the 'Enron meltdown'. It has since been brought to our attention that the name change occurred before the Enron bankruptcy, and the article has been amended to reflect this.

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