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The 10 things every entrepreneur and CMO needs to know about when & how to rename a company or product.

By Jonathan Bell, Founder WANT Branding

Over the last thirty days, numerous iconic brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s as well as sports teams like the Washington Redskins have announced that they will change their names, or undergo a review of their monikers in a national moment of reckoning on racial equality prompted by the killing of George Floyd and the BLM movement.

With name changes now part of the national debate, it’s a great time to talk about when to rename a company. Entrepreneurs, CMOs, and business owners often face their date with destiny when they must consider a name change.

So when should a name change be considered?

10 reasons why you might need to change your name:

1. The name is too specific and limiting

Descriptive names are some of the oldest styles of names – think General Electric or the New York Water Company. While descriptive names do a great job of communicating what the business does, as a business moves beyond its core, these names may inhibit growth. For instance, in 1991, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed to “KFC” to shy away from the word ‘fried’ and appeal to more health-conscious customers. In 2018, Dunkin Donuts shortened its name to just Dunkin’ to reflect the company’s expanded offerings of specialty coffee drinks and breakfast sandwiches (beyond doughnuts). Also, in 2018, WeightWatchers changed their name to ‘WW’ to reflect the organization’s broader focus on wellness and nutrition. Even brands like Apple and Tesla have evolved their names dropping the descriptors ‘Computer’ and ‘Motors’ respectively as the businesses have grown.

2. The name has become outdated

Twenty-First Century Fox, was the successor to News Corporation. Twenty-First Century Fox’s assets included the Fox Entertainment Group—owners of the 20th Century Fox film studio (the company’s partial namesake), the Fox television network, and a majority stake in National Geographic Partners—the commercial media arm of the National Geographic Society, among other assets. While the company was originally announced as the Fox Group, on April 16, 2013, Murdoch announced the new name as a way to suggest the retaining of 20th Century Fox’s heritage as the group advanced into the future. Its logo was officially unveiled on May 9, 2013, featuring a modernized version of the iconic Fox searchlights. The business was sold to Disney in 2018.

3. The name is too provincial

With roots going back to 1865, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation opened its doors in Hong Kong helping to finance trade between Asia and Europe. Recasting the business as a four-letter acronym has helped HSBC go from a regional bank to a global powerhouse with 4,500 offices in 70 countries. British Petroleum has always been abbreviated to ‘BP’ but a 2000 ad campaign by Ogilvy revealed a new tagline – ‘Beyond Petroleum’ – which not only moved the brand away from its roots, but also underscored the company’s new energy initiatives and efforts to be more environmentally friendly.

4. The name has baggage

In mid-2009, GMAC bank renamed to Ally in a clear effort to distance itself from its troubled parent, GMAC LLC, which had lost half a billion dollars related to bad automotive and mortgage loans from the 2008 recession. In 2001, Anderson Consulting’s rename to Accenture was partly driven by the animosity between its parent/sibling Arthur Andersen. The name Accenture was proposed by an company employee in a naming contest and was derived from the idea ‘accent on the future’. The two initial ‘AC’ letters in Accenture provided a subtle link back to the prior name Andersen Consulting. And, when Arthur Andersen imploded in 2002 due to financial irregularities connected with the Enron scandal, Andersen Consulting’s rename to Accenture seemed especially prescient.

5. The name is just a temporary solution

Back in 1996, Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s first foray into search engines was called BackRub. The program analyzed the web’s “back links” to understand how important a website was. Several months later, Page decided that BackRub wasn’t good enough and after some brainstorming, Googol – the math term of 1 followed by 100 zeroes – was proposed. The name was modified to its tweaked misspelling shortly after, and Google was born. And in 2010, when Kevin Systrom created a photo-sharing app prototype he initially named it ‘Burbn after the whiskey. Today we know Burbn as Instagram. Systrom later reflected on the name change: “Creating a business is about going through false starts, and Burbn was a false start.”

6. The name must evolve due to a merger or acquisition

In a merger of equals, like Exxon and Mobil, a simple conjoined name can work effectively. Other times, companies may agree to pick one of the existing names (aka the ‘stronger horse’ strategy) which occurred when DHL acquired Airborne Express. But many times, two companies may actively seek to create a new brand name as was the case when two of America’s large pet food manufacturers – CJ Foods and American Nutrition – joined together under the new name Alphia [named by WANT Branding]. The biggest benefits of a new name in an M&A scenario is that it signals a new chapter for the business, creates energy behind a new brand, and unites all employees under a single organization.

7. The name isn’t unique enough

In 2009, the Sci Fi Channel announced that it would change its name to SyFy. The rebranding helped to create a more unique, ownable brand that could distinguish the channel and its programming from cable competitors. Bonnie Hammer, a senior executive from the channel, said it best, “We couldn’t own Sci Fi; it’s a genre. But we can own Syfy.”

8. The name isn’t globally consistent

In 1930, Mars created Snickers, a brand name chocolate bar consisting of nougat topped with caramel, peanuts and covered in milk chocolate. However, in Britain and Ireland, the brand was called Marathon. In 1990, Mars decided to change the name of the British brand in keeping with the global market. Today the brand is the most popular chocolate bar in the world making over $3B a year. However, in 2019, Mars UK announced that the Marathon brand name would return and be sold for a limited three-month engagement exclusively at British supermarket chain Morrisons. The package revealed the Marathon name while a strapline below the brand read “retro edition by Snickers”.

9. The name must cease and desist

The entertainment company once known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, had to change its name due to a trademark violation. World Wildlife Fund, a global conservation organization founded in 1961 that carries the initials WWF, sued the entertainment group and won on the grounds that it had broken a 1994 agreement that it would limit use of the WWF initials. The WWF in 2002 changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment, and finally just WWE.

10. A business needs to split and the spin-off needs a new name

In 2005, American Express spun-off its financial advisory unit. The business had been the weak link at American Express, whose signature card, travel-related services and processing businesses were much more profitable. By creating a new brand, Ameriprise (independent of Amex) the intention was to unlock more shareholder value. Similarly, Agilent Technologies, was spun off from HP in 1999. The company provides analytical instruments, software, services and consumables for the entire laboratory workflow. The resulting IPO of Agilent stock was the largest in the history of Silicon Valley at the time.

How to rename – 10 ways how you can rename (spoiler alert: it’s not just about the name)

  1. First, take naming seriously

    Naming is one of the hardest tasks in marketing. It’s easy to come up with a name, but much harder to find one that’s trademark and URL available. Managing the whims and subjective preferences of key stakeholders can be especially challenging. Hire a naming agency that can bring expertise to the table to ensure you get the right name, and do it quickly.

  2. Confirm the most important decision-makers

    Before you do anything, figure out who needs to be involved. Who’s in charge? And when is the right time to engage different stakeholders? With corporate names, the final name decision will eventually go up to the CEO so we always recommend a quick chat with them first if possible.

  3. Create a brief

    A naming brief provides creative guidance and clarity to the naming team without constraining creativity. The brief also serves as a strategic framework for clients to objectively evaluate presented name ideas.

  4. Determine the best name types for your business

    Determine which of the seven unique types of names are right for your brand (see Jonathan Bell’s TED Talk ‘How to create a great brand name’ for more on this). Additionally, it’s helpful to figure out the core ‘idea’ you’d like to communicate in a name (note: a robust brand positioning helps a lot here). Some names naturally fall out of the positioning: the name Cingular came directly from the positioning idea “cellular technology, singular point of contact”.

  5. Get legal involved early

    Engage trademark counsel early to understand their timelines, risk tolerances and the relevant trademark classes. It’s important to get them primed and ready to search names before you get to a final shortlist. And, keep in mind, there’s probably a 95% failure rate on name ideas because of trademark conflicts.

  6. Don’t veer from the process

    A systematic naming process can funnel hundreds of name ideas down to a shortlist of 5-10 names. Never try to short circuit the process by picking out one name too early while ignoring the others; there’s a good chance it will fall out.

  7. Be patient: consensus-building & willingness to be open-minded are essential

    “Eureka” names where everyone magically agrees are like unicorns. Be patient, stay positive and look for ways to collaborate with decision-makers to reach consensus on name preferences. And, don’t look for the perfect name, names become perfect with 20/20 hindsight.

  8. Think beyond naming – what’s the brand strategy?

    What will the brand stand for? How will the brand be positioned?
    Positioning is about finding a big idea that can be differentiating and meaningful to customers as well as employees. A strong positioning creates a common understanding of what the brand stands for so everyone across the company can understand it and then act on it. Also, how will the business be organized and go-to-market in a way that best meets the customers needs?

  9. Communicate and activate the brand

    It’s not just about creating a new logo and style guide, a new identity should be the first step in thinking about how the brand can be activated consistently and coherently across every customer touchpoint. Build a team to invest in, execute and activate the new brand properly and engage employees and internal stakeholders.

  10. Ignore the haters

    Renaming and brand changes always cause a big stir and draw scrutiny and criticism from consumers, media and social channels. Humans are predisposed to despise change so don’t let initial pushback, an inevitable in today’s connected world, get you down. Listen to customer concerns but understand that brand change will look better in hindsight.

Thanks for reading all the way through.

If your company is thinking about renaming or rebranding, don’t go it alone, please shoot me a note. Jonathan Bell, Founder/CEO WANT Branding



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