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Maybe it’s a trend, maybe it’s a coincidence, but lately I’ve seen an uptick in companies reaching out to me for “name assessments.” In each case — based on a hunch or a few too many snide comments from customers — the client was seeking an informed opinion on whether or not it was time to change their company name. If you’ve ever wondered whether a company or product name needs to change, this article provides some of the basic considerations I’ve shared with my clients and an overview of my approach assessing a name.
To provide a recommendation to my clients, I pore through any existing research, conduct some of my own, and look at how a name stacks up against its competitors’. On one recent project, I recommended the client keep their current name. They did. On another, I recommended a slight tweak to the company name, but the client decided against the change. In other words, despite legitimate concerns around both of these company names, neither of them wound up changing. And, big picture, that’s a good thing; brand names should almost never change.
Err on the side of consistency
When clients ask about changing a name (or a logo, for that matter), I always remind them that their default position should be to avoid change. Both long-standing marketing wisdom and recent marketing science point to the importance of consistency in building strong brands. In their 1981 classic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote, “More than anything else, positioning requires consistency. You must keep at it year after year.” And more recently, Dr. Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute advised, “When assets have been embedded for a while, it is tempting to tinker with them. Don’t. … Fight the natural urge … to change your Distinctive Assets.” (Building Distinctive Brand Assets)
Don’t change a long-standing company or product name simply because you’ve grown tired of it or a handful of customers have pointed out its flaws. Name changes come with many costs — time, money, lost brand equity — and risks. And there is no perfect brand name. (Upon hearing “Nike,” founder Phil Knight said, “I guess that’s the best of the bunch. Maybe it’ll grow on us.”) Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, work to build awareness, associations, and preference around the existing name.
How to assess a brand name
Whether a brand name works depends on context, so the first step in evaluating a name is learning about the underlying company or product, the audience(s) for the name, and the competitive landscape. You may want to start by conducting some interviews, reviewing marketing or strategy materials, and checking competitors’ websites.
Rooted in an understanding of the context, brand names should be assessed in each of three categories of qualities: strategic, creative, and technical:
- Strategic qualities can include what the name means or implies to relevant audiences, whether the name is flexible enough to continue working despite foreseeable changes in the business, and distinctiveness — the name’s ability to stand out against the names of competitors or peers.
- Creative qualities include memorability and whether or not a name sounds and looks good. While these qualities are subjective and therefore harder to assess in absolute terms, they can be estimated in relation to competitor names. Furthermore, measurements of the name’s performance on creative qualities can be informed by the consensus opinions of customers or internal stakeholders.
- Technical qualities, like legal availability, linguistic viability, and ease of spelling and pronunciation, are arguably the easiest to measure. For example, a search engine or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s free, online database (Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) can uncover most potential legal risks. And a translation firm or site like Google Translate can shed light on possible linguistic disasters — a name having unintended meaning, associations, or pronunciation challenges in a relevant market.
To conduct the assessment, assign the name “grades” in each of these categories of qualities. The grades should be informed by your understanding of the context, including competitor names and objectives for the brand name. Your work may highlight the name’s weaknesses, but don’t jump to the conclusion that a change is necessary. Many brands have succeeded despite seemingly problematic names, including Google (too cute to be taken seriously), Netflix (no longer descriptive of everything the company does), Nike (unclear pronunciation), Kodak (meaningless), and Diesel (negative connotations).
When should you change the brand name?
Of course, there are situations in which a name change is recommended, or even necessary. Here are six situations in which a name change may be required:
- Legal challenges: If you receive a cease and desist letter from someone using a similar name for similar goods or services — and their use of the name precedes yours — you may be forced to find a new name.
- Offensiveness: We’ve seen a lot of these lately. If your brand name is racist, seen as cultural appropriation, or otherwise deemed offensive (even if unintentionally so), maybe it’s time for something new.
- Merger or acquisition: When joining forces with another company, you’ll have to decide whether to keep one company name, combine the two, or create something entirely new.
- Infamicide: Death by infamy, a term coined by Anthony Shore of Operative Words. Sometimes, a perfectly good name can get caught up in a PR nightmare. When the coronavirus pandemic began, people wondered whether Corona would change its name. While the Mexican beer seems to be sticking to its guns, brands in similar situations have chosen to rename: in 2014, Isis Wallet, a mobile wallet platform, became Softcard.
- Bullies: In rare cases, large, successful companies cause smaller companies to change their names — even if they’re not operating in the same industry. For example, imagine you run a local clock repair shop named TikTok Clocks. Rather than try to fight an uphill battle against confusion (online and off) against the Chinese social media giant, you may consider a name change.
- Growth: Entering new categories or countries may necessitate a name change. For example, names that don’t cause linguistic disasters (see above) in a brand’s home country may prove problematic as the company expands across borders.
Name changes, whether at the company or product level, need to be assessed on a case by case basis. Assessments should be informed by the brand’s context, and the default position should always be to avoid change. If you’re debating the pros and cons of changing a brand name — maybe for one of the reasons listed above — the steps and framework above will help you make the right call.