Name-Calling: When Rebranding = Renaming, PR Takes the Lead

Early this month, Matsushita Electric Industrial president Fumio Ohtsubo made a major announcement to the business world: The 88-year-old Japanese electronics manufacturer was officially leaving behind the name of its founder and adopting that of its most well-known brand, Panasonic.

The announcement is part of a trend that has had resounding implications for business and communications: Brands and reputations have become increasingly critical to organizational success; fragmented corporate identities no longer resonate with audiences; company names convey more than a simple combination of words; and, if not executed flawlessly, rebranding a company with a new name can be fatal.

Of course, all of these implications are intrinsically important to PR executives, who are charged with managing brands and identities--not to mention the mandatory messaging and communication about the name change that must go out to all internal and external constituents.

Given the fact that rebranding via name changes can happen at any organization, from a two-person firm to a multinational company, every PR professional should know the following best practices to avoid corporate identity crises.

*Conduct an identity audit. Before an organization ever attempts any type of rebranding--and especially when said rebranding involves a name change--it is essential that communications professionals spearhead a thorough identity audit to understand what the company is, was and intends to be. As Paul Argenti, professor at the Tuck School of Business, writes in Corporate Communication, Fourth Edition (McGraw-Hill), communications execs can conduct identity audits by taking the following approach:

"[They] conduct in-depth interviews with top managers and those working in areas most affected by any planned changes. They review company literature, advertising, stationery, products and services and facilities. They also research perceptions among the most important constituencies, including employees, analysts and customers. The idea is to be thorough, to uncover relationships and inconsistencies, and then to use the audit as a basis for potential identity changes."

*Ask constituents for input. As PR execs proceed with the identity audit, they should ask key constituents to give their own perceptions of the company. For example, the executives at then-Matsushita surveyed consumers about their level of recognition surrounding the company name versus its Panasonic brand. Then, perhaps more strategic, they e- mailed questionnaires to journalists, seeking their advice on what it would take for the media to consistently refer to the company as Panasonic.

It is essential to get these insights from consumers and media because they will inform the communications strategists of potential land mines that would have otherwise been overlooked.

*Brainstorm names that reflect the brand's values, as internal and external constituents define them. "Introducing a new brand is not just the introduction of a new name and brand identity," says Stephen Debruyn, VP of marketing for Cision. "It is an opportunity to identify the values the brand stands for, and to communicate these values both internally and externally. This fills the 'empty vessel' of the new brand and overtime imbues it with meaning."

Debruyn speaks from experience, as he was integral to last year's rebranding of the Observer Group to its new iteration, Cision. In this case, the company faced the challenge of multiple brands under one umbrella organization that meant different things to different people.

"While Cision is not a Fortune 500-sized company, its branding issues were complex because so many entities had to be integrated, some of them with very strong brand names of their own, into a single global organization," Debruyn says. He worked with Landor, a branding services firm, to choose a name that reflected the brand, though paying outside consultants is not the only way to successfully rename a company.

*Know your options. Because you can trademark everything these days (case in point: "You're fired"), it's not only difficult to choose a name that reflects your brand; sometimes the hardest part is finding a name that hasn't already been taken. Thus, when beginning the brainstorming and selection process, consider these options:

  • Real words: Apple

  • Combinations of existing words: BlackBerry

  • Derivatives of a real word: Accenture, Cision

  • Surnames: Ernst & Young

  • Non-words: Google

Then, of course, it's essential to work with a legal team to ensure that the name hasn't been trademarked elsewhere (for additional caveats, see sidebar).

*Roll it out in phases. Don't drop a bomb on constituents by announcing the new name and then conducting business as usual; rather, build a core team of people who are dedicated to the rebranding/name-change process.

"You need a small team empowered to set the schedule and drive the program, with CEO-level authority to make decisions and get the job done," Debruyn says. "At the same time, you need to include a broad cross-section of representatives from all locations and levels of your organization to ensure you get a consensus that will result in effective implementation."

Employees should be the first to know about the name change, as they will be the stewards of the new brand. They need to know what it means to "live the brand" both internally and externally. Then, update the corporate Web site and all other corporate entities with the new brand name (and new logo, if applicable). Finally, communicate the change to external constituents while maintaining a very transparent approach. Beyond the simple name change, they should understand the reasons behind the decision; otherwise, they will likely be resistant. PRN


Paul Argenti, [email protected]; Stephen Debruyn, [email protected]

Side-Stepping Land Mines

When your rebranding efforts involve a name change, Stephen Debruyn, VP of marketing for Cision, advises communications executives to be aware of the following caveats:

  • Don't abandon an established brand name unless you absolutely have to. It takes time and it is a major investment to establish a new brand, and there is a risk you will lose your customers along the way.

  • Don't think of it as simply a renaming exercise--that's only the start of the process. Too many organizations change the name and expect the rest to take care of itself, and lose sight of the true opportunity rebranding represents--that of defining the identity of the brand based on specific corporate values.

  • Remind everyone there are no bad ideas. Often names that sound horrible when you first hear them will grow on you. New names never jump out at you. Be open to creative approaches when trying to decide on a name and identity, and take some time to build consensus. Create internal buy-in by encouraging employees to submit ideas for the new corporate name. Some of the best-known corporate brands were created by employees, not consultants.

  • Don't fall too deeply in love with any name until after you've done your global legal search on availability. Cision had numerous good options, but some were unavailable in some regions of the world where it needed to be. The Cision name worked worldwide, and over time a strong consensus was reached that it was the best and, in some people's minds, the only name that fully conveyed what the company was trying to accomplish.