3 misconceptions, 3 considerations and 3 lessons

During my 20 years in advertising my business earned very good fees developing great names for new enterprises.

For me this always gave rise to the question – what is in a name?

The recent acquisition of Toll Holdings and the decision by its purchaser to retain the Toll name also had recalling all of those conversations with clients during which they maintained that the name of a business:

  • Is ‘make or break’ critical
  • Should never change
  • Needs to be meaningful

The fact is, business names are important, but more for what they don’t do than what they do. I am very sceptical of claims that a name is ‘make or break’. Consider for a moment:

  • Apple
  • Nike
  • Price Waterhouse

What do these names say about the business or add to the branding. The fact is, the story around the name – or at least the story you build around the name, after the fact is much more important.

That said, it is essential that the name does not:

  • Offend the audience
  • Send a contrary message
  • Have to close a similarity with other names

Anything that offends the audience is bad, anything that conflicts with other messaging is not good and anything that is very similar to other names is not idea.

The decision to retain the name TOLL Holdings raises an interesting question about the difficulties associated with changing a name. In this instant, it is likely that changing the name to Japan Post may not have been ideal, and beyond that there would seem to be no good reason to change the name at all.

I believe and research suggests that avoiding name changes where possible is both cheaper and preferable from a marketing perspective. That said, I have no hesitation in suggesting to clients that they change their name where that is desirable.

I would and do argue, that while expensive, changing a name need not be a real problem and the claims about losing good will are in the main grossly over stated. So long as you resolve to inform the audiences of the change and give a rational reason for it, the dangers are, in my view very limited.

Consider for example:

  • Austral Brick (formally Metro Brick)
  • Nissan (formally Datsun)
  • Telstra (formally Telecom)

In all of these cases there has been continued and even accelerated growth after the change. Of course in the case of Telstra, some might argue that they were running away from the Telecom name.

If I had a dollar for every client that has told me that a name should be meaningful, I would be a very rich man, and I assure you I am only moderately rich. Consider:

  • Yahoo
  • Google
  • Sony

I have no idea what these names mean – beyond the meaning that the relevant branding campaigns have given them. I suspect you don’t either.

The implications of all of this are clear:

  • Names are important but not critical
  • Names can and often should change
  • Names will have the meaning you give them

I will in a future article argue that the situation is not a lot different for logos.

What has been your experience?

By the way, I would have left the TOLL name as is, just like Japan Post did. Just as there are no real dangers in changing a name, there is most often very little merit in it either.

This issue will be discussed in more detail on THE D. JOHN CARLSON NETWORK – www.djohncarlsonnetwork.com

  1. John Carlson is a behavioural scientist, strategic planner and lateral thinker focusing on branding, marketing and communication. Visit his blog – www.djohncarlsonesq.com
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