Possibly increased business, firms hope, as they shed the old and register the new.
The domain name game is getting hotter all the time, with the URL "year2000.com" fetching bids of up to $10 million on eBay (the bids were bogus, the furor was not). Meanwhile, established online businesses are changing their names at a pace that's breathtaking, even by Net standards. But why would Computer Literacy, an online book and content store in Silicon Valley, change its name to Fatbrain.com? What's the rationale?
"Our original name, Computer Literacy, was descriptive but confined us," says Chris MacAskill, CEO of the Santa Clara, Calif., firm. "Sony is a great brand. Cisco, Intel, Coca-Cola--none of these confine you in any way. Names like drugstore.com trade off early success for 'what can you be when you grow up?' "
MacAskill's comments are echoed by other name-changing companies. "We felt GreenTree was a great brand for wellness and natural products, but knew it wasn't big enough," says Tim Hogan, director of marketing for the company formerly known as GreenTree, now more.com, in San Francisco. "In our case, the drugstore is just the beginning. We will sell other products in the future. A name like more.com telegraphs that message."
Escaping a too-narrow definition was also the goal for encoding.com of Seattle, which was rechristened Loudeye in December. "We were founded on encoding services, but now we have evolved into providing applications and a complete digital media solution as well," says Melanie Hoff, marketing communications manager of Loudeye. "We needed a broader name to encapsulate everything we did, not just a sliver of what we did. And the name Loudeye does reflect the audio and video aspect of our business." (To access Loudeye's Web site, visit loudeye.com.)
Not every name change is intended to broaden a company's horizons. In some cases, the goal is to become more specific. "Unwired Planet didn't signify what business the company was in," says Rowan Benecke of PR 21, the firm that helped the Redwood City, Calif., company change to Phone.com last April. The company enables the delivery of Internet-based services to mass-market wireless telephones. The name Phone.com "helps the company spend the least amount of money to communicate what it is in the least amount of time," Benecke says.
A glance at other recent name changes demonstrates the continuing drive for intuitive URLs. Take support.com of Redwood City, which formerly was called Tioga Systems. This portal enables ISPs to provide Web-based support, as its new name more clearly indicates.
In other cases, companies are striving for catchy names--even if they don't convey anything specific. GetWebby of Brisbane, Calif., a community software firm, changed its name to Cahoots to gain better brand recognition. (The Web site is at cahoots.com.)
Despite these exceptions, there is "definitely a trend" toward more-generalized, less-intuitive URLs for online companies, says Seema Williams, a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. That's a shift from prior thinking. "One of the big things in the last couple of years was to get the most specific URL possible--furniture.com, drugstore.com, you-namethecategory.com," says Williams. "Trying to get killer-category status online was the goal. We've learned that this is not necessarily the best model."
Williams says the trend toward more general names is driven partly by the business models behind the name. "The challenge for established companies like drugstore.com is to do the reverse of what Amazon did--take a name associated with a particular category and expand what it stands for," she says. And she thinks it's gaining favor. "New companies will follow the trend," she adds.
While a name change might seem like cosmetic surgery, it can have a dramatic impact on a company's success. Fatbrain.com is an example of a company that went gangbusters after changing its name. "Our company's stock soared 36 percent on March 29, the day the name change was announced, opening at $20.75 a share and closing at $28.25," MacAskill says. "Over 40 publications ran stories about the change. Since the name change sales have increased 40 percent per quarter." Hits have increased accordingly.
How do companies come up with those new names? Naturally, marketing research plays a part, but not as much as one might think. More.com did several rounds of focus-group testing, considering more than 1,000 possible names, but ultimately Don Kendall, the company's CEO, chose the name.
"Fatbrain.com" was the brainchild of Deborah Bohn, the company's editorial director. The name tanked in focus-group testing, but ultimately prevailed. One of the main reasons: It was memorable.
According to MacAskill, "Yahoo could be remembered by 97 percent of the people seven days later, and I have yet to encounter anybody who doesn't remember Fatbrain after seven days." n