Despite the sweetness of the confectionery business, a Belgian chocolate brand found itself in a bitter struggle last year. The company had been making its famous pralines since 1923, but suddenly the only thing getting attention was the brand’s name: Isis.
That a chocolate-bunny company shared a name with a terrorist organization posting beheading videos on YouTube was, of course, pure coincidence. “Had we known there was a terrorist organization with the same name,” marketing manager Desiree Libeert told Reuters, “we would have never chosen that.” But the brand had chosen the name. And four months ago, it decided there was only one solution for the problem: getting rid of it.
It’s not often that a brand has to take a step as drastic as scuttling its name. After all, a brand’s entire identity—its personality, recognition and differentiation—rests with its name. Tom Sepanski, naming and verbal identity director for global branding firm Landor, routinely advises companies to look for ways to avoid changing it.
“It’s a pretty serious undertaking, just from a tactical standpoint, let alone an emotional one,” he said. “Are you prepared to leave every cent of the equity that you’ve built up on the table? Because, as soon as you change your name, the brand you were no longer exists.”
Of course, in the case of Isis—the chocolate, which now goes by the family name Libeert—that’s probably a good thing. It can also be a good thing when a company sheds a clunky or limiting name for something cooler and more future-focused. Nobody faults Larry Page and Serge Brin for scuttling BackRub in favor of Google. Ditto for Apple Computer’s 2007 decision to become just Apple.
But because name changes tend to happen when a brand finds itself painted into a corner—when brands merge, encounter legal troubles, or suffer some kind of public relations catastrophe—the results are often mixed. When troubled Andersen Consulting spent some $100 million to change its name to Accenture in 2001, critics charged that the new name was even duller than the original. And remember Qwikster, the hastily launched DVD-by-mail division of Netflix? Actually, you probably don’t. The new brand was so unpopular it barely lasted a month.
A recent study by U.K. research firm MillwardBrown found many brands that change their names can expect an immediate 5 percent to 20 percent drop in sales, and that the new brand image “may not be as strong as it was before.”
If nothing else, name changes are instructive for other brands. Below is a roundup of some of the more notable ones, and what happened.