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What’s in a name?

Landor & Fitch’s Shannon Sandilands explores the importance of naming and what it means in terms of brand identity

Shannon Sandilands, Landor & Fitch

Senior Strategist

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A name is a powerful asset in a brand or even a celebrity’s toolkit. It can pique curiosity, convey a core message, and make them stand out from the crowd. Name changes have been hitting the headlines in recent months, with Kanye West’s change to Ye followed quickly by Facebook’s decision to rebrand as Meta. Name changes are, however, a risky business and can quickly backfire if not done in the right way.

Change of direction

Traditionally, a brand rename happens when its ownership changes. However, brands have increasingly come to see a name change as a way of marking a break from the past. A famous example of this was when Philip Morris changed its name to The Altria Group in 2003 to disassociate the company from a controversial smoking-related death court case.

Brands also rename when they feel their current name is too limiting and want to expand into new markets or appeal to new audiences. This was the official reason behind Facebook’s shift to Meta, with the company stating that the new name will better “encompass” what it does, from social media to new areas such as virtual reality. However, with the company facing a series of public relations crises, including the leaking of documents which exposed significant problems with the inner workings of the company, marking a break with the past has surely come into their thinking too.

Like brands, a celebrity’s name is an asset for engaging with audiences and bringing to life a vision that generates excitement. One might consider changing their name if their birth name is considered to be dull and won’t attract the desired attention, from Reginald Dwight becoming Elton John or Davy Jones turning into David Bowie - and, indeed, Ziggy Stardust and beyond.

In other cases, a celebrity already in the spotlight may change their name to signal a new stylistic or creative direction. For example, Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus Jr.) has explored several names over the years including Snoopzilla, The Doggfather and Snoop Lion. These names reflected stylistic developments within his music.

This was also recently seen with Kanye West changing his name to Ye. In an interview, he explained the name change reflected the word “ye” in the Bible, which meant “you”, and becoming Ye expressed humanity’s common good and bad. We can assume from this his name change represents an opportunity to reset conversations around his music and fashion and tell a new story.

More recently we have also seen celebrities reclaiming their birth name to take back ownership of their cultural roots and change the assumption that artists must adopt Westernised names. In 2021, Thandie Newton announced she was reverting to the original Zimbabwean spelling of her name, Thandiwe. In an interview with Vogue in April 2021, she explained her reasons for the name change, with Thandiwe being “her name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.”

Risk and reward

Overwhelmingly, renames are successful and often accepted by the public and media alike. However, in cases where it does go wrong, they can cost a company or celebrity much needed recognition and loyalty. This usually occurs when renames are poorly communicated and do not take into consideration an audiences’ view of the brand. 

When PwC was renamed to Monday in 2002 to convey new and fresh starts, the chief executive claimed Monday was “real word, concise, recognisable, global and the right fit for a company that works hard to deliver results.” However, it was rejected by confused customers who couldn’t link it to the company’s heritage and professional expertise. The name change was quickly reversed, with PwC having a far clearer link to the company’s history and being more identifiable than Monday. 

Leading food chain IHOP also saw a name change backfire in 2018 when it announced it was becoming IHOB to put more customer focus on its burgers. Although IHOP said the move was always planned to be a hoax, the brand came in for widespread criticism from cynical consumers and media alike, with Washington Post citing it as an example of “when brands exploit the Internet outrage cycle”.

Facebook should take note of these communication misfires. Its rebrand has already generated dismay and bemusement on media platforms, and so will need to be clear and consistent with communications going forward to ensure the launch isn’t completely overshadowed by public commentary.

Clarity is essential

Ultimately, naming is an art form, and a new name should tell an important story about the brand. It creates an opportunity to reset conversations and re-engage audiences. However, to make a name change successful, brands and celebrities need to be very clear with audiences about the change, why it’s happened and what it means for them. Without proper communication, audiences can be left confused about the reasons behind the change and disengage, leaving brands with more to do to win them back.

By ensuring consumers and fans feel involved in the journey, brands and celebrities can have a smoother transition that allows them to change direction while maintaining that all-important connection.  

Guest Author

Shannon Sandilands, Landor & Fitch

Senior Strategist

About

Shannon is a Senior Strategist for leading global brand transformation agency Landor & Fitch. She is highly skilled in defining creative-led and innovative brand solutions by taking a conceptual approach, critically analysing, and connecting all the dots to find the best solution. Through her work, Shannon aims to inspire, to impact and to create movements that will leave people, brands and the world a little brighter.

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