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3 April 2009 | Paul Gostick Blog
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What's In A Name?
This week Paul looks at name changes and re-branding in the business world and why some have been more successful than others..

  Paul Gostick

Google began in January 1996 as a Ph. D. research project at Stamford University.  In his search for a dissertation theme, Larry Page considered, among other things, exploring the mathematical properties of the World Wide Web, compiling and understanding its link structure as a huge graphical model. His tutor encouraged him to research the WWW project and the rest, as they say, is history.

Page focused on the problem of finding out which web pages link to a given page. He considered the number and nature of such links to be valuable information about that page and the project became nicknamed ‘BackRub’. Sergey Brin, a fellow Stanford Ph.D., student joined the project and the partnership flourished. Page’s webcrawler began exploring the web in March 1996 collecting backlink data to analyse. Brin and Page developed the PageRank algorithm which converted the data into a list of backlinks ranked by importance for a given URL. This became the basis of a search engine based on PageRank that would produce better results than existing techniques. The domain google.com was registered on 15 Sept 1997 and Google Inc was born on 4 Sept 1998 at a friend's garage in Menlo Park, California.

Google started life as BackRub before changing in 1997 to a play on the word ‘googol’, a mathematical term for the number represented by a 1 followed by one-hundred zeros, reflecting its creators’ intention to organise and index a seemingly infinite amount of information on the internet.

Today, Google is used in everyday language and has become a generic term for search on the web. The verb ‘google’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, meaning, "to use the Google search engine to obtain information on the Internet". That is what I call brand recognition…

So, why am I covering this? Well there have been many name changes and re-branding exercises in the business world and some have been more successful than others:

The Post Office changed its name to Consignia in March 2001. It was not a resounding success as nobody had any idea what it meant. The general public disliked it and the employees loathed it. It’s difficult to live the brand under such circumstances and it was dropped in June 2002, to be replaced by the more traditional Royal Mail Group.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting unit was established as a separate company and named Monday in May 2002. The name attracted much derision in the media and spawned numerous jokes and puns. The re-branding exercise cost $110 million. Five months later in October it was sold to IBM and, you guessed it, the name was dropped and has disappeared without trace.

Andersen Consulting was renamed Accenture when it split from its parent company in 2001. The name is derived from the aspirational phrase “accent on the future”, which was submitted by a Danish employee in an internal competition.

British Airways' decision to drop the union flag from tailfins on its planes undermined its status as the country's flag carrier, cost £60 million and attracted much negative PR, most notably when, the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher covered a model aircraft showing the new tailfins with her scarf. Virgin Atlantic, seizing the opportunity, adopted the union flag on their aircraft. The fateful move was eventually scrapped by the new CEO, Rod Eddington and the union flag from the Concorde tailfin was re-instated on all BA planes.

Today, you cannot help but notice the latest corporate re-branding exercise that has hit our screens. Norwich Union which has stood the test of time for 200 years is to be re-branded Aviva. The change will bring the UK company into line with the rest of the insurance group's worldwide brands. Looking into the re-branding reveals that Amanda Mackenzie, Aviva's group marketing director, is at the helm. She commented that the name-change logic is straightforward: “We have 27 markets around the world and thought: Wouldn't it be good and sensible to have the same name around the world.” Mackenzie has overseen many brand changes in her career, so the exercise should be in experienced hands. She worked at BT when it changed its logo from a piper to a globe (anyone remember what the piper was called in the media?) and was at Mars when it changed Marathon to Snickers and Opal Fruits to Starburst.

The Aviva name is already used successfully in more than 20 countries around the world. It can be argued that whilst having one brand is a really sensible option, the fact is that Norwich Union is so well known in the UK that it makes you wonder if it is too valuable to give up. In the insurance industry where product differentiation is difficult, having good visibility, customer recognition and trust is critically important. What matters is the list of companies that a consumer thinks of when someone asks them about insurance. Let’s face it, for most people it is a grudge purchase and they go for the cheapest price, a situation exacerbated in the era of comparison web sites. After all, in that context the only differentiator an insurance company might have is its brand name.  Trust is essential, what you want to know is that if and when you have to make a claim the company will be there to help you. Norwich Union has that brand recognition. The re-branding runs the risk of throwing away all the heritage, trust, prestige and brand recall built up over the last 200 years.

Re-branding is a risky business. Aviva must establish the name as clear, modern and relevant to consumers. At the present time I am not sure that Aviva means very much to the consumer. Given the current economic climate this should be a major worry for a financial services company. Consumers are skeptical, particularly so, during a period when they are concerned about the security and standing of businesses handling their financial affairs. Good execution will be essential.

In changing its name to Aviva, it wants to emphasise its global nature and mission to be the most customer-focused insurance company. The strapline is: “A change of name is not just a change of name, it is a chance to show the world what you've always wanted to be”. The internal brand promise is: “No one recognises you like Aviva”.

The Aviva television and internet advertising campaign is interesting in that it uses a number of famous people namely Eleanor Gow, Richard Starkey Jr, Vincent Furnier and Walter Willis with something in common. Who, I hear you say? Well they all changed their names successfully and you probably know them as Elle Macpherson, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper and Bruce Willis. Norwich Union hopes the switch to Aviva will give it similar success. Did you get the connection when you saw the advert?

Norwich Union is well recognised in the UK but less so in international markets when the company generates 60% of its revenues. Research has shown that 46 per cent of the UK public recognise the yellow-wedged emblem based on Norwich Cathedral.

The company has embarked on a massive internal and external communications programme to avoid the problems that the Post Office faced which resulted in the name Consignia being dropped. The company argues that ‘clear and consistent stakeholder communications’ are vital for keeping staff, customers, partners and shareholders on-side, particularly when killing off a brand that has such a strong heritage in Britain. That’s as maybe, indeed it’s good textbook stuff, but in the middle of a recession and with the news that up to 1700 jobs could be lost it could be argued that the timing is not good and, in many circles, difficult to justify.

So is renaming a good idea? Only time will tell. Uniting behind one brand is part of the strategy to grow and transform the business to compete on a global scale. It’s a brave move and I wish them well.

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 

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