Saturday, June 30, 2012

Name Change

It's unusual when a company is happy you've never heard of them. Or when the guy who runs it says, "I'm going to be in the background; I'm going to be boring." But that's exactly the case with Ted Wright, president and chief executive of a firm called Academi From the name, you'd likely guess that it's a company somehow related to education, or perhaps research. But you'd be wrong. That's because Academi is the latest moniker for the company formerly known as Xe. Still drawing a blank? Go back one more masthead, and it might ring a bell: Blackwater Security. 

Yes, Blackwater, the company involved in number of high-profile dustups in Iraq, including a deadly 2007 shootout. Following the outcry over that, they reorganized and rebranded, but it wasn't enough. And so once again they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They're still in the security business, and once again lobbying Baghdad to grant them a license to bring guns and guards into the country to work as a private army for hire. But they're doing it with new business cards. 

It's a tactic that has worked before for many other companies that were seeking a break with their tarnished pasts. Airtran Airways is doing very well as a discount airline, thank you very much. Only those with long memories recall its former incarnation as ValueJet, and the fact that it was grounded after a horrendous 1996 crash in the Everglades. Likewise for Accenture, now a world-wide respected business consulting brand. It's former name? That would be Andersen Consulting, which didn't seem so bad until its parent, Andersen Accounting, became synonymous with "accounting scandal" in 2001. 

Of course, sometimes a change in name isn't driven by scandal. Sometimes the marketing people actually get it right, and find a label that works better than the original. The Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation changed its name in 1924 to International Business Machines, and later tweaked it to IBM. United Telephone was also associated with Centel, which had a piece of Central Telephone, not to mention a stake in Carolina Telephone. None of those really sung, so they dumped them all and consolidated under the name Sprint.  And the recruitment firm TMP Worldwide realized that its best foot forward was the label of its online portal, and so changed the name of their entire company to Monster. 

Then there are those that outgrow their humble beginnings. Jerry Yang and David Filo were students at Stanford when they created what would become the world's #2 search engine and web directory. They called it "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web." Seemed a little cumbersome, so they made an acronym out of "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," and came up with Yahoo. Or take pharmacist Caleb Bradshaw's attempts at a soft drink. He combined carbonated water, sugar, vanilla, rare oils, and cola nuts. The stuff, which he called "Brad's Drink," started to gather a following, so much so that in 1898 the name was changed to Pepsi-Cola. 

In that light, it's not surprising that just recently the Corn Refiners Association tried to polish the image of one of their flagship products. The trade group represents firms that make high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that almost singlehandedly has been blamed for America's bulging waistline. They petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration to start calling the ingredient "corn sugar," arguing that a name change is the only way to clear up consumer confusion about the product. Or more to the point, it would take the heat off. Alas, their wish was not granted. This just in from Washington: sugar is a term used for a food that is "solid, dried and crystallized." And while liquids can become solids, it usually takes more than just a name  change. 

However, if I were the CRA, I wouldn't give up so easily. They just have to go with something a little more catchy. After all, when "fried" started to become a dirty word, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC. Likewise for Philip Morris and its tobacco business, which rebranded itself Altria.  And if ever was an example of a hard pivot that worked, consider Diet Deluxe. The original name was supposed to put a positive spin on one of the most hated activities any individual can undertake. But when that didn't work, they didn't change the product, they just changed the label. The new name? Healthy Choice. Now doesn't that just feel better?


Marc Wollin of Bedford is thinking of changing his name to M, if only because it's quicker to text. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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