Changing an agency's name in order to move past limitations

Sometimes firms outgrow their names, whether eponymous or creative, due to expansion of services or a need for more market clarity. Beth Herskovits discovers best practices for adopting a new identity

Sometimes firms outgrow their names, whether eponymous or creative, due to expansion of services or a need for more market clarity. Beth Herskovits discovers best practices for adopting a new identity

When Renee Sall opened her own agency in 1986, she chose to name it after herself: Renee Sall Associates.

But after 15 years in business, she realized that the name had limitations. Clients and journalists wanted to speak only with her. In addition, the name did not tell what the company did - a business with the name "Renee Sall Associates" on the door could just as easily have been a law or real-estate firm.

Sall also realized that she might want to sell her agency someday. And she knew that, if she chose that route, she wouldn't want to sell her name along with her company.

"I've always had a small boutique firm," Sall says. "It really just takes the pressure off the owner of the agency" when the firm has its own name.

In 1997, Renee Sall Associates became Maximum Exposure Public Relations.

"It was catchier; it really captured what we did," she says. "I was happy to get rid of my name."

Dean Bender and Lee Helper faced a similar challenge in 1998 after partner Larry Goldman left the agency.

Bender, Goldman, & Helper was already well-established in the entertainment world, and its two remaining partners didn't want to lose the equity they had built into the 12-year-old brand. In addition, the change was more than a new name: Clients and vendors also had concerns about what would happen after Goldman's departure.

"You must look closely and see what you've established in the marketplace," Bender says. "You know how easily people get nervous about change."

After polling the office, Bender and Helper decided there was major brand equity in their names, but they also wanted a moniker that sold the agency.

Once they decided on Bender/Helper Impact, they used the name as a marketing tool. They sent name change announcements to 25 to 50 potential clients, describing the "impact" that the agency could provide them.

Bender notes that in some cases he personally called clients and vendors to speak with them about the decision.

For many agencies that choose a new name, the decision parallels a change in leadership. But others have found that names that seem appropriate at one point in their history don't always reflect long-term aspirations.

Adam Kluger, president of his now-eponymous agency, changed the firm's name from Bonehead Public Relations after he opted to move from the alternative niche to corporate clients. The change, he says, was "unavoidable."

PR21 became Zeno Group last October after six years in business. The name change reflected the new practices into which the agency was expanding, as well as new offerings.
"[The name PR21] caused to define in the mind of the market a set of services that we as an agency had expanded beyond," says John Berard, MD and technology lead. "We felt it was important to have a name that was a more effective umbrella."

Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, the Greek philosophy that had a strong focus on reason, virtue, and nature.

A new logo and website reinforced the name change. The agency also hired brand consulting firm Landor to create a "brand personality," Berard says.

Berard notes that the firm weighed its existing brand equity against its future goals. "It really does come down to whether the name will allow us to grow past the opportunity we already have," he says.

For integrated firm Colle & McVoy, rebranding its PR division as Exponent was a strategic move to make PR more visible and stress its importance.

"There is little room for confusion in the marketplace," says MD Riff Yeager. "We had to make it clear that we could compete against the best and the brightest standalone firms."

Yeager recalls that the first step in rebranding was explaining to employees why the change occurred. "This can be jarring to an internal audience," he says. "We wanted to make sure that everyone inside the agency understood what we were doing."

Sumner Rider & Associates, a firm that opened its doors in 1945, ceased to exist as a brand after it merged with parent firm Kellen Co.

But Michael Morris, VP of PR at Kellen Communications, notes that the firm has enjoyed rapid growth since the 2001 merger. "The truth is, the marketplace changes so rapidly today [that] the lifetime memory knowledge isn't really as long as it used to be," he says.

Introducing a new name

  • Be proactive about telling everyone - clients, vendors, staff - about the change
  • Use the change - and the reasons behind it - to market the firm to potential clients
  • Pitch the change to local, national, and trade press
  • Consider timing the launch with a major event, like a conference or trade show

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