Should you ever try to resurrect a previously toxic brand?

No-one in their right mind would rebrand their investment bank as Lehman Brothers, so why are two companies trying to breathe new life into Arthur Anderson, asks Richard Elsen of Byfield Consultancy.

Why would you try to revive a toxic brand, asks Richard Elsen
Why would you try to revive a toxic brand, asks Richard Elsen
Why would you want to adopt the toxic name of a bank that even today represents the biggest bankruptcy filing in corporate history? It just simply wouldn’t work, because of the negative associations, would it?

That is the big question hanging over a current legal battle about use of the name Arthur Andersen, the scandal-ridden former ‘Big Five’ global financial services company. 

When, in 2002, it closed its doors for the last time and voluntarily surrendered its licences to practice it seemed clear that the Arthur Andersen name was dead. 

Fast-forward 13 years and this most toxic of brands is now at the centre of an international tussle over the right to revive the once proud name. 

In the US a firm called WTAS, based in San Francisco, announced that it had bought the rights to the Andersen name and that it would be rebranding as AndersenTax. Notably however, it won’t be offering its clients audit services.

WTAS, created by ex-Arthur Andersen senior executives, says that it carried out extensive research which revealed that over a decade after its collapse the brand still retains considerable cachet. 

It found that 83 per cent of respondents in the US associated Arthur Andersen with the word "ethical", which for many is quite a stretch, suggesting that the brand was well worth acquiring.

But WTAS’ dream may yet be shattered. In France a ‘new Arthur Andersen’ is set to be launched in 2016. 

Like WTAS in America, the French firm has been founded by ex-Arthur Andersen senior executives who also claim legal ownership of the name. Again, like WTAS, the French group also will not be offering audit services to its clients.

Regardless of who eventually wins the legal battle, can a revived Arthur Andersen brand deliver? WTAS and its ‘new Arthur Andersen’ rival certainly think so.

Thirteen long years have passed since the company’s demise, mortally damaged and mired in scandal, and the gamble is that the brand can make a successful comeback. 

And perhaps here’s why. 

In the US, around 30 per cent of CFOs inside large listed firms previously worked at one of the ‘Big Five’ accounting firms in their formative years.

Also, most of the 85,000 Arthur Andersen staff who lost their jobs when the firm collapsed in 2002 are still active decision makers in the corporate world. 

So perhaps the brand can be resurrected.

Whether the bid to revive Arthur Andersen is a hard-nosed business decision to accelerate growth by leveraging a well-regarded brand, or merely an expensive emotional error, is not yet clear. 

They say that time heals all wounds, and before long we’ll know if Arthur Andersen works, but I don’t see any energy companies seeking to rebrand themselves as Enron anytime soon.

Richard Elsen is chairman of Byfield Consultancy

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