CORPORATE BRANDING: What's in a name?

In a year of major corporate rebrands, exclusive research for PRWeek illustrates how few were well received by the media. Alastair Ray explains why

Many PR professionals have to deal with a corporate rebranding at some point in their career. When it happens, managing the media's reception of the new brand is often one of the most challenging corporate projects they can expect to face.

The majority of the corporate rebrands that took place in the past two years are ample illustration of how negative publicity is a real PR concern.

A study for PRWeek, conducted by Echo Research, shows that not one rebrand got away without attracting significant negative coverage. While changes such as Royal Mail's move to Consignia and back to Royal Mail again, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers' decision to name its consulting business Monday could be expected to attract some negative coverage, even lower-profile brands have not escaped.

Aviva head of group media relations Ian Frater recalls how a succession of rebrands at his company have come under fire even when they've been the simplest possible changes. The merger of Commercial Union and General Accident led to CGU, while teaming up with Norwich Union created CGNU, before the insurance giant switched to Aviva.

'In a way, it's a no-win situation as you do not achieve acceptance of the name overnight. It does take time to build up the brand,' says Frater.

The choice of name is an acute concern for PR, particularly for brands operating in a global market. Scepticism tends to surround new brands with Latin roots or that are simply created words. The quest for company names that won't offend anyone in any language in any country has added fuel to the fire.

'I do not think you can change the environment at the moment which is in-built cynicism,' says Laura Haynes, director at brand consultancy Appetite.

'As soon as someone talks about rebranding and renaming its like a red rag to a bull.'

Corus head of company communications Helen Williams agrees: 'Every time a company rebrands or renames there's this expectation that the UK press will give it a savaging. It's about how compelling your logic is in order to justify your rebranding.'

Figures (see chart) show one of the best-received rebrands has been BT Cellnet's move to O2, with an almost even match of favourable and unfavourable coverage. That change was driven by the need to acquire a new brand after the mobile business demerged from BT's rump fixed-line operation.

But even when a clear business reason lies behind the change, this won't always guarantee favourable coverage when internal buy-in is missing, as Consignia discovered.

'The company was changing in status, it was becoming a PLC. It was also in the middle of an overseas acquisition programme and the name Post Office wasn't something that you could project internationally,' says Royal Mail PR manager Christine Gregory, of the reasons behind the move to Consignia.

'It was communicated initially by the chairman saying he didn't like the name and he was going to change it to RM Group. (This was) picked up in the papers. The communication was very much reactive rather than proactive,' she adds.

Philip Morris is due to rebrand as Altria early next year in a bid to remove the tobacco link from some of the company's non-cigarette operations.

Media relations manager David Tovar says: 'The perception out there was that Philip Morris is a tobacco company that also owns a food company and a beer company.'

Adopting Altria will, the company hopes, force people to reassess the breadth of the firm.

But when communicating such changes, the key lesson is: Don't talk about the logo. At Corus, Williams says a classic mistake can be 'trying to explain the new logo in great design terms'. Haynes agrees that PR departments are mistaken in thinking the new name or look is the big story.

Communications should instead focus on presenting the business case.

'It has to be absolutely compelling,' says Williams.

Companies that want to overcome the initial flak and build a new brand need to ensure the change signifies something of substance.

To that end, it is vital that the new name and the reasons behind it are also communicated to the widest possible stakeholder community.

At Aviva, staff were told at the same time as the City. 'We went into the reasons behind the change simultaneously,' says Frater. 'It was announced to staff around the world and we went into a little bit more detail about the background.'

For Corus, each part of the business had its own brand facilitators to help spread the message. Williams says spending on signage and new look uniforms also helped convince the workforce that the company was investing and was 'going places'.

Getting such buy-in is crucial, as the experience of Consignia again illustrates. Union opposition to the name change helped create the controversy that put the story in the news (PRWeek research shows the change also attracted the highest volume of coverage).

Appetite's Haynes argues that even before the change is made PR should secure buy-in and an understanding of the challenges facing the company among key stakeholders: 'Your clients should never be surprised by rebranding, it should follow naturally and make sense to them.'

And then there is the cost angle, which attracts much press attention.

Joanna Sale, QinetiQ head of external relations, had to deal with this contentious issue when the former defence research agency adopted its new moniker.

A group of MPs was claiming a much higher figure for the cost of the rebrand, alleging it was costing close to £2m when the actual figure was less than £500,000. 'We reacted to where the story was coming from on the day,' says Sale. 'We were able to change quickly throughout the first few hours because we'd thought through different scenarios.'

One item that can damage early acceptance of a new name is association with bad news admits Gregory referring to Consignia: 'The name change was then followed by unfortunately nearly a year's worth of bad news, so the name change was associated with a year's worth of bad news.'

This isn't necessarily something that communications can control and the time taken to push changes through can leave new names exposed to a range of other corporate issues. Philip Morris's new Altria brand has been in the market since it was announced in November 2001.

'I think that once we do launch the name we will be using whatever strategies there are to increase understanding of why we changed the name and what Altria stands for,' says Tovar.

But despite the difficulties that come with rebrands there are examples of new names that have been accepted. The acceptance of Diageo, which was ridiculed when announced as the new name for the merged Grand Metropolitan and Guinness, is a sign that people will often accept new monikers given time.

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