Branding irons

We have gone through some really silly corporate name changes that have thrown away branding efforts.

Putting brand marks on products is as old as the complete history of manufacturing. Makers' marks have been added to just about everything that has involved humans; they have been carved into the beams of the roofing in homes and the edges of drawers in furniture, they have been signatures on pictures, and they have graced fine jewelry in the form of hallmarks. Even today we them: semiconductor design engineers add caricatures in silicon and automotive engineers placing text behind the seat cushions of a hand-made cars. But most brand marks are meant to be visible — they are boost ymarket recognition, making you better known.

When you see the name “General Electric” you understand that the business, at least initially, has something to do with electrical products. Some of the company's related operations also have names that are obvious in their activity, like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). But what does a company like Avaya do? Has it built a brand name with a word that is apparently meaningless? If you are a customer of the company's communications products you are probably aware of the name, but if you are not it is probably unknown and completely non-descriptive.

The word “branding” has been coined, and there are now branding managers whose job it is to focus advertising to make their brand better known and recognized. But during the years that brand has been understood for its importance, we also have gone through some really silly corporate name changes that have thrown away the efforts of the few who focused on branding.

The rot started with United Airlines which started off as a three word company — United Air Lines (UAL) — a style that is still used internally for the parent corporation and on things like the company's URL. But in 1987 (April 30) the company changed its name to Allegis. Whatever that name was supposed to mean (and at the time the company boasted that the name was invented by a computer) it was certainly not obvious to its customers. The name stuck for just over a year before the company regained its senses.

In electronics we have the same inexplicable changes being made. When Hewlett-Packard decided to make the printer manufacturing and sales part of its business a different entity to the rest of the company, it didn't re-brand that remaining business with something obvious. No, it gave the HP name away to the printers even though the company was founded on its test and measurement roots. I still twitch on hearing the Agilent name.

Or how about Agere? What is it? Why, it's Lucent's Microelectronics spin-off. It seemed bad enough losing the Bell Labs name to Lucent in the first place, but then you throw away those years of branding again? Bizarre. The crown jewels of Motorola — its semiconductor product sector — spun off as ON Semiconductor. Why?

Broadcasters also have begun name changing. Independent Television (ITV) started in competition with the BBC in 1955; under the authority of the Independent Television Association (ITA), franchises were awarded by geographical territory, with two franchises for London (one for weekdays, one for the weekend) so that the wealth would be spread about. Franchise renewal times were fraught with deals, lobbying and threats. That didn't work, what with the expenses of expanding, and two players have become dominant — Carlton and Granada. Those are both highly recognized brand names.

Advertising revenues have plummeted in recent years and the expenses of DTV have been dramatic. A little known and singularly unsuccessful digital entertainment channel was branded as ITV2 at its launch. Now the mainstream independent channels are being re-branded as ITV1, which will confuse a lot of people who have no knowledge of ITV2. To add to the pile of confusion, the digital DTV service, ONdigital, (owned by Carlton/Granada) will throw away the marketing it took to create that brand by renaming it ITV Digital. And its Internet on TV service will throw away its ONnet name to become ITV Active. The ITV Digital product name sounds like a DTV rebroadcast of ITV (1 or 2?), while the ITV Active product name sound more like an interactive service of some kind.

But while the public in the UK is being confused by those name changes, the British Post Office renames itself Consigna. Yes, branding created with the invention of the Penny Post is to become history. Why don't you Consigna (or, better yet, e-Consigna) me with your worst examples of re-branding, and maybe we'll revisit the topic in the future.

Paul McGoldrick is a freelance industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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