Brand equity is precious. The big risk in any complete rebranding effort is the loss of important equity with existing customers and prospects of the brand. It’s a big step. Brand loyalists typically resist change. Which may explain a couple of recent semi-name changes designed to invigorate the brand while keeping one foot firmly in the current brand sphere.
A shack attack
Radio Shack has decided to uninstall the radio in their name, but only by putting “The Shack” out front as a supposed “nickname” for the brand. The stores will remain branded with “Radio” in the official title, but the brand communications will focus (for a short time, I expect) on The Shack. “Our friends call us ‘The Shack!’” chirps the new campaign. Brand historians will recall that Circuit City tried this same approach in 2007 when they dubbed their new concept stores “The City.” (Hey guys, how’s that workin’ for ya?)
To be fair, name compression worked beautifully for Federal Express, which adopted the widely used moniker, FedEx, as its official name in 2000. But in this case they risked none of their equity. There is little else that could be confused with the name. It actually became more unique than anything “Federal” or “Express” could ever do for them singly or in tandem.
But “The Shack” has none of those advantages. A shack has a number of negative connotations, though I expect that The Shack’s brand managers want us to see it as cool and retro. Radio Shack’s real problem is that their brand name imagery of home-made shortwave radios is not a very relevant image anymore in today’s highly connected digital society. But, as with a certain fast food chain that touts a secret recipe of herbs and spices, just ignoring this disconnect won’t let them tune out their core brand problem.
Returning to the roost
I was surprised to learn that it was all the way back in 1991 that Kentucky Fried Chicken first obfuscated their brand with the “KFC” abbreviation to escape the stigma associated with their middle name. Never mind that “Fried” was what their customers loved about the product; they wanted distance from the negative health implications and were willing to retreat to their less meaningful initials. A common rationalization for a initializing is “that’s what people call us anyway.” This assumption is usually highly skewed by management’s own immersion in the brand and the common practice of using an abbreviation for internal communications to the point where everybody on the inside thinks that everybody on the outside is just as familiar as they are with the term.
News flash: They’re not!
Which might explain why after 18 years of pushing initials, KFC is re-rebranding (retro-branding?) with their original full name on store signage along with the current KFC name and logo. (The company actually noted that some of their stores never changed their vintage 1980s signage and will remain as is. So much for brand continuity the last 1.8 decades.) The real irony is that they are returning to their Fried roots just as Kentucky Grilled Chicken is taking off. Could there be a KGC in their brand future?
Sometimes you just want to ask, “Y?”
Despite coming off their best year ever, the Sci Fi Channel announced in July they are “changing” their name to the phonetically identical “Syfy Channel.” Somebody explain to me Y you would make it harder to understand your name. Their rationale is that “Sci Fi” is a generic term and that they can “own” their new brand name. My question is Y wouldn’t you want to own the category? No one else does. Y change your name to something that is more likely to be mispronounced and lead to confusion about the brand’s intent? Their management’s explanation is that they want to appear less geeky. (Translation: broaden their appeal to women.) But by expanding their appeal, they appear to be losing brand focus. Perhaps there is an omni-lingual cyborg Emperor from a faraway galaxy who can clear this up for me telepathically.
A simple test for editing a brand name is to think about new customers with little or no knowledge of your brand. Will they get it? Does the new name need more explanation than the old one? If the burden of explanation is higher (as in Syfy or KFC) or the name is fairly generic (as in The Shack, or The City) it will be that much harder or more expensive to link the meaning of your brand concept with the new name. This is not to suggest that there is always a simple solution, or that brand names shouldn’t ever change. But halfway solutions, while less risky, carry with them a high rate of failure and often treat the symptoms instead of the disease.