It was the final straw. Momentum Marketing had finally landed a meeting with a major soft-drink company -- precisely the kind of blue-chip client the Alexandria, Va.-based event marketing firm coveted. But almost as soon as it had been scheduled, the meeting was canceled. Apparently, the client had learned that Momentum had previously worked for Coca-Cola and saw some potential conflicts.

Nierenberg was furious -- because Momentum Marketing had never even come close to working with Coca-Cola. Instead, his 64-person company was being confused -- for what seemed like the millionth time -- with Momentum Worldwide, a subsidiary of the huge advertising conglomerate McCann Worldgroup that often bid on the same contracts. Nierenberg grabbed the phone to try to explain the snafu. But the client had already selected another firm. Says Nierenberg: "Rumor becomes reality -- and it's done."

Momentum Marketing had seemed like the perfect name when Nierenberg and co-founder Brad Beckstrom founded the company back in 1995. "It sounded cool, forward, and motivating," Nierenberg says. And at first, the existence of another, larger Momentum wasn't much of a problem. In fact, the confusion sometimes helped Nierenberg and his colleagues land meetings with clients who thought they were dealing with a company with 72 offices in 49 countries and accounts like Bacardi and Buick -- not a start-up founded by two twentysomethings. But the mix-ups were now sparking little more than frustration. Says Nierenberg: "We were missing opportunities."

After the soft-drink debacle, which occurred in early 2002, Nierenberg sat down with his executive team. Enough was enough, they all agreed. They decided to discuss their options with a consultant, and the man was blunt. "Every day you go on as Momentum Marketing," he said, "you are building equity for another company." The solution was obvious: Momentum Marketing would have to change its name.

Nierenberg knew it would be risky. After all, the firm had been doing business as Momentum for nearly a decade. It had developed a solid reputation for innovative campaigns for clients such as MasterCard and Geico. A name change, if mishandled, risked squandering that brand equity. There were also more prosaic concerns. How does a mature company like Momentum even go about selecting a name? How do you educate clients about the change in a way that doesn't confuse them? They were scary questions, but Nierenberg knew it had to be done.

In early 2003, a six-person committee, comprising employees at all levels, began meeting for a full day once a month, brainstorming words and phrases, searching for the one that would best express the firm's values, approach, and people. Almost immediately, it became clear to Nierenberg that choosing a new name was as much an opportunity as a challenge; the process, he saw, would allow Momentum to reassert and redefine exactly what it stood for. Momentum's execs had long wanted to move beyond the narrow event marketing niche and become a full-service marketing and brand-strategy agency. The right name could go a long way toward bringing about that change.

Eventually, the committee generated 350 potential names. As the art department began thinking about logos, staffers started researching candidates, to make sure the best ones were not already taken. By spring 2004, the list had been whittled to three: Vault, Avid Experiential, and Red Peg. Nierenberg spent the summer pondering his options, running them past clients, employees, and friends. It was hard to decide. He liked the sense of security implied by Vault, which also offered a feeling of upward movement. Avid Experiential, he felt, communicated a sense of energy. And Red Peg, inspired by the board game Battleship, communicated accuracy and precision. But the process had dragged on longer than he expected -- almost two years -- and it was time to make the call. Which name could Nierenberg live with forever?

The Decision

Avid Experiential was the first to be rejected. It was too narrow, executives decided, and would do little to help Momentum break out of the event marketing niche. Vault was deemed too heavy and static. Then there was Red Peg. The more they thought about it, the better it sounded. Not only did it have a nice internal rhyme, but it also neatly summed up the company's mission. "Everything we do is focused on hitting the right customer, at the right time, in the right way," Nierenberg says.

Nierenberg unveiled the new name at the company's annual three-day retreat in September 2004, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Employees were split into teams, each of which painted a small section of what was to be a large mural. When the pieces were stitched together, the company's new name and logo -- a bright-red exclamation point -- appeared. The room erupted with applause. Two years of hard work and waiting were finally over.

Red Peg's official launch was scheduled for February, and there were thousands of details to attend to. Everything bearing the firm's name -- marketing materials, e-mail signatures, business cards, letterhead -- needed to be redone. Marketing chief Liz DiLullo issued each employee a Red Peg Style Guide, a manifesto detailing how the new name should be written (two words, capital R and P) and what the logo meant, and explaining the firm's new mission statement. As the launch date approached, DiLullo began holding mandatory two-and-a-half-hour training sessions, addressing every aspect of the new name. All employees got new stationery, as well as hats, sweaters, pens, messenger bags, and fleece vests. DiLullo also made certain every employee could tell the story of Red Peg -- why the company changed its name, why it was doing so now, and what the name meant.

Meanwhile, DiLullo designed an e-mail blast and direct mailing around the new name. Nierenberg personally called some 500 people to alert them to the name change, answer questions, reiterate the company's commitment to its work, and gather feedback on the name launch. Many of the recipients already knew a name change was in the works, so none of the calls came as a shock. The main purpose of the calls, Nierenberg says, was to assure his clients that, with a new name and new mission, his company was more dedicated to their accounts than ever.

Finally, on the morning of February 1, DiLullo hit the Send button. Some 7,500 people received an e-mail formally introducing the new name, logo, and Web address. Now, several months into doing business as Red Peg, Nierenberg is pleased with the results. "People are so passionate -- all levels of our organization," he says. "People really stood up and showed they have vision." Still, Nierenberg admits he does have one regret: "Not pulling the trigger sooner."

The Experts Weigh In

A name change is an opportunity to wake up the marketplace. There is one critical thing you have to have in place: What is the story the name tells? You have a small window of opportunity to explain the name. Red Peg is fortunate in that it has a relationship-based business. I think it went the right path by keeping people informed."

David Gaglione
Associate director
Landor Associates
New York City

When we changed our name from Roseville Communications to SureWest Communications in 1996, I conducted research, held focus groups, and did surveys. It took about six months. Red Peg took the right approach, but it's not necessary to make the process two years long. When are you going to stop deliberating? There's a point where you say this is the amount of money and time I'm willing to spend."

Peter Drozdoff
VP of marketing
SureWest Communications, Roseville, Calif.

In the context of marketing, 'Red Peg' has no meaning. But that doesn't mean the name doesn't work. Red is the color of passion. So when the company talks about creating powerful emotional experiences for its clients, red works. But now that they've chosen a quirky and creative name, the people at Red Peg will have to build its meaning. It will take time and it will take money."

Rick Bragdon
Idiom Naming
San Francisco

Published on: Jun 1, 2005