Leadership at Uber and the Democratic Party would be the first to admit their respective organizations need to do a wholesale re-brand. The former has become the poster child for workplace harassment while the latter readily admits it's completely lost at sea.

There are many other examples from the recent, and not-so-recent, past of organizations that had to re-brand and re-name for one of the following reasons:

  • Like Uber and The Democratic Party, their names became synonymous with negativity and wrongdoing. Philip Morris changed its name to Altria, ValueJet became AirTran and Blackwater became ACADEMI.
  • Other organizations needed to find a new name and re-brand themselves because they had radically transformed their business models. Recently, Alcoa changed its name to Arconic to reflect its dramatic expansion beyond manufacturing aluminum products. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC to avoid the use of the "unhealthy" word fried. And GMAC became Ally Financial in order to distance itself from the huge image and reputation issues GM was suffering during the government bailout.

So, when should you re-brand and/or re-name your organization? I turned to friend, and longtime branding expert, Hayes Roth (harothconsulting.com), and asked him to list the reasons why you should re-name and/or re-brand:

  1. M&A/IPO. The most common reason. If you should find yourself in either scenario run, don't walk, to the nearest corporate/ID branding specialist because you're now in uncharted waters. When Kraft divested, one part becomes Mondelez. When KFC, Taco Bell & Pizza Hut merged, they became Yum Brands.
  2. Strategic Shift. If you're significantly changing your corporate strategy, redefining or updating the organization's name can help dramatize the move. Federal Express becoming FedEx and PricewaterhouseCoopers shortening its name to PWC are just two examples.
  3. Product or Service Crisis. If your current name has become terminally toxic, opt for a name change. Indymac filed for Chapter 11 during the mortgage crisis and renamed itself OneWest. And, Dow Chemical dropped "chemical" to avoid future issues. That said, more than one organization refused to change a key product name when ISIS co-opted their brand. Clearly, each decision needs to be carefully scrutinized.
  4. Major Competitive Threat. If there's a disruptive technology upending your industry, think about a new name. When Walmart redefined discount shopping, Kresge became Kmart within the decade.
  5. Major technology or category sea-change. When Apple invented the iPhone, even Barclays Bank jumped on the nomenclature wagon and created "i-shares." If a competitor's name has become iconic, consider morphing a product or service offering to reflect the new consumer or industry mindset.
  6. Mind the look. Be mindful of the visual image that accompanies your new name. Altria's post-Philip Morris logo reflected a clear brand strategy and great design. Gap, on the other hand, has engendered widespread wrath with their various brand refreshes over the years. Your best option is to work with professionals, create a sound brand narrative to inform your design, then test your new look with target audiences before it ever sees the light of day.

Roth was quick to point out that creating a new name is a complex, challenging undertaking for any sized organization and should only be undertaken as a last resort and for sound strategic reasons.

In the hope you'll find these tips helpful, I'll focus my next column on the steps you should follow to re-brand and re-position your firm.

Published on: Jun 29, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.