What’s in a Name?

Brand Equity Research Helps Companies Get Out Ahead of Forced Name Changes    

7/27/2020 – – In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously asks, “What’s in a name?” Dismissing the notion that nomenclature defines the character or essence of a person or thing, she states, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

In the current environment of raw racial and political tension, companies, sports teams, schools, government agencies, entertainers and marketers are asking the same question. And just like Romeo and Juliet, they’re learning that having the “wrong” name can lead to all sorts of trouble.

Pressured into action, such venerable brands as Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat, Eskimo Pie, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Land O’ Lakes and Aunt Jemima are being repackaged or retired because of names and images perceived to be offensive. The Washington Redskins of the National Football League and the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League will be playing as The Washington Football Team and the Edmonton Football Team until permanent new names are adopted. The Dixie Chicks now are performing as the Chicks, and Congress is calling for name changes at 10 U.S. Army bases named in honor of Confederate generals.

How do you feel about the name of your company, organization or products? Have internal or external audiences ever expressed concerns? Do you fully understand the history of your founders?

If you haven’t given these issues much thought, now is a good time to do some research — with an open mind. If there are any skeletons in your closet or unintended connotations to your corporate or product names, you want to identify them before others have a chance to distort your history and make demands. Most histories, even if imperfect, are defensible when presented in context. There are billions of dollars of equity in most established brands.  

How do you conduct such an examination?

When considering candidates for sainthood, the Catholic Church assigns an individual known as the Devil’s Advocate to dig up the dirt. The Advocatus Diaboli conducts what politicians call opposition research, making sure all unfavorable evidence is examined along with the good before canonization is granted. Name your own Devil’s Advocate to see what’s out there and how it squares with your current values. This is a perfect assignment for your public relations department. They should be able to execute this study with thoroughness and sensitivity. Once you have the findings, you can make better decisions about what needs changing and what does not.

Brand equity research often turns up underappreciated positives.

As discussed in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, an academic research project discovered that in the 1850s a Tennessee slave named Nearest Green taught white teenager Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. After the Civil War, Jack hired Nearest as the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Recognition of this fascinating history was long overdue and could have been distorted with negative spin. But credit Brown-Forman, marketers of Jack Daniel’s, with seeing Green’s pivotal contribution to what has become an iconic American brand as something to fully embrace and celebrate. As New York Times reporter Clay Risen observed in an August 16, 2017, article headlined “Rescuing a Whiskey Legacy”:

At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Daniel and Green allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as slaves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whiskey.

So, to avoid the fate of Romeo and Juliet (“never was a story of more woe”), understand the importance of your name and history. Control your destiny by making decisions based on your knowledge and values, not shame. Tell your own story. As Sir Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

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