Renaming a B2B brand 1: The lessons learned
As a marketer, you could go an entire career without re-naming and re-branding the company you work for. So if you do find yourself facing this challenge, there aren’t a lot of real-life, front-line, in-depth case stories to help you.
This is the first in a pair of posts that will do just that. It’s only possible because the company involved, PathFactory (formerly LookBookHQ), was willing to open up and let us share this inside story. That’s both a rare and a very generous thing to do. I thank them for it and, after you’ve read their story, I sincerely hope you will too.
Let’s do this.
The allure of brand candy
Branding is the sexy bit of B2B marketing, a discipline (let’s face it) not known for its sexiness.
That’s why so many marketing agencies try to turn even the most trivial client challenge into an opportunity to re-brand the whole damn company. Funnel clogging up? Must be the brand. Getting bored? Facelift time!
We’re not like that. As exciting as re-branding can be, it always comes at a cost. And changing a company name is even more extreme. It risks losing a big chunk of your hard-earned brand equity, resetting your reputation to near-zero. It forces you to airbrush your entire history, re-skinning everything from the website and content library to the company stationery, signage and livery—right down to that branded lobby carpet someone thought was a good idea*.
A name change or visual identity overhaul can also be a massive distraction. Even in streamlined, empowered cultures, the process can eat up months of management time—time that could be used doing things like, I don’t know, winning, keeping or pleasing customers. And if your culture isn’t particularly Swiss-watch-like (like if it takes three months to get an ebook approved), a major re-brand just might eat up a year.
In short, changing your company’s name, brand identity or both is a big deal and should never be taken lightly.
When a new name and B2B re-brand makes sense
But, every once in a while, we come across a company whose name isn’t just not working for them, it’s actively working against them.
One of those, about 15 years ago, was a cool, early CRM company with a great solution but a bit of a brand… issue: a few of its top execs had been thrown in jail for misleading investors. Now that is a pretty good reason to re-name a company (as in, “Enron is now Integrity Energy Trust Co™” ). We went on to help the new (and excellent) management team change their company name to [no, I won’t tell you] and developed an awesome visual identity based on balloon animals (Best. Shoot. Ever.). It was the right thing. They got acquired.
Now, I am emphatically NOT saying that our lovely client, LookBookHQ was in a situation anything like the above. Their reputation is fantastic. Their culture is amazing. And almost none of their execs are in jail.
But that name.
An innocuous little reco
We were working with the management team—VP of Marketing Elle Woulfe and founders Mark Opauszky and Nick Edouard—on a positioning project in preparation for a major product launch. And the more we learned about this impressive-as-hell company, the more it became clear that their name was a problem.
It wasn’t just that LookBookHQ no longer described what they actually do (they do Content Insight and Activation for high-performing B2B companies). Lots of businesses have learned to live with that kind of misalignment. It’s that the name implied something that they emphatically aren’t: a content presentation widget. A pretty face.
In truth, the company’s vision was to make B2B marketing work more like an on-demand service—and they’re way out ahead in making that happen. It was working and the results were nothing short of awesome. But, while the vision was all about helping marketers succeed, the brand itself was confusing them.
The LookBookHQ name came from their start as a very slick content presentation tool. So, in a way, their name implied what they used to be. It actually reinforced an impression they really needed to change.
It’s okay for your name to not signal the right things. But it’s not okay to clearly signal the wrong things. Especially when those wrong things are what you used to do.
So, when we came back with our positioning recommendations, we included a little sidebar statement in the margin of a single page:
“If we’d ever consider a name change and re-brand, now is the time. (But it’s not a decision to take lightly).”
We knew the company had just received a hefty funding round and that they’d be ramping up marketing for a major product launch (content analytics… very cool). So we didn’t say, “We think you should change your name”. We said, “If you’re ever going to think about it, think about it now, before you ramp up your marketing.”
I fully expected them to reject that idea for all the reasons outlined above. Nick and Mark are super-smart, experienced entrepreneurs and Elle is one of the best marketers I’ve ever worked with. They didn’t need me to tell them what a name change entailed.
But instead of rolling their eyes, they stopped me mid-presentation to ‘double-click’ on that little sidebar.
They wanted to talk about this.
They kind of needed to talk about it.
The name really was a misnomer: it didn’t reflect their reality and it certainly didn’t reflect their vision. Yes, the company was (and is) still growing fast. But there was no denying the name didn’t fit the company any more.
So, still cautious, they asked us for a rationale and a proposal. And the more we thought about it, the more we thought it was right to at least explore a new name. Our proposal wasn’t geared to changing the company name. It was geared to exploring it. Showing what it might look like and considering the impact.
After a few days and a few calls, they came back and said, ‘Go for it.’
Again, most marketing agencies would leap at this kind of project. But, having done lots of renaming exercises over the years, we went into it quite… cautiously.
Choosing a company name is an incredibly subjective thing. Pleasing one smart stakeholder is tough. Pleasing two is unlikely. Three or more and the chances of success start to get homeopathic. Bring in the wider executive team, the board and, eventually the whole company… and you’re in for a bruising ride through the Land of Compromise. Likely result: a name that’s acceptable to most but exciting to none.
That’s why we urge (nay, beg) clients to keep their naming or re-branding teams as small as possible. Yes, the team will need to bring in a wider stakeholder circle at key points in the process, but successful naming comes from giving a few people the power to make decisions and letting them do it.
Don’t underestimate the change management of a B2B re-brand
In even the most streamlined naming processes, hundreds of perfectly good names get slaughtered. Most of them die for fairly capricious reasons and gut-feel objections. (“Reminds me of that kid who bullied me in second grade,” or “Sounds like an antacid,” kind of thing.)
The good thing: LookBookHQ is led by a great management team, with a culture that makes decisions fast.
The bad thing: this was their company. A thing they’d built up from zero to become a real player in martech. From an idea to a business that counted some of the best-marketed B2B brands in the world as loyal, happy customers.
You don’t change that without a lot of emotion, anxiety and doubt.
Our challenge: to manage expectations, align the key decision-makers and reduce as much of the inherent subjectivity as possible.
Oh, and do it fast: the logical place and time to introduce the new company name and brand to the market—along with the big product launch—would be at the Sirius Decisions event in early May. This was November. Things like exhibition stands and websites take a few months to deliver at the best of times. And we didn’t even have a new name yet, much less a logo and visual identity. Do the math. (Better still, don’t.)
Preparing the ground for B2B rebranding
The first thing we needed to do was to get a sense of how each of the three primary stakeholders thought and felt about their company, the company name and company names in general.
We needed to understand any baggage they brought to the project. Any convictions or prejudices. Any secret fetishes or phobias.
No stakeholder ever approaches a decision without a set of these feelings and beliefs. Surfacing and discussing them is quite possibly the most important thing we would do in this entire program.
(We’re born-again evangelists about the importance of understanding and including stakeholders in all marketing efforts. We wrote about it in a piece called A Stakeholder Through The Heart and we interviewed Elle Woulfe of all people on this very topic. I insist you read both of these pieces but you don’t have to do it right now).
We also needed to compare the views of the three primary decision-makers—Nick, Mark and Elle—to see if they clashed in any important ways. If they did, we needed to expose that and resolve it up-front.
Hidden misalignment kills great marketing before anyone even knows what happened. And with a subjective, emotion-soaked and time-constrained decision like this, alignment becomes what my pals at NASA** call ‘mission-critical’.
When it comes to a naming exercise, it pays to get people talking about two issues: the ‘Great Name’ Fallacy and the Gag Factor.
The ‘Great Name’ Fallacy describes the only time in marketing when aiming too high is a real mistake. If that sounds like a euphemism for lowering your sights, well, that’s exactly what it is.
We should lower our sights when it comes to naming. Because company names, like pretty much everything in life, fall on a bell curve. There are a few fantastic names, a whole bunch of okay-to-good names and a few truly awful names.
The problem is, the surest way to end up with an awful name is by aiming for a fantastic one. More to the point, extreme names are polarising—some people love them, others hate them. Fantastic names and awful names are the same names.
For most companies, we don’t think a polarising name makes sense. Better to have one that’s simple, memorable and in the right zone (more on this below). A name that you will soak with meaning over time. That will come to represent all the things your company is and does.
There are very, very few great names. There are only great companies.
The Gag Factor highlights a big problem in naming: all new names—especially for existing things—sound… yucky. You’re trying to apply something unfamiliar to something very familiar: this weird sound to your company.
When first considering names, it’s important for everyone on the team to suppress their natural gag reflex. To invite the unfamiliar to hang out for a while and let the urge to reject settle down.
Back in 2000, when Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture, the market spat out its collective coffee. Newly-minted words sound so… funny. Just a few months later, the name had bedded down in the market’s consciousness. And today, it’s as good a name as any—and better than most (it’s ownable, memorable and intuitively spellable).
If you don’t allow for this, your team will kill lots of viable names. And the only names that survive will be those that remind you of your current one.
Spheres of associations: mapping the relevance zone
A good name is unlikely to come from a random wander through the entire universe of words in the mother language.
Instead, we want a name that feels ‘in the zone’. Not always one that says what the company does (we’ll talk about that in a sec). Just a name that places the company within a relevant sphere of associations.
Every word carries a rich payload of connotations and implications. When we hear the word, a pebble drops in our mind-pond and these associations are involuntarily triggered.
A good name needs to come from an understanding of this sphere of associations. For LookBookHQ, we made a mind-map to stake out the signals we hoped to send:
Of course, it’s unlikely that any one name can trigger all of these associations. But it’s important for everyone to agree on the kinds of signals the name ought to send.
The idea is to reduce subjectivity by putting up some pre-established parameters; working towards a shared definition of what good looks like.
Negative signals: ruling things out
It’s also important to understand the signals you don’t want to send or territories you actively want to avoid.
For LookBookHQ, that included the obvious (anything that sounded too much like competitors) and the more personal or idiosyncratic:
It’s not that these are bad words or make for bad names (there are plenty of good names that use each of them). They’re just words the team knew they didn’t want to use, mostly because they felt over-used or too ‘on-the-nose’.
Establishing criteria: what makes for a good B2B company name?
Okay, if you’re going to try to corral and tame the wild subjectivity-beast of naming, you’re going to have to get the team to agree on some specific criteria. And do it up-front, before the names start to fly.
Some of these criteria will be non-negotiable. For LookBookHQ, they included things like:
- Must be easily pronounced when read – It sucks to have to train a market to say your name. Oddly, in the then-emerging marketing automation category, both of the leaders—Eloqua and Marketo—suffered from this. They got over it, but it took a lot of time (and you still come across marketers who say uh-LO’-kwa).
- Must be easily spelled when heard – Your people have way better things to do than explain, “It’s like ‘Quest’ but with a W and two Ts.” (And your SEO team will feel like they’re optimizing in a wind tunnel).
- Must not imply the wrong things – Notice, this is not “Must imply what we do.” It’s a lower bar than that. It can’t mislead.
- Must have an available .com without tweaks – The ‘HQ’ in LookBookHQ was a URL compromise that was retro-fitted into the actual company name. They didn’t want to have to do that anymore. Why make people guess your URL?
- Must avoid vendor names in our space – A no-brainer but you’d be surprised how far a name can go before someone notices. (Of course, ‘our space’ needs a bit of defining, too—if we tried to avoid the entire MarTech Brinker-scape we’d only be left with grunts and squeals).
Some defining dimensions: playing with scales and sliders
Other criteria were more about different dimensions of a name. For each of these, we made a spectrum to guide the discussion.
The first one was the Evocative/Descriptive spectrum:
With some companies, the name tells you what they do. For others, the name doesn’t even try to do that (and the audience doesn’t even try to ‘de-code’ it).
We then dropped in some real company names to illustrate the different points along the spectrum:
Clearly, there are really good names at either extreme and anywhere along the spectrum. This isn’t a right-or-wrong thing, it’s a taste and preference thing.
As it happens, Mark, Nick and Elle were all comfortable with a name anywhere on this spectrum. They saw the merits of a super-descriptive name and the appeal of an entirely evocative one (including the ability to pivot a company without having to change its name).
So, while the discussion around this spectrum didn’t narrow down our choice of names very much, it did tell us where we stood. We were free to explore both evocative and descriptive names.
The next one was interesting and relevant for LookBookHQ, a company marketing to marketers (arguing for a name with emotional resonance) but also a company with kick-ass technology and a real dedication to data-driven accountability (arguing for a rational/scientific name).
Again, we sprayed in a few real-world company names to show the spread:
Here, the team’s preferences were still quite broad, but, importantly, the two extremes were ruled out. They didn’t want to go full-rational (IBM) or all-out-zany (Yahoo!):
Another interesting dimension was the Playful/Enterprisey spectrum. As the soundbites below the spectrum reflect, LookBookHQ has a very strong culture and personality. But they’re also a fully grown-up marketing platform, selling to big companies with a lot on the line.
This is where the team netted out:
We explored more dimensions just like these.
The idea isn’t to make an exact map of every dimension, but to explore its implications and align the decision-makers (or surface any misalignment).
By investing time in this kind of analysis and discussion up-front, we saved a lot of time later. We were able to rule out whole categories of names, focusing our efforts on name clusters with a much higher probability of success.
Renaming when it’s not a new company.
For the LookBookHQ team, there was another important consideration: this wasn’t a new name for a new company. It was a new name for a successful company. The chosen name would have to feel right in this sentence:
“LookBookHQ is now __________.”
That means it would need to carry its own rationale. To answer the question, “Why did you change it?”. If the new name was at the evocative extreme on the evocative/descriptive spectrum, it would probably fail this test. For instance:
“LookBookHQ is now Wazooo!”
Um… why? “Because Wazoo! better reflects our new direction,” just doesn’t feel… credible (or, let’s face it, sane). So there was a tug towards the rational that a brand new company might not feel.
(BTW a name that insists on preserving its exclamation point, like Yahoo!, is consigning its minders to all kinds of writing headaches. Probably why Google won.)
So that’s how we worked with the LookBookHQ team to lay the groundwork for a successful and, we hoped, less agonizing naming process.
In the next post, I’ll take you through the actual research process, the shortlist of recommended names, the reasons the winner won and the experience of the LookBookHQ team in evaluating the shortlist.
Oh, and I’ll tell you one thing I will never, ever, ever do again. Even though it almost won me ten quid.
Oh and also: this interview with Elle Woulfe, PathFactory’s VP of marketing is terrific. She’s one of the best marketers and stakeholder managers I know.
Bernd Ahle, Bernd Ahle Advertising | November 13th, 2018
Doug, I can’t tell you how interesting and helpful this article is (and I can’t wait for part 2!!!). To have a detailed description of the thought processes you went through and the tools you used is awesome. You can’t find this kind of real life example to learn from anywhere else. Thank you for the post and a thank you to PathFactory for their generosity. I do want to hear more about the balloon animal shoot though…
Doug Kessler | November 16th, 2018
Thanks, Bernd! We’re really lucky the PathFactory guys were up for sharing this.
That balloon animal shoot was a hoot. !The client made software you could reconfigure for lots of different applications, so the balloon animal metaphor felt right. We got a balloon artist in, and set up a light table, so they were lit from all angles…. stunning shots.)