What’s in a Name?

A little over a year ago, my friend Karen seriously considered changing her name to one with less, ahem, baggage.

Perhaps a decade from now, no one will remember why Karen was so distraught about her name or the new layer of meaning contemporary American culture had assigned to it. But even if her name’s new meaning haunts her forever, Karen decided that the cost of changing it—like getting her family on board or filing all that legal paperwork—just wasn’t worth it.

Unlike Karen, countless organizations over the years have decided in favor of changing their names for a variety of reasons—from Feeding America (previously America’s Second Harvest) to Susan G. Komen for the Cure (formerly the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation). Countless others, like Karen, have decided it just wasn’t worth it.

Sometimes a name change can be an unavoidable necessity. At other times, an enormous mistake. Still others, a strategic win. Wondering whether it’s right for your organization?

5 Questions to Ask If Your Organization is Considering a Name Change

1. Does your name have a serious image or message problem?

While every situation is unique, this is probably the most clear-cut reason to change your name. You don’t always get a chance to explain yourself if your name sends a strikingly problematic message to your audience. If your image challenges have more to do with a damaged reputation than with your name itself, a name change could give you a fresh start. But only if you plan to live up to your brand promise under your new name.

Consider King’s College in New York. When King’s reopened after the American Revolution overturned the crown, the college changed its name to Columbia in response to the patriotic fervor of the times. Likewise, a growing awareness of the culturally or racially insensitive message of certain names has recently led to the renaming of brands such as The Washington Commanders (formerly The Washington Redskins) and The Pearl Milling Company (previously Aunt Jemima). And Columbia (named for Columbus) may even re-evaluate its name association in the future.

2. Does your name no longer match what you do or lead to confusion about what you do?

America’s Second Harvest, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, struggled with confusion about its work for years. In 2008, the organization changed its name to Feeding America in a move to more fully engage the public in the fight against hunger. A similar move would likely be in order if the work you do changes significantly. For example if your organization expands from serving only children to helping people of all ages, a name like “XYZ Nonprofit for Kids” is probably going to be a problem for you.

3. How much equity do you have in your name?

There are many examples of names that would otherwise be meaningless without their brands—like Kodak or Ikea. Oftentimes, it’s the organization itself that gives a name its meaning. Sometimes your name’s history, its brand recognition, or its audience loyalty will simply outweigh any gains you might expect from a name change.

Consider the YMCA. The first Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in 1884 and a movement quickly took off around the world. Commonly known by the acronym YMCA since the 19th century, YMCAs have long served more than just young Christian men. In 2010, a rebranding effort by the YMCA of the USA made a move to promote itself and its affiliates by its informal name—“The Y”. But the organization never officially relinquished the M, C, or A in its name, even in the new logo.

On the flip side, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation renamed itself Susan G. Komen for the Cure to mark its 25th anniversary—rolling the equity the organization had built in its famous Susan G. Koman Race for the Cure into its very name to more boldly state its mission to pursue a cure for breast cancer.

4. Can your problem be fixed with a tagline?

If you’re considering a name change because people aren’t clear on what you do or who you are, adding a descriptive tagline might be a more cost-effective solution. One advantage of adding or changing a tagline is that the move isn’t as permanent as a new name.

Taglines can play different roles when paired with a name. A catchy brand-focused tagline like “Doing the Most Good” works well for an organization with the name recognition of The Salvation Army. But explanatory taglines like “for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities” (The Arc), “An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center” (City of Hope), and “Goods for the Greater Good” (Good360) go a long way in clarifying their organization’s mission when the name doesn’t.

5. Do you have the budget to shift your audience to embrace the new name?

A typical rebranding effort requires a significant investment of time and resources to convert all your assets to your new brand. But a name change requires a whole different level of commitment. In addition to legal fees and a host of additional places where you’ll need to make changes (think bank accounts, utility companies, etc.), a name change will require you to ramp up your marketing and advertising efforts to help people associate you and your services with your new name.

“Names have power,” writes Rick Riordan, author of the popular Percy Jackson novels. Choose wisely. (What to choose, you ask? That’s for another day…)

Need help sorting through your thoughts about a potential name change? Already ready to rebrand under a new name? Give us a call at 267-468-7949 or drop us a line at info@iriscreative.com.