Product names and the people who hate them

Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonald’s, IBM – all solid brand names which despite strong customer connections saw at one time or another the need for an image makeover.

For most companies seeking to shore up sagging sales or reach out to a new market, a brand change might be the silver bullet. But improperly done, such a transformation could be fatal, according to marketing experts.

A brand is not merely the company name or logo or product label. It’s the “substance” of the product and service being offered through reputation to the customer, according to Peter Jennings, chairman of the Exclusive Group, a marketing services firm based in Toronto. The company manages campaigns for several tech companies including Alias Inc., Apple Canada, Bell, Cygnal and Hewlett-Packard.

“Elements such as name, fonts, logos, colour schemes, and sounds implicitly signify an organization’s values and what customers can expect from it.”

Some key reasons for brand change include: a change in ownership, repositioning or introduction of a new offering, weakness of an existing brand or pursuit if a different market.

“Unsuccessful brands often lack clarity and fail to convey to customers how the product can serve their needs,” he said.

When Teachers Life, a company selling insurance and financial products to educators, approached the Exclusive Group to have an ad created for it in a teacher’s magazine, the marketing firm nearly turned down the 67-year-old company.

Teachers Life had flat sales, low exposure in its target market and was saddled by a “tired brand with undefined promises.”

Jennings said a mere magazine ad would not be able to convince younger teachers to take their business to Teachers Life. Exclusive Group suggested a total makeover. “We stripped down the brand and resold it.”

A more vibrant corporate identity was created to appeal to a younger set of teachers. Fresh sales brochures and a new Web site were put into play. Within a month of the campaign, Teachers Life chalked up about a 1,000 per cent increase in sales, improved premium value and reached a younger demographic.

Jennings said the key was to present a value proposition to the customer using means and images relevant to the targeted audience. “Customers need to know what’s in it for them.”

Prior to changing the company, customers were informed through an e-mail and mail out campaign about the change and assured that service would be improved.

This strategy is being employed by Sun Life Financial Inc. The company bought Clarica Financial Services Inc. in 2002. Nearly two million Canadians hold policies and accounts through Clarica so in retiring the brand Sun Life is taking a cautious approach.

The company is following a phased transition that is expected to be completed by 2008 when all customer and advisor facing technology platforms (Web, desktop and mainframe) as well as printed output will reflect the Sun Life brand, according to Bob Eitel, assistant vice-president of distribution technologies for Sun Life.

The change which will touch thousands of factors such as corporate colours, document headers and footers and statements, needs to be implemented in a precise order, he said.

For example, advisor desktop changes have to be implemented at the same time as mainframe changes involving the name switch.

Sometimes organizations also need to know when to walk away, according to Kevin Krossing, a Toronto-based marketing specialist who has worked with companies like IBM, Toshiba and Sony.

He said years back, IBM realized the need to sell its products to the SMB market. However, over the years the Big Blue image has been connected by consumers to the corporate world.

“Research showed that consumers gave IBM high marks in for quality, functionality and dependability, but were unsure if the company would provide the same for smaller customers,” Krossing said.

He said IBM calculated that implementing a global image change to chase the SMB PC market would be too much. The company instead decided to concentrate on its strengths and sell its PC line to Lenovo “which stood a better chance of making the brand relevant to the target consumers.”

Krossing also advices that companies must be keen on watching industry trends and how their brand relates to the market and consumers. He said Daytimers, makers of personal calendars and schedule keepers, might have profited well by latching onto to the personal digital assistant (PDA) craze in the 1990s. The company, however, failed to evolve its brand.

Similarly, Krossing said, Palm, a leader of the PDA sector, was too slow in repositioning its brand to take advantage of the smart mobile device craze.

“Companies should always be on their feet. Branding is a never ending story,” Krossing said.

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