The Ultimate Toxic Asset

June 9, 2009 at 2:02 pm 1 comment

The New York Times discusses financial institutions changing their names to convey new images and break from the sad past of bankruptcies, bailouts and bonuses.  Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross of Weber Shandwick tweets that a name change is one way to cleanse a reputation. As she is one of the world’s leading experts on reputation management, I’m sure hers is a tweet-in-cheek. Dr. Gaines-Ross knows well that you can’t throw out a lousy rep with your old shingle.

redneck-cardAs banks and financial institutions work to shed toxic assets, holdings that have crashed in value such as mortgage-backed securities, some see the names chiseled into their buildings as poisoning their companies too. Per the NYT piece, GMAC, the finance arm of bankrupt General Motors, is now “ally,” taking an e.e. cummings approach to branding. American International Underwriters is crawling from the wreckage of its parent AIG, but only a little way as it insists on being known as AIU. The winner of the “we’re just plain folks” rebranding sweepstakes: Redneck Bank, the former Bank of the Wichitas, “where bankin’s funner.” Bet their headquarters building cost less than John Thain’s trashcan.

Name changes are desperate. The leveraged buyout crowd of the 1980s became the less-rapacious private equity, a term that is still lightyears from Redneck Bank. Kentucky Fried Chicken morphed into KFC, and Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks became simply Smacks (the interim name of Honey Smacks has crept back). Neither food company is fooling anyone nor should they try. When people want their fat and sucrose, they know where to find them.

One name change that came off as pure genius was the transformation of Anderson Consulting  into Accenture. When parent Arthur Anderson went down with Enron, Accenture survived. (Note to AIU, consider your own artsy name, such as N.O.T. A.I.G.)

A bad name in business is the ultimate toxic asset. It proves that branding runs much deeper than a cool logo. The real brand is the collection of impressions, opinions and memories that simultaneously strike a consumer when a company or product is conjured. Successful makeovers are rare and they take more than a flurry of wordsmithing and design.

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Entry filed under: Branding, Crisis Communications, Marketing, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , .

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