When is a brand name irrelevant?
How many times does it take for our brand to resonate and come to mind when someone is thinking of [fill in the blank]. There’s so much focus on the fill in blank area that we sometimes forget about reducing the number of times it takes our audiences to associate whatever that blank may be with our brands. Perhaps it is due to the belief that naming a brand is like chiseling in stone, it should never change. We get stuck on the legacy and historical value vs present and future value.
Sure, brands gain value over time and having a long history means a brand has embedded meaning in a large percentage of their target audience. But, when those memories are old in meaning and residing in slightly more experienced brains, perhaps a change is needed.
A brand worthy of this discussion is International Business Machines or, as Gen X knows them, IBM or Big Blue.
The memories are old, the meaning is old, the history is epic and the logo is one of my all time favorites by designer Paul Rand. Some brands are just never going to be young again. IBM is a jumble of letters representing Business Machines that are sold Internationally. How irrelevant can a brand like that be in this age?
I know something that can measure and answer that question, Watson. Yes, let’s turn to Watson in order to calculate the declining relevance of the parent brand, IBM. And then, let’s watch as the teenager runs screaming out of the house yelling “I HATE you, all you talk about is the good ol’ days of punch cards and System/360!”
Watson is a surname and while it may hold some historical baggage of men running companies by men, for men, selling to men; those three old, blue, boring letters it’s associated with help us let go of those potential associations. Watson is a name that embodies intelligence in a modern way. It feels more like a brand focused on the future, versus one stuck in the past. Watson is the next generation and yes, it is getting held behind by the legacy of grandpa’s punch card system.
Which brings us to the next, and potentially more important point, relevancy requires context. A relevant brand name fits into an ecosystem inside the organization and is reflected in the patterns in an industry. In a fast moving industry where constant innovation is essential, the idea of legacy can run counter to the brand’s meaning rather than parallel to it. Working on an old computer is not cool, but putting on an old pair of Red Wing Boots can be. A brand name draws meaning from context, both internal and external.
Whether it’s the next breakfast successor to Toaster Strudels, or a new widget invented by Elon Musk for Tesla, young brands must pull relevancy from how the leadership team will interpret its name. Sure, there’s great research that can be done to understand if a name taps into our unconscious, System One brains, but in the end, the decision makers have to like it enough to give it life.
When brands eventually mature, it is worth considering what pieces of the brand really hold value for today and the future, without bias toward the historical pieces. Just put an old brand into current culture conversations, and feel the awkwardness. “I wonder what Apple will come out with next?” “I can’t wait to see what Tesla will do next.” “I wonder what IBM will do next?”
This author proposes IBM change its name to Watson and start building a more relevant future for the organization and brand.
If you’re looking for an honest viewpoint on your portfolio of names, reach out.