Why name changes suck and branding is hard
It all boils down to three simple words.
But first a story. In the late 1980s a furor erupted among the international leaders of World Wildlife Fund. The name issue.
The work of wildlife conservation has always been about much more than animals. In the late 1980s, that prompted internal sturm and drang over the organization’s name. It stood to reason that since so much of World Wildlife Fund’s work was about people and places that a more accurate name would be better.
That gave rise to a new, “improved” moniker: “World Wide Fund for Nature.” The new name let the international network keep the WWF logo but now the name more precisely reflected the breadth of the organization’s work.
Probably you’ve never heard of “World Wide Fund for Nature.” Here’s why: The US section refused to go along. WWF-US remained World Wildlife Fund. The ensuing fracas over American recalcitrance went on for years.
The US folks were right. Attachment to the name among its supporters was strong. One direct mail fundraising test using the proposed new name suggested that the change would cost WWF-US a million dollars a year in lost income.
Focus groups afforded a glimpse of what was going on. Members love wildlife – it’s an evocative word that conjures teeming herds of wildebeest on the savanna, tigers stalking jungle prey, or the iconic panda, sitting like a Buddha and munching on bamboo.
The word “nature,” on the other hand is an abstraction. It evokes…nothing really.
The more fundamental mistake some of the WWF folks made, one made with sad frequency to this day, is subscribing to the notion that a name, or a logo, or a tagline, or any other brand attribute is supposed to make logical sense. Neurologist Antonio Damasio calls them somatic markers – those familiar images, labels, faces or even tunes that trigger an automatic sequence of thoughts and feelings, bypassing the “thinking” brain completely. Good branding is about picking strong somatic markers.
This brings us back to those three words. They describe a syndrome that is the one true bane of good communications. It has led to horrible name changes by some and hieroglyphic new logos by others that need a treatise to deconstruct. It sired the WWF name wars.
If you can counteract this phenomenon your marketing and communications will evolve exponentially. Promise.
Here it is, the fatal flaw in most organizational branding decisions, in three words:
Fear of Feelings.
We non-profit folks are abnormally cerebral creatures. We believe to a pathological degree in the power of logic and reason. With brand attributes in particular, logic and reason are not our friends. It’s about engaging passion, empathy, moral outrage, courage and love. It’s about poetry, not prose.
WWF is far from alone in journeying down this rabbit hole. Just this year, a well-respected conservation organization, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) – has decided to change its name to the opaque and abstract “Point Blue Conservation Science.”
Time will tell whether this name change helps or hurts, but history is not encouraging. Point Reyes is a place – close your eyes and you can almost see the waves crashing against the rocky outcrops and hear the symphony of sea lions and gulls competing for attention.
I am honestly not sure what a “bird observatory” is, but it sure is evocative. And birds are cool.
Jewish Funds for Justice unleashed an almost equally incomprehensible name change in 2011. They are now called “Bend the Arc.”
The question should not be “what are they thinking?” The question should be “why are they thinking?”
Should an organization never change its name or logo? There are instances where changes make sense, but they are rare. And if there is to be a change, it’s critical to pay less attention to what people think of the new name.
The key thing is always how they feel about it.