How to Be a Branding Rock Star

Branding Rock StarTo paraphrase the Dicken’s classic, A Tale of Two Cities, I’ll cover the best of branding and the worst of branding, starting with the worst. I read a Chicago Tribune article two weeks ago about how the company that owns Devry University is changing its name to Adtalem Global Education.  The rebranding comes just months after DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleging it misled tens of thousands of students about their post-graduation job and income prospects.

Just in case you are wondering, the company says that the new name comes from a Latin translation of the phrase “to empower” and also says the rebranding has nothing to do with current legal difficulties.  According to Adtalem CEO Lisa Wardell, the new name “makes clear our purpose to empower students and our status as a global education provider.”

It’s hard to believe the timing of the rebrand was totally divorced from the hit to the company’s reputation but even if it were true, I’m puzzled as to why they chose the name Adtalem. Many companies (including those with big budgets) do a very poor job of rebranding and sometimes end up with a name more puzzling than the original name.  Here are three lessons to be learned from this particular rebranding exercise:

  1. Don’t call your company (or product) something that requires a Latin translation. I’m sure “Adtalem” seemed very chic when the powers that be bantered around names in the conference room. Perhaps the person who suggested the name even got a bonus for his or her creativity but it doesn’t seem like good branding to me.
  2. Don’t name your company after your dog, a Greek god, your child’s teddy bear, a blending of the founders’ names, or anything else that causes prospects to ask: What the heck does this company do?
  3. Unless you have strong venture funding and/or the type of story that drives viral awareness, pick a name that is at least somewhat descriptive of what you do.

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AOL’s Branding Roller Coaster

Perhaps the best rebranding occurred in the 1990’s, when a little-known company (at that time) changed its name from Quantum Computer Services to America Online (AOL). I had some dealings with Quantum/AOL at that time and thought then and now that the rebranding was simply brilliant. What better way to express the fact that you were an American company whose goal it was to bring the entire country (world) online?

I am bringing up the AOL rebranding from a couple of decades ago because of its tie to current news. As reported by The next chapter in Yahoo’s strange journey from cornerstone of the early internet to aged Verizon subsidiary is a bold rebranding. After  Business Insider first reported on a potential Yahoo name change, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong tweeted  to confirm the details: “It’s now official: After the Verizon deal closes and it gains control of Yahoo’s core web assets, Yahoo and AOL will merge to form a new entity called Oath.”

This name change is getting plenty of attention and a lot of it is unflattering. And it’s kind of sad to see a company with that many resources do such a poor job of branding.

Be a Branding Rock Star

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If you really want to see some examples of branding rock stardom, let’s look at some bands with mediocre names that hugely benefited from new names.

  • MAROON 5 started life as Kara’s Flowers
  • VAN HALEN’s original Name was Rat Salad
  • NIRVANA began as Pen Cap Chew
  • LINKIN PARK’s original Name was Xero
  • BLACK SABBATH was first known as Polka Tulk Blues Band
  • THE WHO began as The High Numbers

The exact impact of the name change for any of these bands is impossible to measure. But common sense tells us that the new band names are way more valuable than the old names. And the moral of the story: When it comes to branding, be a Van Halen and not a Rat Salad. Be an America Online and not an Oath.

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Christopher Ryan

Christopher Ryan has 25 years of marketing, technology, revenue growth experience. As both a marketing executive and services provider, Chris has created and executed numerous programs that build market awareness, drive lead generation and increase revenue.
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  • Bridgett Harris June 8, 2017   Reply →

    Great insights on naming and branding one’s company. Also loved the tie-in to rock trivia—I don’t think Polka Tulk Blues Band has the same “zing” as Black Sabbath, either.

  • Corinne Morris June 12, 2017   Reply →

    I imagine everyone has a pet brand name they could use but shouldn’t. Once you follow your rules, though, I’m sure that you’d be better off than “Rat Salad”! 🙂

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