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Brand Identity Crisis, or Cosmetic Surgery?

The reasons why brands forsake time-tested names are as varied as they are plenty.

April 27, 2022

It’s an age-old belief that changing the very foundation of your identity is the first step to radically changing people’s perceptions of you. It’s pretty clear that major risks are involved when renowned companies and brands are concerned. We’ve seen companies redesign their logos in favour of a more simplistic look and feel, but what drives some of them to completely rename themselves and overhaul their identity? 

It might be the brand wanting to lose association from its less savoury past, or them wanting to refine their identity and relationship with their customers. Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is going to be: was it wise, and was it worth it? 

  1. Google/Alphabet 

Did you know Google went through a few rounds of rebranding? Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded what is known today as Google in 1996, but back then it was called “Backrub.” As the amount of data they worked with skyrocketed, they decided to change their name to Google, derived from the number googolplex, which is expressed as the number 1 followed by 10 to the power of 100 zeroes. They tried to explain their namesake in the “Goooooogle” page number visual, but how many of us knew that?

Years later in 2015, Google renamed itself once more as Alphabet, and the official reason for renaming was to position the company as a tech conglomerate reaching far out of the internet sphere. However, it’s notable that the rebranding consolidated power held by the two founders.

The move also probably didn’t help public perception of conglomerate giants and their seeming desire to take over the world, but it’s unlikely that the two founders were much fazed by it. Alphabet saw 40% growth in 2021 after all. With Alphabet’s subsidiaries all giants in their respective fields, it’s not like a protest against them would have been feasible anyway. 

  1. Facebook/Meta

In a more recent instance of renaming and rebranding, Facebook’s change of name to Meta in October 2021 might also seem to be one borne of innocent ambition. Mark Zuckerberg wanted his empire to reflect his commitment to build the Metaverse — a place parallel to the physical world where people can live their digital lives — and so he changed the company’s name, making it a conglomerate of sorts as well. 

If you didn’t already know, we should mention that Facebook had a scandalous 2021. Plans for the January 6 Capitol riots as well as encouraging escalating violence in the Myanmar civil war went under the radar on Facebook. Whistleblowers exposing the company’s allowance for the spread of misinformation to go unchecked are just some of the atrocities to befall the company. 

Changing the name and logo of your company might help with improving public image, but not when it’s done so soon that the wounds you’ve inflicted are still fresh. This seems to be a clear case of misdirection where the company in question is attempting to focus attention on all the good it’s about to do in order to overwrite all the unspeakable things it’s done. No wonder the Guardian deemed 2021 as Facebook’s “very bad year…the worst yet.” 

  1. Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K./Sony 

Founded in 1946 as Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K, the name Sony only came about after a number of names were considered as the company expanded beyond Japanese shores. From TTK (which was already taken) and Totsuko, and then finally to Sony, the real reason why they didn’t stick with Totsuko was because Americans couldn’t pronounce the word right. It’s interesting to see companies changing their name to appeal to an English-speaking international audience, and these kinds of decisions almost always pay off as brand recognition is amplified and their products gain access to a wider range of customers. 

The same can be said for numerous Japanese companies like Canon, which was initially known as Seikikōgaku Kenkyūsho and renamed themselves after sales for their 35mm camera with a focal plane-based shutter took off in the US. And then you have Nissan, and Nikon…I bet the list goes on. 

  1. Pete’s Super Submarines/Pete’s Subway/Subway

Sometimes brands rename themselves just so they don’t get mistaken for something else. When people started telling Fred Deluca his submarine sandwich store name sounded like “Pizza Marines” and he knew he definitely wasn’t running a pizza shop, he decided to shorten it to Pete’s Subway. In 1968 he did away with “Pete” completely and ran with “Subway” from then on. 

Clarifying your mainstay products can start with your name, and this is one instance where the name change was definitely wise and helped with communicating your business services well to your audience. 

Something similar can be said about Jeff Bezos when he founded Amazon in 1994, where it was first called Cadabra. After his lawyer misheard it as “cadaver”, Bezos knew something had to be done to revive his credibility, so he renamed it to Amazon, the largest river in the world in terms of both length and volume. We have to say that’s very representative of the company in the present day. 

  1. Goodfellows’ Dry Goods/Target

In 1902, George Draper Dayton became the sole shareholder of Goodfellows’ Dry Goods, the company that would eventually become Target. He renamed it to Dayton Dry Goods Company soon after taking the reins, and then to The Dayton Company in 1911. 

Only after his death in 1938 did change truly arrive at the company, with the changing of hands between several leaders of course. In 1962, the company launched their discount store product called Target which quickly became the majority of the company’s business. 

It wouldn’t be till 2000 that Goodfellows’ Dry Goods retired its name in favour of Target. The company’s shift in expertise amidst the changing times made changing its name a great move, and it definitely hit the branding bullseye in naming itself after its best performer. 

At the end of the day…

As Mark Zuckerberg said at the announcement of Facebook’s renaming, “Our mission remains the same…Our apps and our brands — they’re not changing either.”

What these companies do hasn’t changed much; it’s more about image. This truly speaks to the power and influence names and labels have on public perception. Whether it’s to extend the reaches of an already formidable empire like Google and Facebook, or simply to hit the ears of an international audience on the right note, the commonality of all these case studies is definitely centered in the brand’s desire to refocus or refine focus on things that matter to them going forward.

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Click2View is Southeast Asia’s premiere full-service independent B2B content marketing agency servicing clients like Microsoft, Google, Visa, Prudential, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.