Oct 14

When in doubt, change the name

Way back in August, a story surfaced about a possible name change looming for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

It’s been echoing in my head (a lot of room in here), because changing a product name isn’t something that happens very often.

Now that Internet Explorer has reached Version 11, it’s an interesting time to ask for a restart.

There are normally two reasons why a company would want to change an existing product name.

Sometimes, they simply have no choice. Circumstances demand it. In other situations, the name change might be a bit more “recreational.” That is, it’s not mandatory, but the marketing guys believe the new name will make it an easier sell.

Before we pass judgment on poor Internet Explorer, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and look a few classic name changes.

Lose weight with Ayds!

Not sure how many people even remember it at this point, but Ayds was a somewhat popular, often advertised diet aid. It was an appetite suppressant.

One day, the makers of Ayds woke up to find a bit of disturbing news. It started to seem less likely that anyone wishing to lose weight would think it was a good idea to “Get Ayds.”

In fact, once the AIDS virus became front and center, sales of Ayds dropped 50%.

If you’d like to hear the story from the company owner, Howard Stern interviewed him years back.

Bottom line: the company was totally innocent here, and was forced to change the name by sheer bad luck. Or, I should say, awesomely bad luck.

Meet the new Malaysia Airlines

If a vanishing jetliner carrying 239 passengers isn’t enough to wreck a perfectly good airline name, add one shoot-down of another plane carrying 298 passengers over a war zone where other airlines had already decided not to fly.

And now — surprise — Malaysian Airlines is reported to be working on a relaunch under a new name.

To some degree, Malaysian Airlines has suffered from some bad luck. But flying over a war zone displayed highly questionable judgment, and there remain a ton of unanswered questions about the missing plane.

Unfortunately, customers don’t think in terms of shades of responsibility. It’s pretty black and white. I myself recently booked a trip through that part of the world, and when Malaysian Airlines popped up as the carrier for one of the legs of my trip, I quickly scrolled past it. My reaction is probably not atypical, even after all these months.

Bottom line: no real choice here. The well-funded airline isn’t likely to regain confidence when its very name reminds people that it’s a dual-disaster airline.

Take a ride on the Exxon Valdez

Years back, I did a marketing project for Exxon-Mobil. As part of that project, I had a meeting with the company’s PR chief in Dallas.

We talked about Exxon-Mobil’s image in the world. Of course, no discussion of that nature would be complete without mention of the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster.

Nothing like a tipsy captain and a few million gallons of crude oil to create a story that would generate negative headlines for decades to come. Alaska’s ecologically sensitive Prince William Sound suffered a catastrophe of epic proportions.

From our vantage point many years later, Mr. PR noted with a not-so-happy smile that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the “best branded disaster” in history. How lucky for Exxon-Mobil that the company’s name was painted right onto the vessel, becoming part of every headline.

Once repaired, Exxon-Mobil had a perfect good ship to put back in service. But there was no way it would ever sail again under the name Exxon Valdez. Mere mention of that name would inflame passions.

So Exxon-Mobil went the renaming route. Three years later, the Exxon Valdez was back in action as the Exxon Mediterranean. Perhaps having second thoughts about sticking that Exxon word on another ship, the name was later changed to the Sea River Mediterranean, and then finally to plain old Mediterranean. Whew.

In 2007, Exxon finally got rid of the thing once and for all, selling it to another company for $32 million. The new owner turned it into an ore carrier and renamed the Dong Fang Ocean. And then — oops — in 2010, it was involved in another collision off the coast of China.

Here, the trail gets a bit too confusing for me, so I’ll just note that this happy little ship was ultimately sent into retirement. The sweet ending is that the vessel’s final name was Oriental Nicety. Really.

Bottom line: It was all Exxon-Mobil’s fault. It ran away from the name because it would forever be attached to some very bad memories.

Your turn, Microsoft

In each of the above cases, the company involved found itself in a situation where it was forced to change the name.

One could argue about the degree of responsibility each company had in creating the situation — but that wouldn’t change the reality. There was a public perception issue, and that issue necessitated a name change. (I’m assuming Malaysian Airlines will take that step, though I have yet to see an official announcement.)

Unfortunately, it’s tough for Microsoft to argue that it’s been unfairly victimized, or that it has just suffered some bad luck. Microsoft has been the sole steward of the Explorer brand since it was launched in 1995, responsible for both the product and the marketing thereof.

Once the most used browser in earth, Explorer’s share is now down to about 21%, having slid under 50% back in 2010. Microsoft keeps “improving” it, yet customers continue to flee to Firefox and Chrome.

So the Microsoft move would strictly be a marketing ploy.

Will Microsoft go ahead with a name change? The press indicates that the possibility is at least being discussed. Plus, our friends at Microsoft seem to have a history of re-naming when the going gets tough.

According to CNNMoney, “Windows Mobile became Windows Phone. Hotmail became Outlook. Windows NT became Windows Server. Microsoft Wallet became Microsoft Passport, then .NET Passport, then Microsoft Passport Network, then Windows Live and is now just your Microsoft account.”

When it comes to product re-naming, Microsoft may well be the industry leader. In fact, I’m straining to think of a company that has changed its product names so many times, strictly for marketing purposes. Anyone else have any examples?

Who knows if Microsoft will really change the Explorer name. But if they do, they will in effect be saying the same thing that so many of its users have said of Explorer over the years: “Abandon ship!”

We do know that certain names are available cheap, should Microsoft be interested.

Microsoft Valdez has a nice ring to it.

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  • nuthinking

    I think most of the changes you mentioned from Microsoft could enter in the optimization category (small improvements to create a more consistent portfolio). Joining services like Hotmail (which was an acquisition) and Outlook, for instance, makes sense too.
    (Definitely not common for me defending Microsoft! :S)

  • Peter Bulanow

    ValuJet -> AirTran | Flight 592

  • sa

    I vote for Microsoft MobileMe :-)

  • David Knepprath

    In the 30 years Toyota and Honda have had Corolla/Camry and Civic/Accord on the market Chevy has rotated through Malibu/Celebrity/Corsica/back to Malibu for their midsize and Vega/Cavalier/Cobalt/Cruze for their compact.

  • Bobzerunkle

    Toyota and Honda’s cars under those names have largely been quality products that owners haven’t regretted buying. Chevy can’t say the same. They should, in fact, start over.

  • David Knepprath

    But each iteration was not higher quality then the previous, and these models have sold in large numbers and been profitable for the company. So I would argue the name changes were strictly for marketing purposes; a reset in consumers minds if not actually a significant product change. I think Chevy has Microsoft beat when it comes to renaming products.

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  • Lukas

    Listing the changes to the name Microsoft uses for its online accounts is a bit misleading. Apple changed the name of its online service — and hence it main account system — at least as many times. Apple also changed the name of its notebooks from the nice “PowerBook” to the somewhat less nice “MacBook”, a change I still begrudge them.

    Also, the change from NT to Server was not because NT wasn’t beloved (it was and still is, very much so, amongst Windows users), it was just a new name for a new version, the same way Apple names it OS versions.

  • sanddorn

    Yes, Apple isn’t very consistent and stable with its labels, either.
    Funny to see Apple as the main comparison for MS.
    What still strikes me is the re-use of “iBook” – a proper iBook is round, tangerine or blueberry and weighs 3 MacBook Airs :)

    My next candidate I just saw yesterday: the Renault Eolab… I’d say they could have seen it as problematic.

  • ksegall

    You’re right! I’d forgotten about Apple’s online account name changes. Though they didn’t change “at least as many times” as MS. Only four, compared to MS’s five. (iTools to .Mac to MobileMe to iCloud.)

    The laptop name change was done as part of a rebranding so that every Mac computer incorporated the Mac word. Thus, iBook became MacBook, and PowerBook became MacBook Pro. I’m sure there are others, like you, who didn’t like that change. Personally, I thought MacBook was a better name, and overall it was a smart strategic move. The computer product line makes a lot more sense now.

  • namelesscoward

    Valdez ‘crossing borders’.. gotta keep up with the current trends

    I’ve been thinking and must conclude religion and politics are the biggest users of rebranding. Here after conglomerates such as Unilever and Kraft rebrand old as new all the time.

  • namelesscoward

    Well over 10 years no 15 years ago I read an article online measuring the length of a small book, about how Microsoft was doomed. Rotting from inside out to be exact. Prophetic words. Microsoft is its own worst enemy, its culture or lack thereoff and so on and so on. The author said that ms would be in big trouble in ten years time.. I smiled.

    No amount of rebranding will help here.

    If one thing, they should NOT rebrand. And why? because rebranding is almost symptomatic of ms, they are always chasing the puck and using marketing to make believe us they are not. People are aware of this one way or the other.

    For a huge and hefty fine ( they costed me money ) I’ll help them out with a glowing hot brand poke.

    Brand in Dutch means Fire. Branding cattle.

    But again ms like many other companies happen to sell a product that makes them money, they do not really care what product.

    To get us have ms Top of Mind they first must have their products tom and heart too.

    Guess they will burn first.

  • that´s true about Apple´s online account changes, however I think the changes in the service itself were big enough to Also suit a name change, it wasn’t just a coat of paint like the change from hotmail to outlook, outlook is still just email and its playing catch up, very poorly I might add.

    On the topic of explorer, if microsoft rebrands it, it will probably benefit them, particularly with it’s new leadership, people might give it a chance now more than ever, and I guess it just needs it to be good enough so people don’t change, kind of like apple maps on the iPhone,

    But again, if it’s just a paint job it won’t matter much in the long term, but regardless, they should avoid the “tactic” of forcing it on people like they did with metro, or google did with google buzz and google+

  • TrueCopy

    If it’s truly just a hollow reskin, I don’t see this having any impact. Most people (none of whom would read a blog like this) don’t “choose” Internet Explorer, they just use it. So sure, they’ll use some other program too and won’t know the difference.

    IMHO, IE by any other name is still dead weight. Changing the name is nothing more than an admission that the product’s reputation sucks.

    As with Apple’s retooling of their online products, each name change was met with significant upgrades (for better or worse). Features came and went. But there always seemed to be a strategic reason behind the shifts.

    Even as an Apple fan, I hope that if MS does decide to bag the IE moniker in favor of something more modern, it comes with a ground-up rewrite that addresses its real problems.

  • Hey Ken, sorry I am late to the party. Just discovered you today and was so impressed I just ordered your book. Two companies that also intrigued me with their name changes…ING Direct just recently changed their name to Tangerine. 37 Signals just changed their name to their best selling product BaseCamp. Their move very much follows the simplicity approach you talk about. The sold off all their other products to focus solely on BaseCamp which was their most profitable.

  • ksegall

    Hi Dean,
    Welcome to the club. And thanks for pointing out those other name changes. I wasn’t aware of either. I’m fresh out of prizes, but I do appreciate the contribution!