• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022

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What should you do when your brand name becomes bad news?

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Maria Cypher, co-founder and principal at California-headquartered Catchword Branding, grapples with the history of brand name changing in the wake of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine.

In late 1987, just as leaders from the United States and the then-Soviet Union were signing a historic missile treaty, Stolichnaya ran a full-page ad in several American newspapers. Makers of the vodka, at the time the only one imported to the U.S. from the Soviet empire, proudly billed it as “Another thing both sides agree on.”

It was a cute way to capitalize on the accord. But what do you do when the current events swirling around your brand name are not a buoy but an anchor? If you’re Stolichnaya and it’s 35 years later, you change it.

Though the spirit has been distilled in Latvia since 2002, it—alongside other vodkas with Russian-sounding names—immediately became a target of protest after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. In the days following the first attack, as world leaders imposed sanctions and watchdogs cried foul, the name Stolichnaya was retired and replaced by the sleeker Stoli. The move, the parent company said, was in “direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” and was meant to make the brand’s condemnation clear.

Stoli is hardly the first to find itself suddenly reminding people of bad news. After all, products and companies don’t have a monopoly on names; diseases and terrorist organizations have them, too. Changing your name can be an effective and even necessary response in some cases. In others, brands have fared fine by doing less, opting to simply communicate about a coincidence or even silently riding out the wave.

Among the cautionary tales is Ayds, a diet candy launched in the 1940s. For decades the name innocuously suggested a weight loss “aid.” But the phonetic landscape shifted as the AIDS epidemic erupted in the 1980s, causing fear, grief and, as it happened, radical weight loss among those afflicted.

The company at first refused to consider a name change, gambling that existing equity outweighed the risks. (“Let the disease change its name,” one executive quipped.) But by 1988, sales had dropped 50% and executives had started viewing the name as a “curse.” Ayds’ parent company tried out light revisions such as Adyslim and Diet Ayds, but the product soon disappeared from shelves.

Other brands have promptly faced the problem head on. When terrorist group ISIS began dominating headlines in 2014, Belgian chocolatier ISIS quickly rebranded as Libeert, the name of the family running the company. By the following year, California-based ISIS Pharmaceuticals, originally named for the Egyptian goddess Isis, rebranded as Ionis Pharmaceuticals. Though the latter initially resisted a rename, in part because it isn’t consumer-facing, both smartly rebranded to end any association with a destructive force that remains in headlines today.

Scope and severity matter for this decision. When a relatively short outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) occurred in the early 2000s, the makers of an Australian soft drink with the same name held steady. Golden Circle’s Sars soda, named for its sarsaparilla root flavor, acknowledged the situation and told curious reporters the drink was actually getting a sales boost from novelty shoppers. Today one can still buy the company’s cordial with a prominent Sars on the label.

And, although it didn’t work for Ayds, brand equity sometimes trumps bad connections. In recent years, Corona beer largely avoided engaging with misinformation and snark about the similarity between its name and that of the deadly coronavirus. Silence proved the right policy despite the ongoing pandemic, in part because the disease’s name evolved to COVID. In late 2020, Corona’s parent company reported that sales were up despite early fears that the virus would damage the brand.                                                           

The takeaway? Every calamity brings its own character, which means that a smart and respectful response won’t look the same in every instance. But there is one lesson that remains constant. The answer to the question “What’s in a name?” can always change.