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The Art of Renaming a Business

Corporate name changes are not uncommon and can signal a new era for a company, but what’s the recipe for success?
By
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — Earlier this month Coach Inc., parent company to Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, rebranded as Tapestry Inc. Although the news may have bypassed the consumers of its brands, and will have little impact on the company structure, the name change signals a new era for the business.

A key motivation was avoiding confusion. "We had a situation where we had the company name and the consumer brand name were one and the same," says Victor Luis, chief executive of the group. "With the acquisition of Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade, you still had Coach Inc. that was now also the parent company of two other brands, but only represented one of the three brands." When the business acquired Kate Spade in May, Luis says some consumers thought the Coach brand was absorbing Kate Spade.

The name change is also designed to signal to Wall Street that the company is a platform for growth for its individual member brands, and the group has already started trading as “TPR” on the New York Stock Exchange. “Tapestry represented the idea of individuality and the ability of brands to live and express themselves but still be on one platform and having shared values,” Luis attests. “I don’t know if there would be a situation where we would rename a brand,” he says of the individual companies. “We would never do it. This is very clearly about changing corporately. We are not the first and the last.”

More than just the change in scope or activity that this new name reflects, it expresses the group's new identity and our corporate culture.

Indeed, corporate name changes are not uncommon, and happen for a variety of reasons. Google renamed itself Alphabet in 2015, in part to allow the company to report the health of its core search business to Wall Street separately from its other divisions. In 2013 PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute) renamed itself Kering to demonstrate its new focus on the luxury and sport sectors, a move away from distribution, and a "caring" approach to cultivating brands, as well as acknowledging the roots of the company in France’s Brittany region (“Ker” means home in Breton).

"Changing our identity is the logical and necessary outcome of the group's transformation," said chairman and chief executive François-Henri Pinault at the time. "More than just the change in scope or activity that this new name reflects, it expresses the group's new identity and our corporate culture." It worked; today, the new name is so widely accepted that it has even appeared as branding on Balenciaga hoodies, a testament to in-the-know consumers.

According to David Mowers, executive director of strategy at branding agency Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA), who helped orchestrate the name change of Coach Inc. in just seven months, there are several steps to rechristening a brand. “We build a strategic scaffold that we can build a name against,” he explains. “We identify the three audiences that a name will resonate with: the investors, the employees and other brands.” The easy part, he says, is coming up with names; the challenge is finding one that the client approves of and is available to for trademarking, a website domain and social media handles.

We identify the three audiences that a name will resonate with: the investors, the employees and other brands.

“We primarily work with big global brands, so global means local,” he adds. “We have to run a search. Is there a person making hats in London or someone doing clothes in Southeast Asia who is already marketing under that name? There’s only so many letters and words in the alphabet and you can guarantee someone has already thought of every possibility.”

“We never recommend [changing a name] lightly,” says Emily Heyward, founding partner of New York-based branding company, Red Antler. “In the cases we have done a renaming, it is usually for a serious reason — when businesses want to rename it’s because [its name] holding them back in a way. It may not describe what they’re doing any more or, usually, there’s a problem we need to resolve.” Heyward gives the example of a company expanding into the American market with a name that could be interpreted as racist. The idea, she says, is that it’s better that a name is neutral and unspectacular than offensive or damaging.

Many consumer fashion brands have undergone name changes at the whim of newly arrived creative directors, from Yves Saint Laurent becoming Saint Laurent Paris under Hedi Slimane, to Calvin Klein Collection transforming into Calvin Klein 205W39NYC under Raf Simons. Corporate renamings, however, rarely effect consumer perception.

In terms of a recipe for success, broadly speaking there are four factors to consider

“In terms of a recipe for success, broadly speaking there are four factors to consider,” says Jemma Elliot, global head of content at branding agency Wolff Olins. “[There’s] semantic value: does it convey the right idea or attitude? Strategic impact: does it align with business objectives? Phonetic structure: is it easy to remember and say? And finally, availability: is it legally ownable?”

The most problematic names may be the ones that are difficult to pronounce or spell, but other experts say that it isn’t always the most important aspect of a company. “Naming is the thing that everyone overthinks,” says Heyward. “They want a name to tell their whole story and they think the name is the answer and it’s really not. There are some very successful businesses with ridiculous names.” If there was ever an indication of just how much it can resonate with an audience, however, Elliot points out that when cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s rebranded Coco Pops as “Choco Krispies,” more than a million people petitioned the company to reinstate the original name.

"A name is never going to create success or be a solution to your problems," adds Heyward. "The aim is that it isn't one of your problems." Plus, if a renaming is truly successful, you won't even remember it happened.

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