Channel Partners

January 1, 1999

10 Min Read
What Brand Are You Wearing?

Posted: 01/1999

What Brand Are You Wearing?
By Ken Branson

Juliet, it turns out, asked the wrong question.

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but for businesses in a rapidly
changing, tightening market, the real question is: Would lovers buy a rose by any other
name? Would they learn to associate that name with everything the rose promises–beauty,
fragrance, romantic success, springtime, youth and all that? And if you’re in the rose
business, how do you differentiate yourself from your competitors? The name is only part
of the challenge. To borrow from and paraphrase Shakespeare again, the brand’s the thing.

Companies selling telecommunications services and equipment face the same problem. The
same technology is widely available to most competitors. The marketplace is more crowded
every day. They need brands that will stand out in the crowd. The brand, according to
people who deal with such matters, is not just the name and not just the logo, though it
includes both things.

"The brand is really the promise you make to the external world, and to your
employees," says Janilee Johnson, vice president of public relations and brand
management at Bell Communications Research Inc. (Bellcore) of Morristown, N.J. "What
do you stand for? It includes all the external pieces … right down to how you answer the
telephone."

Rebranding Strategies

Johnson’s company is neck-deep in a rebranding process. Identified in the trade press
for years as "the research arm of the Baby Bells," Bellcore was bought a year
ago by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego–a technology
consulting and engineering company that has nothing to do with the regional Bell operating
companies (RBOCs). As part of the sales agreement, SAIC agreed to give up the Bellcore
name and Bell logo. For years, the company’s work has had more to do with software and
professional services than with research, and its customer base has expanded beyond the
Bells. Johnson has about six months to change the name and re-create the brand–that is,
to decide what Bellcore’s promise is. She says she isn’t ready to state that promise yet.

Her dilemma is familiar to Anita Hersh, president and CEO of Lister Butler Associates,
a New York branding consulting firm that has worked with Bellcore and other
telecommunications companies.

"It’s extremely important strategically to get this right," Hersh says.
"The name is only one component of the brand. The [brand] needs to stand out in a
crowded marketplace and position the company and its products and services very clearly to
key audiences–the public, of course, but also Wall Street, venture capitalists and
potential customers."

Hersh’s firm and others like it engage in a Socratic dialogue with their clients,
trying to find out who the client is, what it does and what it wants to be. Hersh says it
is not unusual to learn, when she asks her clients these questions, that they really don’t
know the answers.

"The process of developing an identity sometimes acts as a catalyst for developing
a business strategy," she says. At the same time, a company must have a business
strategy based on its core strengths, she says, before it can develop a brand.

Hersh says established companies about to engage in rebranding must be careful not to
throw out babies with the bath water. Take AT&T Corp., for example, which has just
acquired the former Teleport Communications Group Inc. (TCG), New York, and announced its
intention of acquiring Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), Englewood, Colo. Robert Annunziata,
the former head of TCG who became executive vice president of business services at
AT&T, recently told a conference of analysts that the company faces the challenge of
making sure that the services of TCG and AT&T Wireless, and eventually TCI, are
"branded AT&T all the way down the line." (TCG had its own brand; AT&T
Wireless was McCaw Cellular Corp. and was given considerable independence after being
acquired by AT&T.)

"In terms of AT&T and their overall strategy, they have a very strong brand
that stands for lots of good attributes, and they want to leverage that," consultant
Hersh says. "But they also want to transition the equity in TCG’s brand to the
AT&T brand. It’s probably not smart to do a flash-cut change."

"Annunziata wants to make sure that when (AT&T) salespeople visit a potential
customer, they come across as cohesive," says Burke Stinson, senior pubic relations
director at AT&T. "He doesn’t want them to say, ‘That’s right, that’s AT&T on
my card, but I don’t really know much about that wireless thing; you’ll have to call Smith
about that. Let me give you his number.’"

The name of a company or a product, if not the thing, is a big thing. A
company’s name may no longer fit its work or vision. So it was with American Communication
Services Inc., when its management decided that its name not only didn’t represent its
work and aspirations, but also didn’t represent much of anything.

The Annapolis Junction, Md.-based competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) wanted to
represent itself as an integrated communications provider (ICP). Its management intended
to offer customers "new choices in integrated communications that provide simplicity,
innovation and flexibility," said CEO and president Jack Reich in announcing the
company’s name change in April. The new name is e.spire Communications Inc., and the
tagline is "communications to the point."

"It was July 1997 when the name change started," says Peggy Disney, e.spire’s
director of marketing communications. "We thought, ‘Oh, what fun, we’ll have a new
name in 30 days.’"

It didn’t work out that way, of course. And, name-change consultants say, it hardly
ever does.

Identity Crisis

"Developing a corporate name is one of the tougher parts of branding, primarily
because it’s such an emotional issue," says Dennis Rainer, a partner in Name Design
LLC, San Jose, Calif. "Everybody from the mail room clerk to the CEO’s wife has an
opinion, and to please all of them is impossible."

Reasoning that a name is a word and should have meaning, Disney and her colleagues
sought the help of the late Mr. Webster at first. "We came up with names from the
dictionary, then with names we made up," she says.

"There are something like 17,000 domain names registered each day, and thousands
of names are trademarked internationally. This went on for months. We’d come up with a
name we liked, ask [a naming consultant] to see if we could trademark it, and they kept
coming back to us, saying we couldn’t use the name."

WelCom, Xact, Celeris, Zoom, Breakthrough, Mosaic, Javelin, Walden and Duet went
through this process. "We all said, ‘It’ll be a name right under our noses,’"
Disney remembers. And so it was. e.spire is the name of the company’s advanced data
service. It already had been trademarked. Then came the ticker symbol, ESPI, and the
tagline, "communications to the point."

The name was revealed to employees on April 13 and to the world the following day.
Reich and his colleagues repeated several times at their news conference that all 830
e.spire employees were extremely excited about the change–so many times, in fact, that
reporters wondered among themselves whether the headquarters building in Annapolis
Junction might implode from the collective ecstasy. But Reich was only doing his duty, a
duty often left undone, according to Hersh. An ecstatic CEO may be hard to bear before
coffee in the morning, but an unenthusiastic one is a sign of impending trouble.

"This is the CEO’s issue at the end of the day," Hersh says.
"Organizations that don’t approach it that way get bogged down in process. The key
identity decisions need to be made at the highest level, and this is a long-term
issue."

Whether e.spire, or Bellcore’s new name, or any name turns out to be a good one depends
largely on whether the company lives up to the promise the brand and name make. If
e.spire’s services turn out to be anything other than simple to use, innovative and
flexible and if the communications they provide is off the point, then the nine-month
agony of Disney, Reich and their colleagues will have been for naught.

"There are four situations that can come out of this process," Rainer says.
"Great name, great product. Then there’s great product, poor name–which isn’t fatal.
There’s poor product, poor name and most people think that’s the worst. But a great name
and a poor product is the worst, because it makes the product fail quicker and taints the
company’s brand."

A name that survives the selection process often pleases no one at first. When Lucent
Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., spun off from AT&T two years ago, the name
Lucent was widely criticized. Scott Adams, the author of the "Dilbert" cartoon
strip, drew his version of the process–a meeting in which the company’s circular logo is
inspired by the circular stain on the bottom of his coffee cup–"the brown circle of
quality."

Nobody pokes fun at Lucent’s name now. Hersh points out that Lucent managed to make a
name for itself in its own right, and also managed, by its tagline "Bell Labs
innovations," to bring Bell Labs’ brand equity along with it.

Rainer warns that a name can be available, open to copyright, descriptive and please
everyone from the mail room up, and still fail if the audience isn’t taken into
consideration. He says that, many years ago, he was horrified to discover flames shooting
out the tail pipe of his ancient Renault car as he drove home. Later, Renault made a car
called Fuego, which means fire in Spanish, and did not incline Rainer to buy another
Renault. "Why not just call it flambi?" he asks.

No Garage Dreamers Here

Not surprisingly, Hersh and Rainer think companies ought to seek professional help when
it comes to naming and branding, and ought to be prepared to invest the time and resources
in the process. The process doesn’t end when the campaign is over. Hersh points out that
Sprint Corp. has a brand investment group made up of "communications people, but
communications people with the authority to enforce the brand." Something like that
is crucial, she believes, if the brand is to mean anything over time.

Startups, she says, increasingly understand this. "Very few startups emerge from
garages these days," she says. "Usually, these are people with some level of
funding from investment bankers, and they’ve started with a strategy for building a
brand."

So, what does 2nd Century Communications Inc. mean to you? If you picture Roman carrier
pigeons, you may not be alone. But Mike Viren, Charlotte Baker, Oscar Williams and Vince
Rocca, of Tampa, Fla., want you to see the four of them inventing the second century of
telecommunications. With a respectful nod to Dr. Bell and all his works, they’re telling
you that he was then and they are now.

Viren, Baker, Williams and Rocca are telecommunications veterans who left Intermedia
Communications Inc., Tampa, Fla., to form their company. They’ve formed an asynchronous
transfer mode (ATM)-based company aiming to provide integrated communications services for
small-to-medium-sized business customers in 50 markets over the next three years. They’ve
got a business plan. They know what they want to do. They’ve got venture capitalists
behind them–no garage-based dreamers here.

And how did they pick the name?

"We had no consultant," says Baker, vice president of marketing.
"Collectively, with all our experience–we’d been in marketing, distribution
services, finance–we’d had enough consultants. We used focus groups. And, yes, we did the
legal stuff to make sure the name was available."

Baker says she and her colleagues recognize that what they provide–long distance and
local telephony and Internet access–is a commodity. "The way we’ll brand is through
the bill and excellent service," she says.

"Our hold on the customer will be that we offer people much better delivery of
traditional service than the incumbent, plus some nice premiums."

2nd Century Communications–or 2C2, as Baker calls it for short–has no live customers
yet, so no one will know for awhile whether Roman carrier pigeons or easy, fast
communications will be associated with the name. The outcome depends on how the company
fulfills its promise.

"Given enough time and money," Hersh says, "you can do something with
any name."

But then again, Rainer says , "A good name helps, but it won’t save a
fiasco."

Ken Branson is East Coast bureau chief for PHONE+ Magazine.

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