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Aurizon is a nearly perfect example of all that can go wrong with a rebranding. The new name was today voted on, and passed, by the shareholders of QR National, the listed company that was once the rail service owned by the Queensland government.
The company announced the name change in September. QR National’s CEO, Lance Hockridge, said the name change was “the logical next step in the company’s transformation to becoming a world-class operator”.
The name is derived by combining Australia and horizon, Hockridge explains. “It conveys the geographical scope of our expanding operations, as well as the extraordinary growth opportunities that are on the horizon for the company.”
“Who cares?” says Michelle Gamble, the CEO of Marketing Angels. “You wonder what their logic is if they are trying to reposition their company.”
Branding advocate, Michel Hogan, says: “To me it is a classic case of people making a weird hybrid names to try and make it unique and interesting so that people will remember it. This is not true: people don’t remember made-up words.
“This is marketing garbage run amok. It means nothing to anyone and when you have a combination that needs a stupid justification, you are probably on the wrong track.”
Gamble says non-words can be very successful brand names. “Spreets is not a word, but it is a good brand. The problem is when the word sounds like another word [Aurizon and horizon]. It is just going to lead to misspellings and misunderstanding. That is going to be a practical issue.”
But Hogan disagrees with the idea that non-words work. “Naming tends to sit on a continuum – you have descriptive names, like Queensland Rail, or XYZ bank, on one end. At the other end, you have the more esoteric things like Apple or Nike. They don’t have a lot of meaning, but that is built over time. It is pretty much a trade-off: with a descriptive name you have to spend more giving it some pizzazz; with esoteric names, you work harder to give it a description. In the middle you have the ones that are emotional, somewhat descriptive, and some esoteric. MySpace, is a great example and Twitter is one too.”
Gamble says Aurizon’s failure to encapsulate anything about what the company does – there is no mention of travel, rail or even tourism – is a bigger branding snafu in the modern market than it would have been in past days. “More and more, people are choosing brand names around key internet search terms,” says Gamble. “Look at names like freelancer.com . If you are searching for a freelancer, this company will appear very high in any search. In that sense, Queensland Rail is very good. There is a lot to be said for keeping it simple.”
Even if customers are aware of the brand and what it stands for, if they cannot spell it, they will struggle to find it through a search, Gamble points out. “We had a music school as a client that had spelt skool with a K. We needed to look at that because it was hurting them from a search point of view.”
Gamble says a company’s name should give potential customers an idea of what you do. Marketing Angels, for example, reveals that the company provides marketing and comes in to help, says Gamble.
Names should also be future-proof as much as possible. The brand name Pentel is sufficiently broad to be about writing, more than pens alone, opening the way for innovations such as tablet pens.
“A lot companies think very short term,” Gamble says. “They start with a brand name in mind, and as they evolve, they don’t rebrand or reposition as much as they should. Or they launch with one brand, then add another that has an unrelated name. Each brand is not building awareness of the master brand.”
Sometimes companies can reposition themselves with a positioning statement, rather than renaming, says Gamble. Nike’s “Just do it” or Hungry Jack’s “The burgers are better” are two cases in point. Recently, Telstra has achieved a significant rebrand with its colour spectrum, to conveys its range of services, including that each service is associated with a colour. “It takes a while to build,” Gamble notes.
However, Hogan warns that renaming can be a way to cover up deeper issues, such as trying to escape the corporate past, or giving up on solving tougher strategic issues. “Organisations love this kind of distraction,” she says. “It is the ‘bright shiny object’ syndrome.”
More seriously, a rebranding that misfires or is unnecessary is a massive waste of shareholders’ money, says Hogan. “Isn’t this a great way to waste shareholders money? Typically coming up with new names, runs into millions of dollars, with the agency doing all this research. Then add all the logos, changing all the signage, the uniforms, the massive infrastructure. It is a lovely juicy piece of work for an agency. There is not much impetus for someone to turn around to say, ‘This is a bad idea’.”
Better to rebrand than to stick with a poor choice, however, says Gamble. Admitting to naming stuff-ups, correcting them and rethinking the brand strategy is smarter than hanging on to a failing strategy.
Once the brand is decided, however, the story is not at an end. Gamble says: “Every brand needs to be bought to life by the company’s behaviour.”
Says Hogan: “You don’t make a name to mean something, your name comes to mean something because of what you make.”