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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Friday, October 1, 2010

What’s In A Name?

Never has there been a more misunderstood, misused or mishandled word in the history of the public relations professions as the word “brand.” And while many of us in PR primarily recognize this term in its unaltered form, many others are accustomed to hearing/using it in the verb form with the suffix “ing” added, as in “branding.”

So powerful is this term in PR that it has spawned new business practice units dedicated towards it. It has also given birth to a slew of new cool hip job titles, such as Brandologist, Brand Provocateur, Brand Strategist and the even rarer Brandthesiologist.

If you want to score big during a new business pitch meeting and sound like a real PR strategist, just start throwing around the word brand, branding or branding campaign and witness the miracles that ensue. That prospective client will get all starry eyed and their ears will perk up a little more because somebody in the Comm Dept. mentioned they needed it, or they read something about it in a magazine. Either way, it’s supposed to be that thing that puts them on the map and make people take notice of their company and/or product.

But just what the hell do PR people mean when they start babbling about developing the brand or engaging in a brand campaign? It depends on who you’re asking.

Now if somebody asked me what it meant, I’d tell them simply that their brand is the public perception of their company; it’s how they’re identified in the market as well as what they represent. I’d tell them that their brand also includes their company name and their logo – all components of those things tied to corporate identity. And branding is just the process under taken to establish that identity/presence in the market place.

However, in the world of advertising the term brand has come to be known as something else. It typically refers to a company’s specific product or product line. For example, Bounty is a brand owned and operated by the company Proctor & Gamble, and Cadillac is one of the many brands within the General Motors portfolio.

The official definition I found indicates that a brand is the identity of a specific product, service, or business. A brand can take many forms, including a name, sign, symbol, color combination or slogan. Branding is the entire process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product (good or service). I like what I said better, but then again I’m biased.

If these things are perceived to be true and your brand also is connected to the name of your company and/or product, would not that create certain challenges? Yes.

Case in point, recently I was reading my former local community newspaper, The Southfield Sun. In its pages, I came across an article about the restaurant and lounge “Pi” located at the end of my old block. The article was about the owners’ decision to change the name of the establishment, as well as it dining style and atmosphere.

Due to the economy and lack of business they wanted to switch from being an upscale dining experience with live bands to a pub-styled bar serving American cuisine and catering to sports enthusiast. The decision has disaster written all over it.

Personally I thought the lounge was doomed from the start and I blamed much of my prediction on the name they selected – Pi. Truthfully, the name is π (as in the Greek letter for ‘P’) but we call it by the name we learned in high school math, Pi. I originally thought it was some sort of Asian symbol and it represented the type of food being served – Asian. The previous owners had called the same spot Café Milano. So for would be patrons there was all kind of confusion.

The owners spent a lot of time, effort and money to promote Pi and get people acclimated to it as an upscale dining experience. Slowly but surely and after a few years of effort, people began to catch on to Pi. But now the owners have made the radical decision to change the name to “The Pub.” The result will be tons of investment into a brand gone to waste and even more confusion for patrons.

Speaking of investment gone to waste and to bring this a little closer to home, many people familiar with my career know that I spent the last year and half leading the branding charge for a new kind of talent retention and attraction initiative called, Intern In Michigan. During my time with the program I systematically helped build up a large amount of equity into the Intern In Michigan brand, making it a top of mind selection whenever someone thought about an internship and the state of Michigan. However, there was still more work to be done and a lot of that earned capital yet to be spent.

Toward the end of my time, I learned that the company responsible for creating the technology behind the program, along with one of the primary funders, wanted dump the name in favor for one that was more generic and allegedly broader in its appeal – Classroom2Careers. I thought it was a horrendous idea and a not well thought out plan of action. Much like the owners of Pi, here was another instance where decision makers had not recognized the inextricable relationship between a company brand and its name. The two are not mutually exclusive.

To see a great example of branding as well as brand dominance, look no further than Kleenex, one of the many brands offered by the company Kimberly-Clark Worldwide Inc. Kleenex is so dominant in the market that its very name has become synonymous with facial tissue. When people sneeze or have a runny nose the majority will ask you for a Kleenex as opposed to a tissue. That’s branding on a gargantuan scale!

“What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous.” - Voltaire

Then there are cases like Blackwater where a tremendous amount of brand equity is destroyed because of an onslaught of negative press and a lack of a cohesive public relations response. Used to be a time when you heard the name Blackwater the first thing that came to mind was kick-ass, elite soldiers for hire. Now Blackwater stands for overpaid, rogue mercenaries that kill civilians and try to cover it up. Big difference.

So toxic had the company name and brand become that its leadership decided to cut their losses and send both to that company identity afterlife. Following the eighty-sixing of the name/brand that had brought them fame and fortune, the company leadership decided to take a page from his Purple Majesty, Prince (and the owners of Pi) and rebranded themselves as some unpronounceable symbol - Xe Services, LLC. Eventually, history will be the judge as to the success of their branding gamble.

It was the laureate Shakespeare who served as the inspiration for the title of this post, having famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I don’t think Mr. Shakespeare took into consideration the money that the maker of that rose sunk into design concepts, focus groups, marketing and packaging. Dumping the name might not sound like such a sweet idea. But then again…I’m no Brandologist.


  1. I love this! So many people think that changing their name will attract new customers when in reality they are breaking a connection between their 'product' and their 'consumer'. We get comfortable with what we know - whether it be tissues, restaurants, soft drinks - and when they are all of a sudden unfamiliar to us, they become less desireable.

  2. Bravo! There's so much I could comment on. Great job differentiating branding to a PR professional (I like your definition better too) and to the rest of the world. I couldn't agree more on your case studies as well.

    I entreat you to consider the concept of developing a personal brand...the perception we, as professionals, create for ourselves. I call it the Power of Personal PR. Perhaps we can collaborate on the subject.

  3. Jennifer, I'm glad you enjoyed this post. This whole concept of brand and branding has been needling me for quite some time now. I've come to understand it and the power it wields. I just want to make sure that my peers and the people who stand to benefit from it, also understand.

  4. Keith thanks for the kind words and the support. I'm glad you liked my take on the subject. And of course I never rule out future collaborations. "The Power of Personal PR" - I like the sound of that.