What’s in a name?

According to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. But Shakespeare never worked on Madison Avenue, and he did not study branding.

Businesses have long understood the importance and financial value of brands. According to a 2012 study by the branding experts at Interbrand, COCA-COLA is worth about $78 billion (that’s billion with a “B”), followed closely by APPLE. Remember, we’re talking about only the brands, not the inventory, manufacturing plants, warehouses, and other tangible “things” that stand behind those trademarks.COKELEAH

Businesses have also understood the occasional need for re-branding. When Philip Morris USA figured out that its tobacco products were tarnishing the reputation of its KRAFT and other non-tobacco lines, it changed its corporate name and logo to ALTRIA. When AIG realized that its acceptance of a federal bailout in 2008 was hurting its retirement and financial subsidiaries, it re-branded them as SAGEPOINT FINANCIAL and VALIC.

Social activists may consider themselves above the dull sublunary world of commerce, but in fact they are often its most apt students.

A recent Time Magazine cover story on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade notes that Planned Parenthood is considering a re-branding campaign of its own. Gallup polls show support for abortion rights fading, particularly among young Americans, and that more people now regard themselves as “pro-life” than “pro-choice.” Paradoxically, other polls show that two thirds of the population agree with the holding of Roe v. Wade, that women have a constitutional right to abortions. So Planned Parenthood sees the problem as one of labels, not issues. According to Time, the “pro-choice” label may not be attractive to young people, many of whom prefer the broader and more embracing label “reproductive justice.”

Re-branding is not limited to social causes on the Left. Last year, Campus Crusade for Christ officially changed its name to “Cru.” The 60-year old ministry decided that “Campus” was too limiting. In fact, the ministry’s activities extend beyond schools to businesses and churches. “Crusade” seemed too warlike. Ministry leaders feared that it suggested that they aimed to impose their beliefs by military force. “Cru” was chosen out of 1,600 possible names. Other contenders were Communitas, the Latin word for people coming together for a common good, and Power to Change, which is the name of the Canadian ministry. The move – especially the omission of “Christ” from the name — proved very controversial, with critics charging the ministry with giving in to political correctness.

Political activists have also understood the need for re-branding. One of the first examples was the comeback of Richard Nixon. After his razor-thin loss to John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962 and lost big. Frustrated and angry, he held a press conference and told reporters that “they wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” Most observers assumed that his temper tantrum marked the end of his political career. And it did – for the Old Nixon. In preparation for the 1968 presidential election, Nixon teamed up with a young television producer named Roger Ailes, who helped create the “New Nixon”: a kinder, gentler, and far more telegenic version of the old politician. Richard Nixon went on to win two presidential elections, and Roger Ailes went on to become head of Fox News.

The fate of the word “liberal” offers another example of re-branding in the world of politics. Once “liberal” had a certain cachet, evoking wide-ranging education (as in “liberal arts”) and individual rights (as in “classical liberal”). Prominent free-market economists such Nobel Prize winner Frederich Hayek proudly called themselves “liberals.” The postscript to his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, is titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”

But that changed in the wake of Great Society failures in the late 60’s. In 1972, George McGovern was trounced in the presidential election by Richard Nixon (who, by then, had been re-branded yet again, this time into the “New New Nixon”.) “Liberal” became a discredited term. In the 1976 Democratic primaries, liberal candidates began referring to themselves as “progressives,” a trend that helped them attract moderates but which alienated their fellow liberals.

During the recent presidential election, Mitt Romney freely and frequently referred to himself as a “conservative” — even going so far as to call himself a “severe conservative.” On the other side, Barack Obama never referred to himself as a “liberal” – not even a relaxed liberal. Obama knew what he was doing (or not doing). According to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, the term “progressive” is viewed far more favorably than the word “liberal”; two-thirds of those polled had a positive reaction to the former compared with just half for the latter. The gap was especially high among Republicans. Most (55%) had a positive reaction to the word “progressive.” On the other hand, 70% had a negative reaction to the word “liberal.”

Re-branding is a limited remedy. Ultimately, products – whether Coke, causes, or candidates – succeed on their own intrinsic merits, not through their brand names.

Coke’s own experience with re-branding is instructive. In 1985, the Coca Cola Company took the most successful soft drink in history and changed its formula. The Company figured that as long as it kept the famous COKE label on the cans, people would still drink it. They figured wrong. The Company received over 400,000 complaints from irate customers. Some callers, according to a psychiatrist hired by the Company to listen in on calls, sounded as if they were discussing the death of a family member. Company celebrity spokesman Bill Cosby resigned.

After three months, the Company brought back the original product, which it re-branded, with some embarrassment, as COKE CLASSIC. Despite an extensive advertising campaign designed to boost the new product, consumers deserted (the new) COKE for (the old) COKE CLASSIC. By 1990, recognizing its mistake, the Company re-branded its new and unsuccessful COKE product as COKE II. By 2002, the new product had quietly disappeared from store shelves. In 2009, the Company essentially restored the status quo ante by re-re-branding its original product, removing the word “CLASSIC”, and restoring it to just plain COKE.

The experience might have vindicated William Shakespeare observation in updated form: “A Coke by any other name would still taste as sweet.”


Filed under Law, Politics


  1. I found this post very progressive.

  2. Terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” really don’t mean much anymore in any objective sense. They really no longer have an agreed upon meaning such as the term “communist”. The terms are thrown around the way the term “fascist” used to be. That was a real curse back in the day, though no one had a clear idea of what it meant, but presumably more than “making the trains run on time.” There is a little more agreement on the terms “social liberal” and “fiscal conservative” but they get lost in the attempts to demonize the other side. Labels can serve a useful purpose when everyone agrees on what they mean. But they serve no real useful purpose when there is no such agreement, other than to demonize the other side and let the hearers project all their fears or hopes into it.

  3. Thanks, Andy, for that insightful comment. People can differ as to whether political labels mean much anymore, but I find it interesting to note the parallels between the commercial and the political worlds’ respective use of trademarks. AIG and Philip Morris changed their brands because they were associated with unpopular products. Rightly or wrongly, Democrats seem to have done the same with the “liberal” brand. No one uses the term “liberal” anymore — not even the liberals. There’s been a shift to the “progressive” brand.

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