Do “Smart” Name Changes Aimed at Growth Sap the Life Out of Brands?

Toward the end of a recent Love It Or Leave It podcast, host Jon Lovett (@jonlovettwas ranting about how ABC did not want to air the awards for cinematography and editing on this year’s Oscar broadcast. There are other ways to shorten the broadcast, he argued, though one of his guests asked why it had to be shortened at all. “What else do you have to do on Oscar night?”

Lovett’s point was that cinematography and editing where what made movies movies.  How can these core contributions be ignored?

What fascinated me was the way he opened his rant with an analogy to the marketing world.

“How much substance can we sap out of our culture every day? Every company that’s named after the one product they make really well eventually realizes they have to change their name and make something else. So the International House of Pancakes has to become IHOP and sell burgers. Burger King has to become BK so you’ll buy the chicken. Boston Chicken has to become Boston Market so you’ll buy the turkey. Dunkin Donuts has to become Dunkin because you gotta buy the coffee. At a certain point, the pressures of the market tell something to stop being the thing that makes them wonderful so they can make something else.”

The strategic reasons behind these name changes, or the “pressures of the market” as Lovett calls them, are clear. IHOP wants to expand its business to other dayparts. Pancakes mean breakfast, so it’s not a place you might consider for lunch or dinner. You can’t get much unhealthier than sugar and carb-laden donuts, so if you want people to come in for a multigrain bagel or a veggie egg white on an English muffin and a cup of coffee, maybe it’s not a good idea to have donuts in your name. The same goes for KFC’s reasoning to move away from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fried food is out.

You could argue that these were all sound decisions when they were made. But now I wonder if any of these name changes were a good idea. Did the rebranding efforts “sap the substance” of these brands? How much less authentic does a brand become when its identity is literally a shadow of its former self? Names reduced to initials – IHOP, BK and KFC – are especially troubling for me. Shortcuts designed to have it both ways, with traditional and older consumers remembering “pancakes” while new consumers start with a clean slate. But what is, exactly, and IHOP, a BK or a KFC?

Is the trade-off of losing the stigma of “fried” or “burgers” or “pancakes” worthwhile when measured against authenticity?

I’d argue that consumers always gave Burger King the license to sell chicken and fish sandwiches. Yes, it’s a place known for burgers, but like McDonald’s, the more important consideration is the core competence of indulgent food fast and cheap. And with menu items like French fries and shakes, it’s not a stretch to say that for some, the burgers aren’t even the main draw.

It’s not dissimilar to another brand I’ve worked on. There is absolutely no disconnect for people to buy daiquiri or pina colada drink mixes from Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville brand. The tropical kicked back state of mind is more important than tequila. Rum fits in quite nicely.

Moreover, times have changed. The age of department stores and other generalist businesses are over, at least for now. McDonald’s still struggles with a menu that’s grown out of control. It’s hard to think of many brands that still succeed by being all things to all people. Specialization and authenticity now walk hand in hand.

If we were starting from scratch, with no baggage whatsoever, I wonder which concept would be more successful today. The International House of Pancakes, where you can get the best pancakes in the world and a world of pancakes, because that’s their passion? Amazing pancakes you can eat any meal, at any time of the day along with eggs, sandwiches, burgers, salads and a few other limited items for the objectors in your group or if you just want something different.

Most everyone in America knows “IHOP” is – the brand successfully navigated the change and the abbreviated name is part of the culture. It’s also less of a mouthful than “International House of Pancakes?” But what’s more authentic?

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