– Dave Taylor, Owner, Taylor Brand Group

One of the big decisions prospective parents face is the all-important choice of a first name for their child. It’s the name almost everyone will use to address the child throughout his or her life. The choice will reflect heavily on the parents based on how appropriate, respectful, creative, distinctive or familial it is. It will, in many ways, brand that child and create expectations, associations and even derivations in the form of Bill or Bob, Bub or Bot, or perhaps Ginny, Jenny or Jo-Jo.

It can be an agonizing process that may leave the parents feeling less than satisfied, or in conflict with each other, or at the very least a little bit exhausted.

If only creating new brand names were that easy.

Because creating a brand name or changing one, is far harder than naming a child. Most new parents choose from a defined universe of names. With the exception of those adventurous souls who chose true outlier names that may remain unique for a lifetime, the vast majority choose from names that are likely to be recognized and will cause no disruption for teachers, mail carriers or census takers.

But with brand names, every name seeks to be an outlier. Every company or marketer desires a singular name they can own and build unique and powerful meaning around. Shakespeare famously asked, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” But a rose is just a flower. A brand name is much more.

Having found a candidate for a new or revised brand name is only just the beginning for the marketer, because now comes testing, legal searches and stakeholder reviews, each of which can throw up substantial roadblocks in the process. If you own a small business with, say, a dozen competitors in your area, there may be hundreds or thousands of companies like yours around the country. Chances are your first 10-20 candidates for names will exist somewhere else. You won’t be the first hair salon to think of “Mane Tamers” or “Shear Excellence.” You won’t be the first “Cornerstone Construction,” or “Alpha Drilling Services.”

And may the brand gods smile upon you if the decision is made to change an established brand name because of opportunity or necessity. It could be as difficult as changing your son’s name when he is six. There’s a whole family of existing customers, employees and others that will object and find the idea highly unappealing. And they will tell you so in no uncertain terms.

KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken has tried for years to avoid the word “fried” in their name by using the self-imposed the KFC nickname. Yet they keep drifting back to their full name because it has brand value. Just Cabinets, a company in the mid-Atlantic region, clearly defined itself with a specific niche, but now finds its name both distinctive and limiting since it sells furniture and appliances as well.

Here are a few elements to consider if you seek to change your brand or company name:

Expect full name changes to feel like a cold shower. Actually more like a polar plunge. You will fret about lost equity. You will fear the unknown of a new name. Do what the big brands do: Research. Ask your customers (they won’t like it, but can give you insight.) Ask your marketplace. And ask some people who have never heard of you to choose between the old and the new name, and see which one wins.

Take smaller steps. Would a better descriptor line below your name help solve the problem? Just Cabinets added “Furniture & More” to their name. It’s a bit contradictory, but it appears to be working. Can you slowly phase a new name in and the old name out? Announce the name change to your customers in advance. Use both names for a time and over a year or two phase out the old name.

Live with it. Sometimes the legal hassles, internal wrangling and pressure of doing business will necessitate a delay in making a change. Think of Shakespeare’s musings and make the rest of your branding work harder to be distinctive. There’s got to be a better name than Walmart for the biggest retailer in the world, but they’re making it work. And the Smucker’s brand has had success poking fun at it’s own name as though it were a handicap. (Which, of course, it’s not.)

Or be really creative. When First Union was struggling under criticism of its bank brand, it purchased Wachovia and took that as their merged name. Unconventional, sure, but it was effective and required no legal wrangling over name ownership. A smart move, but rule one remains: Brand names are hard to change: Because a rose by the name of “Bob” might still smell as sweet, but would you really send a dozen Bobs to anyone?