What’s in a name?


I’m on a bunch of email lists. Comes with the job of being a marketing guy. For some time now, I’ve gotten emails from Buy.com. I don’t buy a lot from them, but it’s interesting to see how they promote specials, format their emails, etc. Recently, I’ve been receiving emails from Rakuten.com, “formerly Buy.com.” Um…wha?

So I clicked on a link, and sure enough, the site has been rebranded as Rakuten.com. How do you even pronounce that? (Answer: RACK-ten dot com.) Let’s see…you take a presumably coveted short URL name like “Buy.com” and ditch it in favor of a word most people won’t even be able to pronounce? I wanted to know more.

Turns out, Rakuten is a Japanese-based company that acquired Buy.com, and in what I can only assume is yet another case of Corporate Egos Gone Wild and a misbegotten idea that throwing away a good name is worth it when you think consolidating a brand is necessary, they’ve ditched Buy.com entirely.

Now THAT’S some kinda ego.

Apparently, Rakuten does a lot of other stuff. None of which I’ve ever heard of. So whatever goodwill Buy.com might have is gone in a puff of corporate boneheadedness. A better way to have handled this would have been to transitions slowly (if at all). Say, start with “Buy.com, a Rakuten company” or “Buy.com, by Rakuten.” Leave that in place for a year as you build Rakuten’s brand recognition. Then when all your customers are aware, announce the ‘phasing out’ of Buy.com in favor of Rakuten. THAT’S the way you do things like this. NOT just dropping a name change on the public.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last example of CEOs Gone Wild, dropping valuable brands in the name of consolidation. Remember Cingular? They had a memorable logo, great commercials, and a surprising amount of goodwill for a cell phone carrier. But when SBC (nee: Southwestern Bell) acquired what was left of AT&T and subsumed Bell South and with it, Cingular, they decided to drop BellSouth, SBC, Southwestern Bell and Cingular, in favor of a one-size fits all name – AT&T. The stupid thing is that AT&T had virtually no presence in consumer cell phones, while Cingular specialized in it. And Cingular was a valuable brand. The merged company could have easily kept Cingular around as it’s “consumer” brand, focusing AT&T on corporate sales. Nope. They killed the other brands and forced the company that brought you the Death Star logo down everyone’s throats.

Once upon a time, I worked for the Ames Division of Miles Labs. Ames was the company that invented both urinalysis and whole blood testing products for diabetes management. Huge business. They were acquired by Miles Labs, makers of Alka-Seltzer among other things. They were, in turn, purchased by Bayer AG, one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. Interesting story, that.

After WWI, the Allies nationalized a lot of German businesses, took their assets and auctioned them off to the victors. The formula for and patent on Aspirin was a hot property. German company Bayer AG invented it. U.S.-based Sterling Drug won it. For years “Bayer Aspirin” was a product of Sterling Drug. But Bayer AG did not go away. No, they slouched through WWII, becoming part of IG Farben. During the war they using prison camp labor to manufacture things like Zyklon B – poison gas used in the German prison camps. I’m sure that’s a chapter of their corporate history they’d like to forget. Post-war, Farben and Bayer were split into separate companies, and an exec who served time after the Nurenberg war crimes trials (for experimenting on human subjects at Auschwitz) became their head honcho. After the war, Bayer thrived, and in the Seventies bought out Miles Labs, makers of Alka-Seltzer, Flinstones and One-a-Day vitamins and other products. Bayer AG eventually bought out Sterling Drug, thus reacquiring the US rights to their corporate name, flagship product, and the famous crossed-words Bayer logo. In the late 90’s the Miles Labs name went away, and the company rebranded everything they owned with the familiar Bayer logo.

Sounds smart, right? Um…not so much. Head over to your friendly, neighborhood Home Depot or Lowes and check out the pesticide aisle. You’ll find a number of products with the Bayer logo on it. Not sure I really fancy seeing the logo for the product I use to kill a headache on a bag of something used to kill fire ants. Just sayin.’

But back to Buy/Rakuten. We do a lot of naming and branding work with clients. I can tell you that the Rakuten name might be big in the Land of the Rising Sun, but it’s got some significant negatives here, not the least of which is its pronunciation. I thought it might be “ra-KOO-ten” or “ra-CUT-ten.” Never would I have guessed that they say it like “RACK-ten.” That’s a problem. And a bigger one than you might think. How are you gonna get word-of-mouth if people don’t know how to pronounce your name?

Then there’s the whole “who’s this company sending me unsolicited emails?” thing. Think THAT will buy you some good will? Watching their corporate video on their site, they think that their biggest PR concern is that people will think they’re no longer buying from a US company. If that’s true, why change the name in the first place?

I don’t know. Rakuten. AT&T. Bayer. What’s in a name? As it turns out, quite a lot. And as long as corporations put egos ahead of common sense, we’ll have to deal with brands that change like revolving doors, but with much less in the way of utility or logic.


One thought on “What’s in a name?”

  1. I agree and well said! One of the things I run across is a new small business wanting signage. First, they have waited til they are just about ready to open to think about their outdoor advertising and now have a much more limited budget for it. This should have been one of the first tasks to be accomplished. You want customers waiting to get in as soon as you’re open! Next, the ego of the new small business owner gets in the way of naming the business. Most want to see their name up in lights, so to speak, so the business is crippled with something like, “Joe’s Business” and more often than not, does not clearly advertise the product or service. When I drive by “Joe’s Business” it does not compel me to stop there. I’m not going to go out of my way to find out what your business is if it’s not on the sign. And last, keep the name short and precise. If you’d like your name in the business title that’s fine. On the sign, make it small and the product or service in large EASILY READ letters. joe’s PIZZA PARLOR, for instance. You might put hours and days open but usually that’s on the door to get the customer to pull in to your lot and get that close to coming inside. People are guilty of wanting to write a paragraph on their sign that nobody can read while driving down the road or they want to use an Old English font that again is just too difficult to read, especially when they will insist it be in all caps. Any sign maker that does this disservice to their client should be limited to working with crayons. Just my sign shop 2 cents.

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