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Home > Business > Special


A name change can alter fortunes!

Arati Menon Carroll | September 04, 2007

It's ironic that on the day after UTI Bank [Get Quote] -- the fifth largest Indian bank [Get Quote] by market capitalisation (Rs 21,817 crore (Rs 218.17 billion) as of July 2007) -- officially announced its name change to Axis Bank, a media report announced UTI Bank's inclusion among India's 50 most valuable brands.

The study, conducted by London-headquartered global brand valuation firm Brand Finance, valued the brand at Rs 829 crore (Rs 8.29 billion).

 "Oh, we knew what we were giving up," says Hemant Kaul, president, retail banking, Axis Bank.

Kaul is, however, manifestly optimistic about the opportunities provided by a fresh start. A brand health check in February (a bi-annual exercise) revealed that while the UTI brand scored high on customer satisfaction, it scored much lower on brand perception among non-consumers.

"The legacy brand had public sector connotations, which was not entirely healthy for a private sector, board-managed bank," he says.

That they were anyway required to surrender the UTI brand name to UTI Mutual Fund by January 2008 -- following an impasse over a non-compete clause and joint brand promotion -- was, therefore, probably fortuitous.

Identity crisis

Never mind what Shakespeare said. Anyone who's sweated over a corporate name change can tell you that there's a lot in a name.

"Sometimes, the value of a brand name can exceed the value of the hard assets," agrees William Lozito, president of Strategic Name Development, a leading, US-based brand naming consultancy. "Take Coca-Cola or GE or Intel; their brand equity is in the billions," he adds.

Others share that view. In fact, Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, rarely advises brand name changes. "Corporate brand changes are a drastic measure; there's often too much resonance and tradition with customers," he says.

Sometimes, a change is inevitable, especially in the case of mergers and acquisitions.

According to proprietary research by Strategic Name Development, M&As accounted for 34 per cent of all name changes among US companies in 2006. There's no corresponding number for corporate name changes in India, but there are enough examples.

In fact, UTI Bank is the only Indian bank to change its name without undergoing a change in management. Even in 1955, when Imperial Bank became State Bank of India [Get Quote], it was after the Reserve Bank of India acquired a controlling interest.

For UTI Bank, a SWOT analysis determined that while the new name should retain the perception of professional and friendly service associated with the legacy brand, it could afford to lose the bureaucratic image.

Meeta Malhotra, director of Ray+Keshavan, leading brand identity and design consultants, is an advocate of this middle path. "It's sensible for the new name to leverage existing brand equity as well as support the new vision," she explains.

That's exactly what the Aditya Birla group did after it acquired L&T Cement and successfully rechristened the market leader UltraTech.

"They wisely decided to mirror the brand DNA in the new name. UltraTech successfully captured the premiumness as well as technical prowess and quality engineering associated with L&T," points out brand consultant Sarvajeet Chandra.

New game, new name

It's not only mergers, of course. Changing business models is the second most common trigger for name changes.

"When a company's interests expand or narrow, their name often changes to become a more accurate reflection," agrees Lozito.

Last year, Apple Computers changed to Apple Inc, as it shifted focus from computers to converged consumer devices.

Closer home, Telco became Tata Motors [Get Quote] in 2005 to indicate its movement as a company from rail to road: the focus of the company had changed from manufacturing steam locomotive boilers to complete locomotives, trucks and finally passenger cars in 1998.

Similarly, in 2001, branding agency Shining Universe was enlisted to transform chemicals company Vam Organics.

Vam considered a commodity chemicals players; Shining recommended a shift to specialty chemicals.

"We created a new umbrella name Jubilant. 'Organo' connotes life and nature, and 'sys' connotes systems, synthesis and science. Jubilant Organosys [Get Quote] positioned the company as climbing the value chain by entering research-based knowledge industries," says Shombit Sengupta, founder, Shining.

How to do it

Is a name change a very technical process, then? Not really. "Look at any top 100 brands. Half the company names -- Google, Apple and so on -- are either nonsensical or randomly coined," declares Sinha. Still, as a rule of thumb, most consultants advise keeping the new name short and culturally ambiguous.

For UTI Bank, "Axis" was selected from a list of over 50 possibilities. Given the bank's growing interests in other Asian markets including Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, a "global-sounding" name was imperative.

Ethnic choices like Unnati and Pragati, otherwise keenly favoured in group polls, were, therefore, axed. The pruned list was then checked for semantics, pronunciation and cultural references.

Before deciding on "Axis", for instance, the bank considered opinions from established Jewish banks, given a regrettable reference to the Axis Powers of World War II.

 "It was one of those 'aha' names," says Sumanto Chattopadhyay, group creative director, O&M Advertising, which holds the Axis Bank account. But it was more than a catchy moniker.

As P J Nayak, chairman and managing director, Axis Bank, pointed out while announcing the name change, "We hope Axis will denote stability and security just as geometers conceive of an axis as a line of reference around which all else is measured."

It's not enough to just announce a new name, though. What companies need to remember, cautions Sinha, is that for a consumer, when there is a name and visual identity change, the company is perceived as promising something new.

 "You have to be careful, therefore, to not deliver exactly the same experience as before," says Sinha.

Chandra quotes the Indian Airlines example: it was rebranded Indian in December 2005 with a new logo, design and livery. The airline's identity hadn't changed for 37 years and the intention, according to a company representative, was to project a younger, more modern and fresher image, ahead of the arrival of new planes and an initial public offering (IPO).

 "Unfortunately, that brand makeover didn't trickle down to include a refreshing of its services," says Chandra.

Old wine, new bottle?

By that definition, UTI Bank's re-branding is a bit of a paradox, because while the new visual identity begs renewed brand perception, its service proposition is to stay the same. Kaul doesn't agree.

"We were correcting the earlier mismatch," he says. "Our first concern was to reassure 6.5 million existing customers that besides our name and logo, nothing from our network, our technology platform or our management had changed."

Beginning August 1, the marketing machinery for communicating the change to Axis Bank swung into motion. Ubiquitous billboards with striking photographs of identical twins stated "Everything is the same except the name".

Viewer reactions to the Axis Bank TVC on YouTube unanimously declare it "eye catching" and "simple".

Ironically, this what UTI Bank was most concerned about. "There was a worry that something as serious as financial services was being reduced to such simplicity," says Chattopadhyay.

"But people have an innate fascination with twins. And when you combine simplicity of message with an emotional connect, it works."

Meanwhile, deliberation on what visual elements of brand identity should be maintained resulted in a new logo derived from the alphabet "A", but which retained the house colour, burgundy.

"Legacy issues with visual equity need to be tested carefully because often companies can be quite wrong about what audiences remember about the brand," warns Malhotra.

While redesigning Hindustan Unilever's coffee brand Bru, Ray+Keshavan found that the colour green was strongly associated with the brand, so it was retained. On the other hand, while redesigning ACC cement, the consultancy found there was no clear colour association but people remembered the capital letters.

The brief from Axis to O&M was clear -- once the communication campaign served its purpose, there would be no more mention of the legacy brand.

 "The effort was 360 degrees in one short, intensive burst, across mass media, 2,500 ATMs, the internet and mobile channels," reveals Chattopadhyay. While the outdoor media campaign ran for three weeks, the television commercial will be on air a few weeks longer.

Meanwhile, O&M has begun work on a subsequent television-led campaign, which will focus on each of the bank's key products, minus the twins. "The consensus was that there needn't be any reinforcement of the change of name," says Chattopadhyay.

Lozito supports this, "Our bias is to have a company make a clean, rapid change, and do so in a dramatic way by employing all elements of the marketing mix. In most cases, consumers have a hard time recalling the preceding company name."

Million-dollar babies

Changing corporate names don't come cheap. Axis Bank is reported to have spent over Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) on its rebranding exercise, while Lozito points out that the Cingular-AT&T name change set the company back $2 billion.

The general consensus among brand consultants about corporate name changes seems to be, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". Simply put, it's tough to follow and tough to manage.

Kaul doesn't disagree. "Execution was a logistical nightmare," he says. Spread across 96 elements, including cheque books, pay orders, welcome kits, 28 different types of cards, it's an arduous and ongoing process. The cheque books on Kaul's desk still bear the UTI branding. "The last bit of marginal legacy will take a while to phase out," he says.

As is usually the case, ultimately, investors just want to see a compelling rationale that -- whatever the company is called -- it can not only make its business work but also net new business. Kaul predicts a 7-8 per cent rise in retail banking business in August.

 "Registering a name change is easy. Only time will tell if the customer makes the perception move in his mind about brand Axis," speculates Chandra. Would UTI Bank have surrendered the name if it didn't have to? "Hypothetical questions shouldn't be answered," laughs Kaul.

Twin trouble

Wondering where O&M managed to find six sets of good-looking identical twins? The mystery ends here.

 "Save two pairs, they are in fact, not," Sumanto Chattopadhyay, group creative director Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, gives it away with a chuckle. One of the problems was that O&M had to put together the campaign at breakneck speed and while twins there were many, most were fraternal, not identical.

 "In some cases one would be fatter than the other, or the other would be visibly more attractive," Chattopadhyay laughs. O&M even considered putting out an ad in a daily, calling forth twins of all ages. But in the end it was Photoshop that came to the agency's rescue. Moles and nose rings were added where there were none. Sometimes all it took was asking the subject to smile differently.



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