When should you rename or rebrand something?

by Patrick Curry

Published June 6, 2023

With some recent high-profile companies rebranding and making a mess of things, I was inspired to write this blog post.

I’ve started or helped start a bunch of companies — and at those companies we’ve shipped a bunch of games and software. One of the things that you end up doing when you’re regularly coming up with new stuff is deciding what to call that new stuff. So I’ve spent years thinking about and practicing how to name things. Naming things is difficult — but companies, products, games, and services need names to exist out in the world!

Giving something “the right name” can feel daunting and sometimes impossible. But you know what’s worse? Having to rename something. I’ve been through a few renames and rebranding exercises, and it was almost always an unpleasant experience — so much so that I now hate renaming things. I’d much rather spend my time picking a good unencumbered name up front than have to go through the process of renaming something.

But I’m not going to tell you all the reasons that you should not rename your company, division, product, or service. Frankly there are too many reasons for a single blog post. Instead I’m going to tell you the only reasons you should ever consider a rename. So here goes!

Good Renaming Reason #1: Hard Pivot

If you work with startups, you’ve likely encountered the concept of a “pivot” before. The term usually refers to the phenomenon where a company completely stops doing one thing and starts doing something really different. Sometimes it’s so different in fact that the old company or product name is going away completely. And if there aren’t a bunch of users or customers who know the old name, this can be a relatively painless pivot.

I lived through one such pivot where the jovial name of our mobile game company “Fun Machine” didn’t fit with our move to creating a cloud-compiler for apps and software. We wanted to be taken more seriously, so we completely retired the Fun Machine name, and became “Tsugi Builder” for a year until we were bought by Unity Technologies. It all worked out. And speaking of acquisitions…

Good Renaming Reason #2: Mergers & Acquisitions

When your company gets acquired, there’s a good chance that the smaller acquired company’s name and brand will go away. So it may be necessary to evaluate the names of the products and services you’re keeping in the new company, and adjust them accordingly. Maybe they only need small tweaks, but there’s a chance their old names conflict with other products already existing in the parent company.

Another common scenario is when two monster-sized companies merge. There’s often a desire to create a new name for the resulting company. The usual approach is to smash the two company names together to form a new company name, and that’s probably the least confusing type of rebranding.

But you know what… there’s a decent chance that you don’t need to rename anything in this scenario. A merger or acquisition is a good reason to consider renaming things, but it’s not a mandate to rename stuff. At the end of the day, do your customers really care who owns what?

Good Renaming Reason #3: Legal Settlement

Sometimes companies sue each other when brand names they’re using are too similar, cause customer confusion, or impede on copyrights and trademarks. So if you find yourself in that situation, and a court orders you to change a brand name, or if you negotiate a settlement, then you should go ahead and change the name in question. This can be a drag, especially as sometimes you’re not even allowed to use the old name at all to announce the change. But hopefully it’s a learning exercise, and whatever was causing the legal conflict can be avoided as you pick a new name.

Good Renaming Reason #4: Totally Toxic Brand

If the public opinion of your company or product is so terrible that people only have negative connotations with your brand name, then you might need to rename the company, product, or service in question. Then again, if you’re responsible for the marketing of a company that’s poisoning the planet, undermining democracy, or owned by notorious serial assaulters, perhaps you should find a different job and let someone else worry about any potential renaming projects.

In Conclusion

Sometimes changing a brand name is unavoidable. If you find yourself in one of the above situations, my condolences and godspeed. But if not, then consider yourself lucky that you don’t have to rename anything, and you can save your time, money, and energy for doing things that actually promote your company and help you succeed. If anyone tells you that they want to rename something for a reason not mentioned above, there's a good chance you should tell them to take a hike. Or just send them this article!

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