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When Brand Names Are Destroyed By Damaging Doppelgangers
The ISIS chocolate company and the Tea Party Bookshop know a thing or two about unforeseen circumstances damaging a brand name. What should you do if it happens to you? Columnist Chris Silver Smith shares some tips.
This month, the Isis Books & Gifts shop in Denver was vandalized, apparently because someone associated their name with the ISIS terrorist group. This isn’t the first time a company’s brand name has been overtaken by a negative doppelganger.
Here are some more examples of brand names damaged by unrelated things that share their names, and a smidgeon of reputation management advice on what to do when the unimaginable happens.
Isis Books/ISIS Chocolate/ISIS Terrorists
In the case of the Isis bookstore, they’ve now been vandalized a handful of times due to the ISIS moniker. Of course, their name was originally inspired by the ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis, but perhaps the vandals are not very knowledgeable about esoterica and ancient myths.
They must surely be too young to recall the popular Saturday morning TV superhero series, “The Secrets of Isis,” of the 1970s. Or perhaps they know about Isis but are just overwhelmed with ire at the sight of the name that’s become infamous due to the inhuman actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, frequently referred to as “ISIS.”
The bookstore is not the only business affected by the abrupt association of sharply negative sentiment with the old name of “Isis.” There actually are quite a number of businesses worldwide named ISIS.
In the United States, there are dozens of businesses with “Isis” in the name, ranging from a hotel to beauty salons, health care providers, computing and IT companies, all the way up to a pharmaceutical company that’s traded on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol of ISIS.
All of these companies are now faced with the unenviable decision about whether to change their names or face ongoing conflict and distraction around being psychologically conflated with a heinous group of murderers due to their names.
Another recent brand name victim was the ISIS chocolate company from Belgium, which had unwittingly changed their name from Italo Suisse to ISIS in 2013. They apparently chose a longstanding name from some of their popular products as the new company brand, only to horrifyingly see the name become overwhelmed by the newly emerging terrorist group’s acronym.
The company quickly chose to change brand names yet again, switching to Libeert, the surname of the owners. In light of the recent attacks in Paris, with ties to individuals in Belgium, the chocolate company’s marketers were proven to be very wise to have distanced themselves from the ISIS name.
Silk Road Criminal Darknet Site Vs. SilkRoad HR Software Company
In 2013, a widely reported news story broke about how the Darknet website, Silk Road, was seized by the FBI, shut down and its founder arrested for running an illegal operation that involved online drug sales, among other unsavory activities.
These revelations had to be horrifying to the operators of the SilkRoad company, which provides HR and talent acquisition software. “Silk Road” is also an ancient name, just as Isis is, and it refers to the old trade routes that connected Eastern Asia with the West — which is the reason why it made a great brand name.
If the Darknet Silk Road website hadn’t essentially operated under the radar, I think it likely that the SilkRoad software company’s IP attorneys would have likely circled around to have it shut down for potential trademark infringement. As it was, the site’s existence didn’t break into the public’s awareness until the authorities cracked down on it, and then it abruptly became infamous as many major news organizations reported on it.
Prior to this, I believe the SilkRoad software company’s sites would have ranked on page one for searches for “Silk Road,” even though the spelling differs by one space. However, the infamy and wide reporting about the criminal enterprise has completely displaced the company’s pages from the first page of search results for the spelling containing the space.
Fortunately, when one searches for the spelling specific to the company, “SilkRoad,” the corporate website ranks at the top of search results. News stories about the Darknet Silk Road also appear here and there on the results for searches for the company brand name.
The SilkRoad software company decided to hold tight with their existing brand name with no apparent ill effects — perhaps because their products are well-known to those who are consumers of that niche market.
There have been subsequent “Silk Road” Darknet sites launched by those who desire to associate with the name’s brand recognition, but I see indications that public familiarity with the criminal doppelganger brand may be fading — so SilkRoad’s decision to stick with their brand was likely wise.
The Tea Party Bookshop
In Salem, Oregon, the Tea Party Bookshop found itself running into various challenges as the modern Tea Party movement began gaining prominence between 2009 and 2010.
The general-interest bookstore featured a wide variety of New Age and environmental books, as well as fair-trade gifts, but once the conservative Tea Party movement began gaining momentum, the store owner reported that fans of the movement would come to the store in search of books focused on their political goals, only to be sorely disappointed.
In addition, the moniker began to cause other people to avoid the bookstore in the predominantly Democratic state, so the owner decided to rebrand the store to something apolitical, and it became Tigress Books.
She reported the rebranding would cost her approximately $1,000. Unfortunately, the bookstore business still closed down a year later.
Ayds Candy Sales Ruined By AIDS
“I’m losing weight deliciously with the aid of Ayds!” — Commercial from the 1970s for Ayds Reducing Candy
More than once, abruptly emerging acronyms have knocked brand names into negative associations. One of the most dramatic cases was Ayds diet candy, sold by The Campana Company, with its trademark registered in 1946.
Sales of the candy grew strongly through the 1970s and early 1980s. But, the AIDS disease was discovered in the early 1980s, and public awareness grew to the point in the mid- to late 1980s that the Ayds candy sales dropped off by as much as 50 percent.
The company sought to rename the product, but it was eventually withdrawn from the market. (They changed it in the US to “Diet Ayds,” which perhaps was too little name change, too late.)
Sars Soft Drink Vs. SARS Disease
In a similar case, the Sars soft drink in Taiwan (named after sarsaparilla) was negatively impacted as more people became aware of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) disease.
The company changed the product name to Hey Song Sarsaparilla, which allowed it to escape the negative connotations.
Brand Name Doppelgangers
Some business experts state that a company’s most valuable asset is its brand name. If you think about it, this is often true.
A company can evolve its products and services over time while retaining the same brand name, and a positive reputation, reliability and trust are also accrued over time. A completely new brand has to start out at square one, and a company must reinvest in promoting the new name and educating consumers about it.
But what happens when your prime asset abruptly becomes a major handicap to achieving business goals?
In the cases of Tigress Books and Ayds candy, it’s not completely clear if the necessity of rebranding may have had a hand in the eventual failures of the business and product.
Did the brand name change come too late? Were the rebranding efforts an uphill battle to reestablish brand awareness that could not be accomplished? Or were the rebranding efforts a distraction from all the other parts of operating a business such that it indirectly caused the failures?
There’s no way to tell for certain, but I think it’s unequivocal that having to fight battles around the radically negative meanings that have become attached to a company brand name is a situation that will only hurt the bottom line.
When events turn, and your brand name suddenly becomes co-opted by a highly negative subject, you may need to run a very careful assessment and decide if it might be best to change your brand name, as some of these example companies did.
It’s a very hard decision, since there are undoubtedly transition costs involved, and it’s hard to abandon a brand name that has a significant amount of time and resources invested in its establishment. For many company owners, the brand name may have a significant degree of emotional investment, as well.
The decision to rebrand really boils down to revenue. Is it likely that the company will lose so much money that it can no longer afford to be tied to that brand? Or will the brand name become a sort of repellent, causing potential new clients to avoid the business?
Loss of potential market share can be difficult to measure directly, but it can cause a company to steadily lose ground against competitors until it’s whittled down and no longer profitable.
Here are a few tips for either avoiding or responding to the situation of having a damaging doppelganger brand name emerge.
Tips: Avoiding Or Responding To A Negative Doppelganger Brand
• Choose a highly unique brand name. This ship may already have sailed for you, but you might still want to proactively assess how vulnerable your existing brand name is if you’ve already settled on a name and are using it.
Nonspecific, vague names — or names not directly associated with an industry — are generally better as brands because they can be used with greater flexibility as a company evolves (for instance, Apple, Verizon, Google and Amazon).
• Names that are too short may risk becoming conflated with emerging acronyms. If your brand is less than six characters long, you perhaps should consider if it might be vulnerable enough to justify rebranding.
• Search to see what other organizations and topics may share your brand name. Ideally, this due diligence will have been done prior to your settling on a business name, but it’s good to also check this periodically, at least every few years.
If you discover that your brand name is now shared or similar to the name of a disease, a sexual slang term, a criticized group or some other negative topic, then you may need to consider rebranding before the negative subject blows up on you.
• When you first become alerted that some negative subject sharing your company’s name is emerging in the news and in the public’s consciousness, try to assess if it’s going to be a momentary blip on the radar or if it’s going to keep growing in recognition and remain relevant for a long period of time.
If the negative subject may not last very long, then you may be able to wait it out without changing names.
• Can the brand damage be headed off at the pass? If a new negative subject name or acronym begins to come out that shares your brand name, you might be able to contact journalists and news organizations and persuade them to use a different name or a slightly different naming convention.
• If your brand name is already well-established among your consumer base, such as in the case of the SilkRoad HR software company, you may be able to ignore the doppelganger brand name and continue operating without expending resources on a rebranding effort.
• Depending upon the situation, it may be possible to launch a brand-building ad campaign to distance yourself from the negative doppelganger.
Consumers are smart enough to know the difference between two different entities that coincidentally share the same name, but if you highlight those differences and educate them about it, you may make it easier to keep the name concepts from becoming conflated in people’s minds.
• It may be possible to tweak a brand name to sidestep a direct hit from a brand name doppelganger. Can you add on a word to make your brand appear more immediately different from the negative doppelganger? A small shift in a brand name is less costly, perhaps, than a complete rebranding effort.
But be realistic about this — if a sufficient enough change isn’t accomplished, you may not effectively step away from the identity created by the negative doppelganger. The Ayds diet candy experience might be informative — if you don’t change the name enough, you may not gain enough velocity to pull out of the black hole created by the doppelganger, and it could suck your business into destruction.
• Ultimately, if sales are being negatively impacted due to the associated brand name, bite the bullet and start a rebranding effort. Make it fast — pull the Band-Aid off quickly. The sooner you move on to a fresh brand name, the sooner you can begin establishing it and focusing your time on building your business.
For businesses that share the “ISIS” name, there’s a chance that their brand name might be on the verge of an unprecedented recovery.
From the beginning of reporting on the terrorist group, news and government organizations have been vacillating on what name to use for the terrorists. While “ISIS” is currently dominant, the US government sporadically urged people to refer to it as “ISIL,” and now there’s a strong movement to switch to calling them a name they apparently hate, “Daesh.”
As western countries are motivated to combine a specific name with thumbing their noses at the terrorists, there seems to be a high likelihood that the “ISIS” name is going to be dropped and may fade from consciousness and association with the terrorists.
It may be impossible to see the future and predict that your company’s brand name is going to be overtaken and effectively co-opted by a negative name doppelganger. If the worst has happened, it’s likely that you cannot afford to sit idly by, hoping that the negative subject will fade back into obscurity — that almost never happens.
Rebranding can be a costly exercise, but it may be a worthwhile necessity to enable the survival of a company or product. If you find yourself in this situation, accept the reality rapidly and move forward to minimize the damage that comes with a ruined brand name.
Interested in reading more on online reputation management? Check out my other articles on the topic:
- Protecting Your Brand From Online Fraud, Infringement & Other Emerging Threats
- For Ashley Madison Users, What’s Next? Reputation Apocalypse, Phase 2
- Are Search Engines Responsible For Reputation? Yes, Virginia, They Are. Big Time!
- 9 Key Points for Cleaning Up Your Online Reputation Nightmare Via SEO
- Trademark Policing: Ninja Techniques Of Online Reputation Management
- 10 Ideas: How To Fix A Damning Business Review
- How I Came To Work For A Killer: An Online Reputation Fable
- Why Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter & Others Should Collaborate: A Proposition For An Online Reputation Issues Clearinghouse
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.