Coca-Cola is Coke!

How to win the name game

In my former job working in communications for Merck’s biopharma division, I struggled daily with the company name.

Here’s the thing: I did not work for Merck & Co. — aka the American Merck, the bigger of the two and the one that 99% of people assume you mean when they hear the name.

My employer was Merck KGaA. Ah, the German Merck, people would say. Yes, the original Merck, its family owners would have you know. The world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company. They didn’t really care that they were dwarfed in size by their bigger American cousin. They had the legal rights to the name everywhere in the world but in North America, and they used it with pride. And if people didn’t understand, well…that was their problem.

While I understood their position from a historic point of view, as a communicator it was counter-intuitive. We PR folk want a solid base upon which to build our brand’s reputation, a clearly differentiated identity and strengths compared to competitors. The confusion around ‘Which Merck?’ only served to water down anything we had to say about the company.

What’s in a name? In a word: everything.

But names are important; indeed, when it comes to brand and identity, names are everything. So we worked with it, even though it felt like an uphill battle. And in our dreams we often imagined the two companies one day reuniting, and putting an end to the confusion.

Very often, though, brands have names that evolve and historically, for one reason or another, get changed. Sometimes, they even come full circle.

Take Coca-Cola, perhaps the world’s best-known brand. Indeed, this is the brand that InterBrand has listed as the world’s most valuable brand. It has gone from Coca-Cola to Coke multiple times in its long history.  Its marketers have learned to be cautious when tinkering with their much-loved consumer brand – the backlash when they changed to the ‘new coke’ back in 1985 was staggering.

And then there are the names that change because of trademark wars. In what TechRepublic has called ‘a protracted history of bewildering brand decisions, Microsoft has changed its cloud computing solution, ‘SkyDrive,’ to ‘OneDrive’ following a trademark complaint from Sky Broadcasting. And they may not be out of the woods yet. The new name may be too close for comfort to several competing services.

  Here are 3 ways to win at the name game:

  1. If you’re naming a new product or business, make it as simple, memorable and differentiating as possible.
  2. Get your name out there. No matter how good you are, if no one knows you, you may as well be a no-name.
  3. Make the most of your name. Wherever possible, it should be a key part of your communication campaign. Tell the story behind the name.

And a final word to the wise: Don’t change your name. Merck was right. Rebranding is expensive. And it may be a long time before anyone knows your name.







One response to “How to win the name game”

  1. […] I question whether this is truly a rebrand or simply a new look. Merck, while claiming it is not the same company it was 10 years ago, has yet to make any real attempt to address some of its most basic challenges: namely, its name. Merck, which Merck? A quick Google search will give you the low-down on how the two Merck’s agreed to split the world following the war. Suffice it to say that from a communications point of view, the brand story was a daily nightmare. […]

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