In 1997 Aspen was in the midst of one of its public discussions about whether it was overpricing itself and undervaluing its visiting customers.
I needed a column idea, so I imagined myself in a conversation with the town clerk in Silt, about 50 miles to the west.
“A name change,” I proposed in the fictitious dialogue. “You be Aspen. We be Silt.”
I figured — presto! — we could end our reputation as harboring overpriced real estate and ultra-exclusive ski enclaves.
A friend stopped me the next day. “A fabulous rebranding exercise,” he proclaimed. “I never knew you were a fan of that art.”
“Rebranding?” I coughed. “What’s that? I was just writing.”
But rebranding was high art by then, hatched by image consultants as the path to rebirth and nirvana. A simple name change was a chapter in the rebranding tool kit. It would get a vigorous workout in the next decade or so.
Aspen ran into it soon enough. The highly successful Pitkin County Bank & Trust, homegrown in 1979, was selling to Zions Bancshares in Salt Lake City by 2000. Zions was buying several Colorado banks, but figured its name wouldn’t work in this state. Its rebranded mantra, “Vectra,” sounded like the product of a focus group, but had a big advantage: it was not “Zions.”
Name changes were taking off. The unwieldy collection of United Telephone, Centel, Central Telephone and Carolina Telephone had become Sprint in 1996.
In 1994, Jerry Yang and David Filo, a pair of Stanford PhDs, named their young search engine “Jerry’s Guide.” Then, they came up with a better name: “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” Then they abbreviated it a bit.
Some name changes were necessary, bailing companies out of unshakable images of doom. ValuJet Airlines splashed one of its planes, burying it in the Florida Everglades in 1996. Grounded while authorities probed rules which had allowed it to transport oxygen containers, it decided to fly again by a new name: Airtran Airways. The name stuck and the airline grew. Southwest eventually bought it.
Philip Morris in 2001 felt it couldn’t recover from the negative image of the cigarette industry. So it decided to go by “Altria.”
There seemed nothing amiss about Col. Sanders’ brand, Kentucky Fried Chicken, when he started it in 1956. But by 1999, trouble loomed in all three words. Consumers were shying away from things “fried,” regulators were looking into the preparation of “chicken,” and the state of Kentucky began charging a licensing fee for the use of its name. Out went the words. In came “KFC.”
Back again at Stanford, Larry Brin and Serge Page began their search engine under the name “Backrub” in 1996. Two years later, they gambled on a new name: “Google.”
A name can always be improved. Nobody remembers “Brad’s Drink,” a blend of vanilla, rare oils and cola nuts concocted by Caleb Bradham in 1893. Half a decade later, he invented a new one: “Pepsi-Cola.”
Some name changes don’t do the trick, because the underlying company doesn’t change. But some are just lucky. Anderson Consulting hardly needed a name change in 2001, when it decided to go by “Accenture.” But later, the name “Anderson” became toxic in accounting scandals, and Accenture felt fortunate to have shed it.
Title changes sometimes become urgent. Blackwater Worldwide was blackened when five of its security guards were indicted in 2008 on manslaughter charges in Iraq. It became Xe Services, and later Academi.
Through it all, it’s amazing how gullible consumers can be. They can be readily fooled by something as simple as a name change. There seems something oddly hoax-like about changing a name with little work done to the basic company. Others need some trick — anything, really — to start over.
Some changes are sparked by an accident out of the company’s control. Pujols5 was a popular joint in St. Louis, named after its baseball Cardinals’ superstar. But Albert Pujols jumped to the L.A. Angels last year, his name lost its magic, and sales slumped 75 percent. The place rebounded as Patrick’s, a restaurant and sports bar.
Then there are the tangled fables in which we associate old, reliable brands with new outfits that merely bought the name. Everybody’s grandparent owned a few shares of AT&T, the national phone company. When old reliable was broken up under government pressure into the “baby Bells,” the outfit disappeared but the name did not. One of the Bells, SBC, acquired the rights. Another, Bell South, teamed with SBC to become “Cingular.” Cell phones were rapidly expanding when Cingular took on the name of “AT&T Wireless” in 2004.
Cingular was associated with cellular devices and AT&T conjured images of not just landlines, but old “rotary dial” phones. So the 2007 plan by Cingular to change its name to AT&T in 2007 was controversial, along with the $4 billion spent to promote it. Today, you get warm and fuzzy at AT&T Park in San Francisco, but that has to do with the new firm’s desire to buy publicity (see: “naming rights.”)
If Aspen ever does need a re-brand, how much might the town of Silt charge to “license” its name? Perhaps we could convince it that the old simple swap would work: “You be Aspen. We be Silt.”
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.