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January 19, 2022

How can you embrace the challenges of changing your name?

Why would an organization consider changing its name? Farra Trompeter, co-director, and senior copywriter, Ryan Gerhardt, dive into the joys and pains of naming as part of the branding process.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Farra Trompeter, co-director of Big Duck, and today I have the pleasure of talking with Ryan Gerhardt, a senior copywriter here at Big Duck. We are going to get into how you can embrace the challenges of changing your name. Ryan, welcome to the show.

Ryan Gerhardt: Thank you. Great to be here.

Farra Trompeter: Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about Ryan, for those of you who have not had the pleasure of working with him. He has been on the team now for about two years, and before joining us, he worked for over six years as a writer and marketer for several different organizations. And you may be familiar with Ryan, he’s been on other podcasts including an episode about what type of tagline works best. And we often talk about how taglines and names go together, but today we’re going to dive into the joy and sometimes the pain of naming. As I’ve mentioned, if you’ve been a listener to this podcast, you’ve probably heard many episodes about branding. In fact, Sarah interviewed myself and Dan Gunderman, our former Creative Director, about renaming in 2019, episode 31 for those of you who may be curious. And if you have not listened to that one recently, we’re just going to start at the beginning a bit and just talk about what is a name? What does it do for your organization? What can it do? What can’t it do? So, Ryan, how do you define what a name is, and what do you think it can and can’t do for organizations?

Ryan Gerhardt: At Big Duck, if you’ve read through any of our materials or been in any of our presentations, you’ve probably heard us describe a name as your most widely traveled ambassador of your brand, right? Which essentially just gets at, it’s often the first thing that most people encounter. You know, it’s that first experience that people are going to have with your organization or brand. In terms of what is the job of a name, it’s first and foremost, is just to accurately identify you, make sure that again, right off the bat in that first meeting, you’re not being confusing, you’re not misleading; there are no major issues with other organizations in your space. So it’s really about creating that kind of first distinguishing impression that can help set you apart. And as you mentioned, Farra, it works in conjunction with your tagline, your logo, all of those different things to just reinforce that identity on a first glance.

Ryan Gerhardt: In terms of what it can’t do, I mean, your name certainly cannot do everything, right? It can’t convey all of your values.t can’t and it shouldn’t touch on all of your programs or your service areas. You know, it’s never going to be able to name all of your roles as an organization. So, it’s really figuring out what is that one thing that you can have it do in, in the identity aspect and making sure that it’s something that can continue to grow, right? Your organization is what it is today, but you don’t want it to be outdated in a few years, you don’t want it to, in a few years, be misleading. So, just understanding that you want something that is going to be based in your strategy, trying where possible to avoid the inclination to approach naming as “I’ll know it when I hear it, or I know it when I’ll see it.” Because again, that is something that is very subjective, it’s going to change as the years go by, and so again, really refocusing and centering around that strategy piece.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and if we can all agree out there that the job of the name is just to identify you. Why would you even consider changing it? I think naming, we often say, is one of the hardest, if not the hardest thing we do here at Big Duck. Why would an organization ever go through the joy and pain of changing it?

Ryan Gerhardt: Honestly, there’s no such thing as a perfect name. Naming is one of the services that we provide at Big Duck, and it’s one that I think we do really well. But nothing is able to really transcend the hurdles of time where words can become stigmatizing in, maybe, 10 years that aren’t today or norms change around preferred language, you know, how things are framed. So those are kind of like the things you can’t really control, but even for the things that you can control, right, your organization is hopefully going to grow. Your areas of strategic focus, your programs, your audiences — all of these things are going to expand and change. And so again, over time names can sometimes naturally become a little bit inaccurate or a little bit misleading. Sometimes, and this is definitely less frequently, maybe there is an event or a milestone or your organization restructures and that requires a little bit of an identity overhaul, and as part of that, the name changes. But there’s certainly a case where over time, name needs to change, and you know, one of the things we might get into a little bit later is how hard that is, and maybe, you know, you do fall in love with a name, even if it’s not perfect and what does it really mean to change that?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I know there are times where a name might have equity and people worry about changing it, “Cause people know us as X, and if we change it, we may lose them or we may not be able to get new supporters, volunteers, activists,” and I think, just to underscore your point, that may be true and there is a lot of time and money we may have to invest in getting people to know us at the same level they used to know us or even get new people to know us. But if your name does, especially, include words or ideas that are inaccurate, that are misleading, that are offensive, then it is really important to consider that and go through this process. And in fact, I just want to mention, before we go back to some of the other things we were going to talk about, a year or so ago we put together a resource guide for guiding the name change process that we’ll link to in the show notes, that’s on our blog. So if you’re thinking about this process, you’re just in the beginning of it, you’re considering it, you can definitely check out on a resource guide where you can really wrap your brains around this.

Farra Trompeter: But let’s go back to this idea of branding, and when organizations go through a branding process, I get a lot of phone calls. I’m often the first person people talk to when they call Big Duck, and they’re wondering about branding and they say, “We want to go through branding, but we want to leave our name the same, we want to leave our logo the same, is that okay?” And they’re afraid that we are going to recommend a complete change every single time we work with them, and we really only recommend a name change a fraction of the time because again, that name may not be broken, it may have equity, there may be some other concerns going through that. But let’s say an organization does opt to keep its name, or we say we recommend you keep the name the same. Even though there may be some hurdles, there are more compounding reasons to keep it. How else can an organization leverage branding to reposition itself if it doesn’t change its name?

Ryan Gerhardt: Changing a name is inherently going to be difficult because of all the logistics. So as we mentioned earlier, though, your name is just one piece of your identity. It’s a very big one, and again, it’s going to be that initial one that a lot of people interact with, but it is still just one piece. So, if we come to the conclusion that it doesn’t make sense pragmatically, it doesn’t make sense financially, operationally, whatever happens to be, it doesn’t make sense to change the name, that’s totally fine and there are tons of other tools that we can use to further support the name staying the same. Supporting identity elements like your logo, like your tagline, can really help to fill in the gaps or clarify if there’s been an evolution in your organization. They can help to provide new meaning, new depth to your name for new audiences, and even beyond those kinds of identity elements that are paired with your name, you can also use different organizational messaging, other different touchpoints to further reposition your organization. The words that are in your name will have some inherent meaning, they will have associated meaning, but you can usually reframe those things around your strategic direction, your vision, your mission, whatever is best-representative of where your organization is going, with just a little bit of those supporting elements, whether it be messaging or visual.

Farra Trompeter: Great. You and I have both worked both in-house at nonprofits and for for-profit companies and entities, and I know a question a lot of people often ask us is, “Well, how is naming and branding different when you’re working with nonprofits versus for-profits? Are there certain approaches that work better for nonprofits versus for-profits?” So I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you’ve seen some differences across sectors.

Ryan Gerhardt: Sure. So, for me in the for-profit space, I think a lot of the difference stems from natural hierarchy that’s built in that is maybe a little bit less prevalent in the nonprofit space. So the first thing might be the actual process itself. In a for-profit organization, there’s usually going to be less buy-in required, the process is going to be a little bit less inclusive, and it’ll ultimately come down to, does the CMO, does the CEO, does whoever is in charge of this renaming initiative, do they like the name? Great. It gets the stamp of approval and moves on. In a nonprofit renaming, it’s typically a little bit more inclusive. You can bring in the heads of different departments, make sure it’s going to resonate with your different audiences, people who are getting your services, obviously the marketing people, the people running the organization, but it tends to be just a little bit more open, you get a little bit more ideas in there. And again, it helps to pressure test it just a little bit more.

Ryan Gerhardt: Related to this, and we talked about it a little bit earlier, even if your name is not perfect, you might really love it for certain reasons, you have a strong connection to the identity of the organization. If you’re working in a nonprofit, chances are you’re maybe a little bit more connected to the work that you’re doing than if you’re working for a for-profit organization. So in that sense, a name change can feel like a much bigger departure, it can feel like something that’s much more personal to you in the nonprofit space, and I think that, you know, ties in certainly to the inclusive process, right? Cause if you have an inclusive process from the beginning, that’s something that might hopefully be a little bit easier for people to adjust to and come around to.

Ryan Gerhardt: In terms of where they’re actually kind of similar is a lot of the intellectual property hurdles or potential overlap with other organizations. I do think nonprofits as a whole have a tiny bit more leeway in terms of being able to overlap, but obviously the same holds true in that you don’t want to be confused with another organization. So again, that whole IP process, making sure that there’s nothing too close – you’re still going to need to go through that for both, but I think it’s a little bit less determining in the nonprofit space than it is in for-profits. Which is why, in terms of approaches that you see working better in the for-profit space, I think you see a lot more of the evocative names, the made up names, because they’re looking for that uniqueness, they’re looking to go around any IP hurdles and something that is ownable and unique to you is often much more prized over accessibility or accuracy in the for-profit space than it is the nonprofit space, in part because of who you’re trying to reach.

Ryan Gerhardt: It’s not as important to make sure that people who need important services or programs are super clear right from the get go, the type of organization they’re working with. That piece is actually really influenced, also, by another piece, which is budget. It’s a lot harder to make a made-up name that has no inherent meeting stick. And so you need to put a lot of budget behind that, which for-profits can do, they have larger marketing budgets they are able to spend on advertising, promote, do different rollout things, which is a lot harder for nonprofits to do, just because of lack of marketing budget in many cases. So, you see a lot of those types of names in the for-profit space. It’s something that they’re able to do a lot more, but I wouldn’t say that there are approaches that are shut off from either for-profit or nonprofit, it’s just about what makes the most sense for your organization at the time.

Farra Trompeter: Great. I want to come back to what you were just saying around buy-in and inclusive processes. We often get asked what our opinion is, you know, “Who should give feedback when we’re thinking about new names? How do we go about approving a name? Who’s the one who finally gets to decide this is the new name of our organization?” So I’m just curious some of the different dimensions you’ve seen in that.

Ryan Gerhardt: Ultimately, it’s going to come down to pragmatism. You can only drag out a naming process for so long, eventually you just have to pick something. But, as you’re going through that process, we entirely endorse being as inclusive as possible. If you can bring in participants from your community, great. We know for a lot of organizations, that’s a very tough thing to do. In part, in identifying individuals who would be interested in that, but then even beyond that, compensating those individuals, making sure that they know what the process is about, and they might not always have the context. So, if it is possible and if you have a few really engaged community members that you can get to participate, absolutely great. But short of that, certainly as many staff and board as you can get involved because, ultimately, they’re going to be the ambassadors for this brand, they’re going to be the ambassadors for this name, and you want to start building that buy-in as soon as you can and bringing in their ideas, right? Because they interact with your community participants, they interact with people who are helping fund your organization, they are there using the name, using the materials everyday. So they might have some really good insights that’ll shape your renaming process as well.

Farra Trompeter: Great, yeah, and I think if you’re trying to figure that out, I would encourage you to think about who is closest to your organization, who must really be part of you as you move forward – definitely the staff, the board, volunteers, those key community participants. If you’re an education organization or have deep programs, it might be alumni. Really thinking about, “Who are the people that really are carrying us forward as we think about the next generation of our organization?” and the more that they’re involved in the creation of a new brand, the more likely they will be to understand it, to be ambassadors for it, and to help you use it to open more doors, which is really what we’re trying to do with branding. So Ryan, thank you so much for being on the show.

Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah, thanks for having me. Naming is always going to be a challenge, even when it’s the right thing to do. So, just making sure you’re making the right decision right at the jump is always important.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. So if you’re going through a naming process – exhale, roll up your sleeves, it’s going to be okay. We’ve got lots of resources for you. If you would like us to help you consider going through a naming process, let us know. You can always email us at [email protected]. Alright. Well, everyone, have a great rest of your day, and thanks so much for listening.