December 6, 2023

How can you navigate the highs and lows of the naming journey?

Farra Trompeter and Liz Ricca, co-directors, explore the emotional nuances of changing a nonprofit’s name and break down six highs and lows of the journey.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, how can you navigate the highs and lows of the naming journey? And I’m excited to be joined again by Elizabeth Ricca. Liz was recently on the podcast and has been on many other times before, but most recently on episode 147, “How do you hire for a strong communications team?” And we know one of the things the communications team might be navigating is a rebrand. So excited to continue that conversation. If you haven’t met Liz yet or listened to that previous conversation, I’ll tell you a little bit about her. Elizabeth Ricca, she/her, is Big Duck’s other co-director. In addition to directing Big Duck’s business operations, Liz also leads our strategy team and works with clients to build strong brands, campaigns, and communications teams. Liz joined Big Duck in 2007 and has since worked with dozens of nonprofits to establish clear frameworks for their brands, craft communication strategies that speak to many different audiences, and navigate the murky waters of change. She’s particularly passionate about reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and Criminal Justice Reform. Liz, welcome back to the show.

Elizabeth Ricca: Thanks so much for having me.

Farra Trompeter: Now, if you’re a fan of the podcast, and I know that even if this is your first time listening, hopefully you will soon become a fan. You probably have listened to previous conversations where we’ve talked about this topic, including episode 31, “Should you rename your nonprofit?” And episode 104, “How can you embrace the challenges of changing your name?” So we’re going to touch on some similar themes to those a bit today. And we’re also going to bring a little bit of wit and humor. Thanks to an entertaining blog post Liz wrote a few months back titled the “Highs and lows of the naming journey.” If you have not read that post yet, or if it’s been a while, be sure to give it a review, there’s some great content, especially some joyful Schitt’s Creek gifs or “jifs”, depending on how you say that, and so we’re going to get into it. Liz, one of the first things you say in that blog post is that name changes are hard. And in fact, I know some of our fellow Ducks think that leading an organization through a name change is probably the hardest thing we do here at Big Duck. I’m curious, why is that? Why are name changes so hard?

Elizabeth Ricca: It just seems to be the case, every process we do, there’s something about changing the words you use to refer to your organization that comes with challenges. It comes with a lot of emotions for folks who are close to the organization, and that’s many different stakeholders. That’s the people who work at your organization, the people who volunteer with you, give to you, participate in your programs at all levels. Folks have connection to the organization and associations with the organization’s name. The prospect of changing that is a very challenging one, and especially when you’re talking about changing a name, usually, you don’t know yet what you’re changing it to, so you only know what you’re moving away from and not yet what you’re moving towards. And that is why we’ll talk about the stages of the emotional rollercoaster that were in the post. But stage one is both being excited and wondering if you’re about to make a terrible mistake, ’cause both of those feelings sort of coexist.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and in the blog you do lay out the experience of going through a name change process as if you’re on this kind of rollercoaster ride, full of highs and lows. And you did break down six stages. You’ve just mentioned a little bit about one, but let’s break them down. Tell us those stages one through six, and what happens along the journey.

Elizabeth Ricca: So we start off any name change process, usually there’s at least hopefully some amount of excitement, something you’re looking forward to, some hopes and dreams you have with the process. And also a lot of fear and worry about whether you’re going to find the right thing, whether people are going to like it, whether your stakeholders will get on board with it, or people will even know who you are anymore. There are a lot of real and justifiable concerns that folks have at the start of a name change process. So that’s on a stage one. Stage two is what we find after the first round or two where you’ve got a bunch of names, you’re looking at some options, and it feels like there are so many choices out there, you just haven’t seen the right one yet, and you’re starting to get excited about the creative process. It seems really fun and new. You still haven’t seen the thing that sounds like your name, but you’re sure it’s out there. So you’re feeling good, feeling strong, here we go. Stage three is when you spent a little time in the mix there and now you are lost in the thesaurus. You have taken those names that were almost there, those words that were really close, and you’re searching the depths of the English language for synonyms that might work better for your name, nouns that resonate more, or words with sounds that roll off the tongue a little bit better. This is the phase where becomes your best friend.

Elizabeth Ricca: Usually then stage four is a little bit of a step back. Alright, we didn’t find it right away, it didn’t jump off the page in the first round. We need a minute. I feel like there are some good things here, I can get used to this, I’m not sure yet, but I can get used to what we have and start to ease yourself in. Stage five is saying yes, commitment. Saying, alright, we’ve picked one. It’s good enough, it’s going to be fine, we can make this work. And then stage six usually follows a little bit after the commitment stage in our observations, which is a stage where you absolutely love it. It’s really interesting, even a name that you find is just perfect for you, and it’s going to be amazing, it’s going to help your organization kind of take its brand in a new direction, which is exactly where you need to go. It’s hard to feel great about it until it comes to life. And that’s why the stage where you get back to excitement and enthusiasm is often at the end, once you’ve gone through the process, you’ve made the change, you’ve committed to it, you’re seeing it come to life. Now you’re back to being excited and delighted with your new organizational identity.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and somewhere in that process too, somewhere, I think toward maybe stage 4.5 is when you feel like you have some good options, then you need to check with a lawyer and make sure the name is even available. Because sometimes you fall in love with a name, and we do our best when we’re reviewing names to check that things are available, but you still need to talk to a lawyer, and you might find that that name you hoped you could use is not available. Someone does have a trademark to use it, and there’s challenges. I think people, sometimes it takes months or even years to get to that stage six of “I love it” and then they forget that there even was a deliberation. You just, “That’s our name”, right? We’re so used to it. So there’s definitely a lot of fear I think that comes in the process that at least for me, often comes with riding a rollercoaster as well. So I appreciate the way you’ve laid that out. I do want to go back to some of those stages that you named, particularly stage one and stage six, right? We’re starting with excitement, hopefully, we’re ending with love. There’s some joy in that. And I was wondering if you could share an example or two that might come to mind for you of some name change processes that you’ve been part of, what went well about it? Let’s talk about those highs for a moment.

Elizabeth Ricca: Absolutely. A lot of the name change processes that I’ve gotten to work on follow this general trajectory and do end up with a name that’s really doing something new and important for the organization. One of the organizations that comes to mind is a group called Wayfinder Family Services. They’re based out in Los Angeles, and when they came to us to do some branding work, their name was “Junior Blind of America”, and this is a name that they’d had for several decades going back a ways. They were an organization that had their start providing services for young people with impaired vision. And at the time that they were started, calling themselves Junior Blind sort of made sense in the way that the community communicated about itself in that era, and described what they did. As they were growing, as they were expanding their services, continuing to offer services for folks with visual impairments, but also other kinds of services in their community, their name was increasingly just not telling the story, it was not describing the work that they did, and it was not as inclusive as they might have wanted it to be of all of their audiences. So we went through a full name change exploration with them and came together at the name Wayfinder Family Services. And Wayfinder is a really nice metaphor because it actually is the notion of “finding one’s way” is something that’s connected to their human social services field. Wayfinding tools are tools that help a person navigate an environment, and that is relevant both for the work they do with the visually impaired and in general in the work they do throughout their community. So it ended up feeling to them like a nice connection to their original work and the name that was no longer serving them, and also a really great encapsulation of where the organization is now.

Elizabeth Ricca: Another that comes to mind in a different space is an organization called Cure SMA. They are an organization that works on research and patient support for a rare disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, “SMA”. And when they came to work with us, their name was “Families of SMA,” and this name reflected how their organization got its start. A number of families of people affected by SMA, coming together, forming an organization, bringing their kind of advocacy and resources together to try to find better outcomes for the people they loved who were affected by SMA. At the time that they started describing themselves as “Families of SMA” really described their audiences. At the time that they came to work with us on a rebrand, they were growing hugely, had really ambitious goals for themselves as an organization. Their community was expanding, and particularly when we did their brand strategy work and started talking about their audiences, it became clear that a key audience for them for growth was that sort of next circle of folks connected to families who were affected directly by SMA, to people in their communities, people in their extended families and networks, people who are friends, folks with that less direct connection to someone affected by SMA.

Elizabeth Ricca: And with that sort of broader audience in mind, “Families of SMA” almost felt like an exclusive name. This is an organization just for families, which is the opposite of the impression they wanted to make. At the time that we were working with them, they actually used “Cure SMA” as their URL, and we went through a name change exploration nonetheless, they weren’t sure that was going to be the right name for them for a number of reasons, so we did some explorations. And through that process, we kept “Cure SMA” on the table, and after we did some explorations, the organization eventually decided that “Cure SMA” really was describing the boldness, the research orientation, the direction that the nonprofit really wanted to go. So they became Cure SMA. It’s been amazing to watch them use their brand in the years since we got to work with them on it. They have just continued growing and really leaned into that new identity that their name leads the charge on, but of their boldness and their commitment and their ongoing growth, and it’s really exciting to see.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I appreciate both of those examples. You know, we always say that the job of the name is to identify you and to really help explain who you are, that it should not be misleading or inaccurate. And I think in both of those cases that you gave, the name was exclusive in one way or another. It was either using language that now was seen as alienating or it was using language that felt exclusive. So your name can really either be a door opener or a barrier to people participating with you, learning about you, accessing your information, making a gift, working for you, joining your board, volunteering. So a name is a really important part, not just of your brand, but your entire communication strategy. We also say the name should ideally be distinguishing in the landscape. Be easy to remember, reinforce your brand strategy or what we define as positioning and personality, and work together with your tagline and logo to really help communicate the heart and the core of who you are. So I really appreciate both of those examples. And if you’re looking to see, we do have a case study about our work with Wayfinder Family Services and a lot of other case studies about branding projects, including several renames over at, if you’re looking for inspiration and some insights about that. So yeah, Liz, thanks for sharing those examples. Now the name change process as we’ve said is daunting and also full of lows. And I’m just curious, why should organizations even hop on that fun-filled rollercoaster knowing that it’s going to be difficult, that there may be pain, and that it can be an uphill battle? When does it make sense for an organization to develop or even explore a name change?

Elizabeth Ricca: I mean, I think you said it Farra that the time you should really seriously consider it is if there’s something in your name that is a barrier to your audiences connecting with you. There are also, it can be beneficial to consider a name change, if there’s an opportunity that you could seize where your name isn’t misleading, but it’s not doing all it could, that still can be a good place from which to explore a name change. But the time when you should really buckle yourself in and get ready for the rollercoaster is if your name is just not right, it’s inaccurate, it’s misleading, it’s pointing folks down the wrong path. And that is generally a sign that is worth considering a change.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think there are clear times when it makes sense for an organization to change its name. Again, often on the heels of a strategic planning process as well. There are also times where we tell an organization or they say to us, “You know what? We’re going to keep our name the same. It does not make sense for us to change it at this time. We’re actually going to focus on refreshing other aspects of our brand, whether it’s a tagline, our visual identity, messaging.” I’m curious for you, what are those kind of general times you have found that yourself? What are the conditions where you say, you know what, don’t change your name?

Elizabeth Ricca: Really the converse of the barrier is what comes to mind here. If your name is not getting in your way, it may not be worth the investment to change it. We’re talking here about the sort of emotional rollercoaster, but there’s also a logistical, I don’t even know if it’s a rollercoaster, it’s just like one of those rides where they drop you out of the air. The logistical challenges of a name change, you need to redo all your materials, you need to make sure everyone who knows you as one name now knows to refer to you as another name. It takes a lot of follow-through, it takes a lot of work. That’s not something we lightly recommend a nonprofit do. It should be something you do because it is an important strategic moment for you, or you’re correcting a misperception or something that’s not quite right.

Elizabeth Ricca: So if your name is, maybe you don’t love it, maybe the language isn’t your favorite, maybe you kind of dream of it being shinier and newer. That may not be enough of a reason to change your name unless there’s something really working against you there. I will say one of the things that we’ve seen a number of times over the years is two kind of categories of name that I find people always wish they had the other. When someone has a very explanatory name, they feel a little tied down by it, right? Explains what we do, but it’s limiting, and you know, if we grow, what are we going to do? And they kind of wish they had a more open-ended name. Something that didn’t tie them down. On the other side of the fence, you have folks with a word that doesn’t necessarily, like Big Duck let’s say, a word or words that don’t tell you much about what’s going on at that organization, or maybe it’s metaphorical and it just invokes something. And when they are daydreaming about what their name could be, they’re dreaming about something that in just a word or two would explain it all, right? So that’s another kind of conversation we sometimes find ourselves in, where you might be noticing the challenges or the limitations of the kind of name that you have, but unless it’s really in your way, it’s usually best to try to think about how the other elements of your brand identity can balance it out. If your name is not very explanatory, what could a tagline help do for you? What could the imagery that you use, the mark or logo that you’re using with your name, the messaging that you use around it, what could those do to help tell the story? If your name is very explanatory and it doesn’t feel like it’s getting at the kind of personality and feeling behind your organization’s work, let’s see what colors can do to bring some more of your organization’s brand and voice to light. Let’s do a different kind of tagline. Let’s think about your visuals. All those kinds of elements can really work together with your name to try to meet your organization’s brand strategy needs.

Farra Trompeter: Great. Now, before we wrap up, I know one of the conversations that often come up around should we change our name or not or what happens once we do change our name? You know, people are often worried about equity. Everybody knows us. And in this case, we’re talking about the equity that’s about an association and what people kind of value you for. And if people know us as X, all of a sudden now we’re Y, we’re going to lose all these people. I know this comes up with direct mail. People do see an impact on results with a name change if they don’t really reintroduce themselves well. And it does take time to build new awareness and association once you change your name, if you do that. I know we often talk about the value of a smart and strategic and intentional rollout plan, and I’m just wondering if you have any brand rollout tips to share. How do you, should you change your name? How do you reintroduce your organization to your team and to your community at large?

Elizabeth Ricca: Yeah, it’s a really interesting process and the details should be a little different for every organization. A really smart rollout starts by mapping out all those stakeholder groups, and we really mean all the stakeholder groups, right? All the folks on your team, all the folks connected to your team, really think through the different pockets of folks who relate to your organization in some way and try to think of them in some detail. Not just volunteers, but your volunteers on this project, and your volunteers who support you for this event, right? Think about the context in which folks are connected to your organization. That can help you think about who’s going to be the right messenger to tell them about the name change and what point in the process of rolling out the name is the right point to tell folks. Broadly, there tends to be kind of one moment when before that you’re talking about the name change as something that’s going to happen in the future, and after that moment the name change has happened, and now you are operating as the new organization. So part of that audience mapping is figuring out who are we telling before the name change goes public, making sure they have had a chance to process, ask questions, buy-in. Who’s hearing about it once the name goes public?

Elizabeth Ricca: We also frequently talk about that moment, we’ll use the metaphor of “if you have the means, you can flip a light switch at that moment,” right? All the signage, all the website, everything with the old name goes down. Everything with the new name comes up. Yesterday you were name A, today you’re name B, you move forward. I am not sure I have ever seen a nonprofit able to do a full light switch rollout. It’s just the expense and logistics are such that it’s effectively not possible. So most organizations are doing some version of a dimmer switch where you sort of start, pick that moment where you’re going to do as much as possible in the new name moving forward. You put up a sort of re-skin or a page over the overlay on your website. You start updating your materials as you can. You really try to own that new identity. So yeah, stakeholder mapping and then trying to identify what materials you can change and how quickly, and really step that out to get to the point where you have really replaced all the instances of the old name in both your materials and in folks’ perceptions and memories.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think a lot of issues come up with rollout one around patience, another one around capability and expense. Like you said, like as soon as you have that new name, you’re ready to go. You want everybody know it, especially if you’re anywhere near the “I love it” stage. And to get all the ducks in a row, just to put the pun out there, we got to do it every now and then. It takes time. It takes time to make sure everything is lined up, you’ve got the right things bought, everything is set up and ready to go. You’ve changed all your email signatures, whatever needs to happen. And that can take time to do well. And I know there is often that struggle of finding it in that right moment, so I appreciate everything you shared.

Farra Trompeter: Well, it is time to wrap things up if you are out there listening. Just so you know, we have tons of blog posts, podcasts, eBooks, and more about changing your name and rebranding. Visit to access all of that. If you’re out there listening and wondering if you need to change your organization’s name or go through some sort of lovely branding adventure, feel free to reach out to us via the contact form on our website or just email [email protected]. You can also follow Liz, she’s on LinkedIn at Elizabeth Ricca. Liz, thanks so much for being here.

Elizabeth Ricca: Thank you so much for having me.