Norwich Union is spending a lot of money telling us it wants to be called Aviva.
I don’t give a hoot what Norwich Union calls itself, but I care about how the communications industry conducts itself, and it looks as if it’s shooting its big toe off here. Why is Norwich Union ditching its name in favour of a scrap of semantic gibberish that sounds (and looks) like a thousand other nondescript corporate names? And why is it using a misfiring TV ad to announce its intentions? I can’t help thinking that it’s rebranding exercises like this that tarnish the craft of branding.
There might be good reasons for the name change. The company might be moving into foreign markets where the name Norwich is unlikely to set pulses racing. For all we know, it might be worried about the link between the fine city of Norwich and its most famous son – Alan Partridge. But because we are not given a reason for the name shift, it has become a source of scepticism and derision. Newspaper articles mock the change, and to a media-savvy public it is seen as expensive and unnecessary spin.
What’s more, the TV commercial presents us with a flawed proposition. It shows four celebrities who have changed their names. Yet the chosen quartet comprises people who have name-swapped for dubious reasons. When Ringo joined The Beatles it was the era of Billy Fury and Adam Faith, so he went from Richard Starkey to Ringo Starr. But if The Beatles were starting out today, he wouldn’t need to do anything so corny – he could use his real name. Alice Cooper could hardly have become a glam rock star called Vincent Furnier. But everyone knows that dear old Vince doesn’t lounge about all day dressed in leather, petting his python and applying mascara; he’s far more likely to be on the golf course. In reality, he’s no more ‘Alice Cooper’ than Alistair Darling is.
Most people know that Dame Edna Everage has two names – Barry Humphries and Dame Edna – and both co-exist happily. And as for Walter Bruce Willis becoming Bruce Willis? Well, that hardly even qualifies as a name change.
But there’s a more serious matter here/ by making an expensive fuss about its name change, Norwich Union is in danger of telling us that it cares more about its corporate image than its core business. When branding becomes the main selling point, it’s time to worry.
In his book Obsessive Branding Disorder, the writer Lucas Conley puts forward the notion that the quasi-religious cult of branding has now, in many instances, become a substitute for good business practice. He says, ‘By abandoning the trusty, dusty principles of business – innovative products, good service, solid management – for the idealism of branding, companies reveal the true escapist appeal of their new religion.’ In other words, the brand evangelists have become so effective that companies believe they can brand their way to success.
But this evangelism is in danger of backfiring. When branding is linked to failure (think the US car industry and Wall Street), and when it is used to make meaningless name changes (think Aviva), it risks becoming discredited. And don’t think it can’t happen; business credos fall out of fashion just like haircuts and eyewear. Designers who dumped the old-fashioned term ‘corporate identity’ in favour of ‘branding’ might soon be thinking about doing a bit of name-changing themselves.