The Seattle Times

November 18, 2007

Local firms take risk in re-branding

Buick LaCrosse

Labor Ready, a Tacoma-based temporary labor agency, recently changed its name to TrueBlue to reflect the blue-collar nature of its jobs.

A rash of name-changing swept through local companies in recent weeks. There's always a risk in such moves — will the new name resonate with customers or investors? Does it distinguish the firm from its rivals?

We called the best-named naming company we're aware of, Igor International in San Francisco, for reaction to these new monikers.

• Local icon Redhook Ale Brewery says it will combine with Portland's Widmer Brothers as Craft Brewers Alliance. The name "describes who we are. We're craft brewers, and we are an alliance. It may not be sexy, but it's quite concise," Kurt Widmer told Seattle Times reporter Melissa Allison.

"Could that be more dull?" asks Igor's senior brand strategist, Andy Valvur. He theorizes Craft Brewers Alliance "was a compromise, because of large egos. The Widmer Brothers didn't want to disappear into Redhook and Redhook wasn't going to become Widmer Brothers, so they ended up with something cold. Sounds kind of like a trade union or a trade association for brewers."

Labor Ready, the Tacoma-based provider of temporary manual labor is now TrueBlue. It's meant to evoke the blue-collar nature of the jobs.

"Very cool ... very American-sounding, hard-working, apple pie," Valvur says. "It straddles the line of evocative and experiential." Those are two of his firm's four categories of name types, the others being functional/descriptive and invented. Qualms about TrueBlue: It's also the name of JetBlue's mileage program, and American Express "really owns the Blue landscape" with programs like Blue Cash, "so it's been done."

Valvur isn't impressed with the new brands chosen by some smaller firms here:

• Mobile Web information company Zenzui, which was spun out of Microsoft, has been renamed Zumobi.

"My question here is, what's the difference?" Valvur says.

• Meanwhile, publicly traded biotechnology company Biomira, which plans a move from Canada to the Seattle area, has become Oncothyreon. The name comes from the Greek words for cancer and shield.

"From a relatively bland name to one that is almost unpronounceable! Brilliant!" Valvur says. "There must have been a committee and focus groups involved."

• Finally, Veritas Solutions renamed itself SARS after recently combining with a public shell company.

It's an acronym for the company's asset-tracking business, Secure Asset Reporting Services; shareholders were told management "believes that the name change communicates the company's intent to adequately brand the company and describe its image."

Unfortunately, the choice seems to violate a cardinal rule of branding — don't name your company after an epidemic. What if Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome sweeps through Asia again like it did in 2003?

Valvur recalls Ayds, "a diet candy that was doing well and then, when AIDS hit, they started losing business. They tried to re-brand as DietAyds but eventually pulled the product."