Why BP can’t get beyond British Petroleum

There is growing displeasure in Britain over the use of the name “British Petroleum” by top federal officials in the United States.

And as the Economist charts below, the American press has taken to calling the firm British Petroleum since April to stress Britain’s role in the disaster, even though the company was renamed BP in 2001.

Fair or not, the oil company is, undeniably, very British in terms of a public persona defined in no small measure by its ruddy-cheeked CEO Tony Hayward. Indeed, he has come to personify BP: petulant, out-of-touch, inept and unmistakably British when he opens his mouth. It doesn’t help the hapless oil executive that he also bears a unfortunate resemblance to Michael Sheen (he’s the one on the right), the actor who made his career playing arrogant British SOBs in movies such as Frost/Nixon, The Queen and The Damned United.

British Petroleum or BP, the concern is that its woes may also reflect badly on British firms doing business in America. Enter Bob Dudley, BP’s managing director who has taken over day-to-day responsibility for managing the company’s oil spill response from Tony Hayward. Temperamentally, at least, he seems better suited to deal with the situation. He is also American; his accent may go some way to help BP rebrand itself beyond British, if not beyond petroleum.

As a footnote to this post, it is interesting to learn how many people believe “Beyond Petroleum” to be the actual name of the oil company. Witness the following:

“BP changed its name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. Our statistics suggest that even though BP has changed its name to Beyond Petroleum in the recent years, much of the public still thinks BP stands for British Petroleum and not Beyond Petroleum. Though the company changed its former name “British Petroleum” to Beyond Petroleum after merger with Amoco, it comes out that people were not aware of Beyond Petroleum till the BP Oil Disaster struck the Gulf of Mexico” : http://tinyurl.com/3yyfcbh


CA, the company formerly known as Computer Associates, is displaying all the characteristics of Hamlet. It is a company that can’t make up its mind.

Founded in 1976 as Computer Associates International, Inc., the company legally changed its corporate name to CA, Inc., in February 2006 while in the midst of a $2.2 billion fraud investigation that had dogged it for four years.

Explaining the name change at the time, CEO John Swainson said:

“CA is a changed company, but not an entirely new company. We’ve taken the strengths of the past and combined them with new initiatives, strategies and ideas to ensure CA is the clear industry leader in meeting the evolving information technology needs of customers.”

This week, four years on, the company announced it had changed it’s name again – this time to CA Technologies. Explaining this change, new CEO Bill McCracken, said:

“The name CA Technologies both acknowledges our past yet points to our future as a leader in delivering the technologies that will revolutionize the way IT powers business agility.”

Spot the difference?

While the latest statement does make reference to the current industry buzz-term “business agility”, the two statements are identical in their sentiment and intent. There is nothing to help us understand the logic of the addition of ‘technologies’ in the CA name.

Marianne Budnik, chief marketing officer, did add: “The brand and name change to CA Technologies was designed with insights from nearly 700 customers, partners and market thought leaders.”

It begs the question – insights into what, specifically? I would hazard a guess: CA hasn’t worked as a name. It was a hasty, myopic decision made at a time the company needed to distance itself from a debilitating scandal. CA was the easy choice, but the wrong choice. It just wasn’t thought through.

The pros and cons of initials as corporate names aside (more on this later), CA works visually when connected to the original name, Computer Associates, as in the amended logo introduced in 2001, shown above. Dropping the Computer Associates name from the logo was probably regarded as a minor adjustment. And as the internal rationale most likely went: competitors such as IBM, HP and BMC do just fine with initials, so why can’t we?

Well, disconnected from Computer Associates, CA becomes problematic for a number of reasons.

Unlike IBM, HP and BMC, ‘CA’ has no hard letter sounds. Consequently, CA it is not heard as two distinct initials, C and A. It is heard as ‘seeyay’.

Seeyay? Come again. Oh, you mean C and A, the old Computer Associates?

CA is nothing but a weak proxy for Computer Associates, a whiter shade of pale. It is too phonetically lightweight and nondescript as a name and simply not robust enough to acquire meaning of its own.

The other, not insignificant, problem – Google CA and up come pages of reference to California. CA means California first and foremost.

A new CEO brings in a new perspective. Bill McCracken decides change is necessary, and this time it will be based on research. Hence, the 700 insights Ms. Budnik mentioned. But they were probably given in response to a very specific question concerning the CA name, and very likely centering on preferences between modifiers, such as CA Software, CA Solutions and CA Technologies, etc.

Only in such a range of soft options could CA Technologies emerge as a winner. ‘Technologies’ is a verbal Band Aid and adds nothing other than a glottal stop to a very inadequate name.

Simpler options

This latest name change amounts to little more than fiddling around the problem, and in doing so CA creates another problem for itself.

In her statement, Ms. Budnik also said the name was “developed to ensure that we tell a consistent story in the market that reflects the full breadth and depth of what we offer.”

A redundant word in a name makes for inconsistency, not consistency. ‘Technologies’ is a such word. Lucent Technologies was always referred to just as Lucent, for example. No doubt CA Technologies will appear on things the company can control, such as corporate signage, stationery and collateral. But in all other cases it will be CA.  The company’s ticker symbol is still CA, it’s URL is still ca.com, and the company still defaults to CA in references to itself on its website. It will still be CA in headlines, analyst calls and in conversation. Where is the consistency?

Rather than finessing with the corporate name a simpler option would have been a tagline to anchor the name in some specificity for marketing purposes. EMC’s “Where information lives”, or GE’s “Imagination at work” are two of the better examples.

The better and braver option for Computer Associates would have been to change the name of the company in 2006 when it had reason and opportunity to, the accounting scandal apart. While Computer Associates’ success was built on mainframe software a different future beckons, one in which companies manage their technology in what the industry calls the “cloud.” The name should have claimed that future unequivocally.

Yes BP, you are an oil company, too

 “Yes, we are an oil company. But right now we are also providing natural gas, solar, hydrogen, geothermal. Because we live on this planet, too.”

No, this is not part of a mea culpa from BP. It’s a couple of lines from a Chevron ad, and one which BP would do well to consider emulating given the situation they are in.

With smart and refreshing directness, Chevron’s “Human Energy” TV ad from McGarry Bowen makes the case for oil and an oil company better than it has ever been made.

Actor Campbell Scott narrates the 150 second spot that unapologetically states Chevron’s case and its position in the global energy debate as an oil company searching for solutions.

“…today, tomorrow and the foreseeable future, our lives demand oil. But what’s also true is that we can provide it more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully”.


It is in marked contrast to BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign. Chevron seeks to explain and educate; BP tries to obfuscate.

The problem with the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign for me is that it has always smacked of rebranding spin. Why? Because BP is, undeniably, an oil company. And a very big one at that. Like Chevron, BP is one of the world’s six oil majors, along with ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Total of France.

Any attempt to deny that fact, or at least mask it, was bound to tempt fate in an industry in which major shit happens, as with the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas, and the Alaska oil pipeline leak a year later. Now, with oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico unabated and officials giving no indication that the flow can be contained soon, BP is unfortunately up to its oily neck in an imminent environmental disaster. Any lingering credibility attached to its pretense of being an energy company that has gone beyond petroleum has been deep-sixed along with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

Hold the oil

The “Beyond Petroleum” campaign was born opportunistically out of BP’s merger with Amoco in 1998.

Back then, BP was British Petroleum. After a brief but respectable period as BP Amoco, the company was recast in 2000 as plain BP. Replete with its elegant, Landor-designed sunburst logo, the intent was to send the message that the company was looking past oil and gas toward a benign, eco-friendly future of solar and renewable energy.

John Browne, the CEO at the time, wanted to position BP as a broader energy company, not just an oil company, ahead of the looming issues of climate change, energy security and supply scarcity. Just as all oil companies are now attempting to do, he saw it as a way to “gain a seat at the table, a chance to influence future rules.”

The slogan “Beyond Petroleum” was a clever if specious way of utilizing the initials ‘BP’ to emphasize they no longer stood for British Petroleum. “Better people, better products, big picture, beyond petroleum” went the alliterative mantra.

But idea was pushed way beyond the bounds of its limits.  BP’s ill-advised attempt to position itself beyond  the petroleum sector on the basis of its laudable but marginal investments in renewables is rather like China claiming to be “Beyond Communism” because it now owns capitalist Hong Kong. It is a huge stretch of a small, albeit desirable, truth.

How can an oil company be ”Beyond Petroleum” without actively distancing itself from its core product? It’s a very hard sell when your  logo is emblazoned on 10,000 gas stations in the US alone and the vast majority of your profits come from the black stuff.

BP has really tried to clean up its act over the last few years. How the company extricates itself from its current predicament will be proof enough of whether we are seeing a new BP.

One thing it can do is finally move beyond “Beyond Petroleum” and talk about the business it is in with conviction, not what business it isn’t in.


Cleggmania is sweeping Britain.  On the basis of his performance in the first two televised debates between the three political party leaders, Nick Clegg is the new golden boy of British politics. People are talking of him as the leader Britain needs.

Most watchers of the debates — the first in British electoral history — scored the contests as a surprise victory for Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, over Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron.

Expenses scandals have left electors deeply contemptuous of parliamentarians. Clegg, as the outsider, managed to convince the audience that he was one of them and not part of a cozy old political machine.

His big problem is his name. Clegg.

Britain has come a long way from the noblesse oblige era of aristocratic, Eton-educated political leaders, but not quite far enough for the Cleggs, I fear.

It was a sure sign of the times when the Right Honourable Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate, renounced his peerage in the Sixties and reinvented himself as man-of-the-people ‘Tony Benn’ to pursue a career in British politics. It was said he had his shirt collars specially frayed at Harrods for the role.

And Eton-educated* Anthony Charles Lynton Blair led ‘New Labour’ out of the political wilderness as plain Tony Blair.

But Nick Clegg has no where else to go.

What’s wrong with Clegg might not be apparent to America ears, but to the British there is plenty wrong with it, although people probably wouldn’t say as much. Clegg is brass-necked working class, a clunkingly Anglo-Saxon, irredeemably Northern, below the salt name.

Clegg is, in fact, one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon surnames on record, pre-Domesday Book and all that, but it doesn’t count for much in modern Britain. Clegg would be the name of the dunderhead in a TV sitcom, or the feckless foot soldier in a Shakespeare historical drama.

Gordon Brown can’t be anything other than he is – all Brown, no gloss. Eton-educated David Cameron hasn’t yet reduced himself to ‘Dave’, but he might still before Election Day on May 6 if the Clegg continues to live up to his ancient family motto:

“Let him take what he is able to take”.


Qui potest capere capiat

*Tony Blair was educated Fettes College and not Eton. I am indebted to Alan Stephen for pointing out the error.


What is it about Accenture that engenders so much negativity?

Time recently included Accenture in what it referred to as the ‘Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes‘, putting it in the company of Comcast’s new Xfinity brand, SyFy and Blackwater’s name change to Xe.

According to Time, the rebranding of Andersen Consulting to Accenture was “regarded as one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history”. The criteria seems to be that if any name change becomes remotely controversial (and most of them are to reporters) it qualifies as a disaster.

Then last week Business Insider, in conjunction with Method and Rob Frankel, a branding expert, came out with its own list – “The worst rebranding disasters in the past few years”. Accenture is in there again, along with a mixed bag including the Tropicana pack redesign, the London 2012 Olympic logo, and “The Shack’ advertising campaign.

Once again the criteria for inclusion is hazy although the writer, one Bianca Male, says earnestly that “successful rebranding involves overhauling a company’s goals, message, and culture — not just changing a name or a logo”.

Quite so. But that’s a lot to expect from an orange juice carton redesign. As far as Accenture is concerned I would (and do) argue that the rebrand succeeds at every level on this basis.

What do you think Tiger?

The worst they can throw at Accenture is that the name is ‘meaningless’ and the rebrand cost $100 million, suggesting the company has been extravagantly profligate with its shareholders’ money.

First the name: as unlovely as it may be, it is far from being the disaster that Time and Bianca Male insists.

As anyone who has been involved in global branding programs knows only too well, finding a name that is universally available and has a positive interpretation in many different languages practically mandates a manufactured name in the Verizon, Novartis, Agilent genre. As a global company, the Accenture name had to be cleared in 47 countries and acceptable in 200 different languages.

As for the cost, a $100 million is about par for the course with corporate rebrands these days, most of that going on advertising and media. If cost is qualification for a disastrous rebranding, where is the mention of Verizon, AT&T and Lucent? Those rebranding campaigns cost about the same.

The main fact that is so oddly overlooked in the criticism of Accenture is the name change was forced upon Andersen Consulting. Unlike the Bell Atlantic/Verizon name change, for example, Andersen Consulting had to change its name as a requirement of its acrimonious legal split from its parent, Andersen Worldwide. Neither did it have the luxury of time. Andersen Consulting had to totally reinvent itself globally within 147 days of the August 2000 arbitration ruling. The risk of getting it wrong was huge.

Whatever one might think of the name itself, Accenture today is very successful $21 billion global enterprise. Its brand has been beautifully and comprehensively executed and positively embraced by clients and 180,000 employees worldwide.

Where is the disaster? Where is the failure?

Try looking at Accenture’s competitors. KPMG’s consulting arm, for example, changed its name to BearingPoint in 2002. Ironically, a bearing point is a nautical term for setting directions to a specific destination.

BearingPoint ran aground: it went into bankruptcy in 2009 and was broken up. There is a disaster if ever there was one.

Name changes are easy copy for reporters – the cost, the unusual name, the reaction. Gasp! They need little research, just rewrite the last article on the subject, and ‘experts’ who will freshen the controversy with ready quotes about how rank the name is are easily found.

For me, it is somewhat depressing to see reputable branding companies and “branding gurus” complicit in this kind of shabby, ill-informed exercise at the expense of branding industry’s already damaged credibility.

For those interested in the facts, here is an excellent white paper on Andersen Consulting’s marketing strategy and its transition to Accenture.


I make no apologies nor take any credit for the April 1st post yesterday. The Pillsbury Doughboy death notice has been circulating round the Web for a while and the excruciating puns continue to amuse.

There was one story I came across that almost had me taken in. As posted on the Name Newsreel page of this site, the news item concerned the rebranding of the Church of England. In light of the current scandals swirling around the Catholic Church and the real decline in CofE attendance in recent years the story had a ring of credibility, as the best April Fools stories do.

Only when it mentioned the Queen’s preferred name choice of ‘Establisha’ did the penny drop. But then, after Royal Mail/Consignia fiasco, one should be prepared for anything.

For those who missed it:

Church of England to ‘rebrand’

1 Apr 2010
The Church of England is to launch a nationwide consultation on changing its name.The rebranding exercise, expected to take at least two years, and which will need to be approved by Parliament, follows widespread acknowledgement of the difficulties of continuing to claim to be The Church of England – rather than just one of the country’s denominations.

One is amused

The church said yesterday that discussions had been going on behind the scenes for several months between Lambeth Palace and Buckingham Palace. The Queen is understood to be keen to get the process completed before Charles becomes Supreme Governor.

If the rebranding goes ahead, the monarch is rumoured to favour the name ‘Establisha’, to reflect the church’s status with regard to the Crown.

A spokesperson for the Church said: “Approaches have been made by other churches over the last few years, who have expressed concern that the Church’s name was misleading.

“After friendly discussions it was felt that all Christians would benefit from an updated brand. But this is a process that we want the whole country to be engaged in”.

It was emphasised that the name change would not alter the church’s established status, but it was not clear whether churchgoers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be consulted.

“The Church will still be the church of the nation. But this is a recognition that the existing name could be seen as a barrier”, a spokesperson said. “The Church needs to be open to new ways of communicating and presenting itself. We hope that the result will be a fresh start and a new image which also reflects the changing place of religion in a plural society”.

More details will be released in the next few months about how the consultation will take place. It will formally begin on Back to Church Sunday.

The Church said that the initiative would involve a new Facebook page and an interactive area on the Church of England website. People will be invited to make suggestions via text message and Twitter. Local churches will also be encouraged to hold public meetings.

Suggestions will be shortlisted at General Synod in 2011 through a deliberative process, similar to that employed recently by Democracy campaign Power2010. The country will then be encouraged to vote on the proposals in an X-factor style run off conducted under the Single Transferable Voting system.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has also given his backing to the initiative.

Xmtch – an assignment for Don Draper, not Dan Draper



As the FT reports above, Credit Suisse is planning to rename something it calls Xmtch.

The Swiss bank has decided Xmtch is simply not cutting it in the arcane world of ETFs (exchange traded funds). “The rebrand”, the FT astutely observes, “seems to point to an admission that the business needs help.”

News of the planned name change, that will make it “very clear” the ETF business is part of the Credit Suisse stable, comes after the bank announced it had recruited ETF heavyweight Dan Draper from somewhere called Lyxor to shake-up the business.

While I am sure Dan Draper from Lyxor knows a lot about ETFs, Credit Suisse would have done far better to bring in Don Draper from Sterling Cooper. Don could have saved the bank a substantial part of the fortune it is no doubt paying Dan by giving it a few pieces of advice about names along the following lines:

“First, if you don’t know how to pronounce something, it does not even qualify as a name. How am I supposed to say Xmtch?

Second, a name should give you a clue as to what the product is. What is Xmtch? Does anybody out there know? Is it really any wonder your ETF business isn’t doing so well?

Third, if you want to connect the ETF business to the Credit Suisse name, how about something like, um,  ‘Credit Suisse ETFs’?

OK, you can send Dan back to Planet Lyxor now. My invoice is in the mail.”



To Xfinity, and beyond: The new laws of naming

Newspapers and magazines love lists. They are easy copy, as they need little or no research apart from the elicitation of a few expert opinions on the subject in question. And readers love them, if only to disagree.

Time magazine has a whole section on its website devoted to Top 10 lists. It includes compulsively irrelevant topics such as the Top 10 Internet Blunders, and the Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah.

This week Time rushed out a list of the Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes in honor of Xfinity, the new name from Comcast, the cable company, for its service offerings.

In a rush to judgment Time put Xfinity at the top of the list that included Accenture, SyFy, Consignia, Xe, Altria, WWE, Spike TV, AirTran, and the Willis Tower.

It’s a curious list. The criteria seems to be that if a name change is in any way controversial, then it’s bad.

Take the Willis Tower in Chicago, for instance. It was the Sears Tower for decades, a famous Chicago landmark. Unfortunately, Sears is not the company it once was and the building has been acquired by Willis Group Holdings, a London-based insurance company. Willis, understandably, wants its own name on the building. It has upset Chicagoans no end, but all’s fair in love, war and naming rights. When it comes down to it, why is Sears a better a name for a building than Willis? Nothing more than familiarity and a large dose of sentiment, I would say.

The map of the world in my school atlas was mostly pink, denoting the reach of the British Empire. Back then, Mumbai was Bombay, Beijing was Peking and  Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. The world moves on. It disturbed me more when San Francisco’s legendary Candlestick Park became 3Com Park, which then became Monster Park before the city mandated that it shall be Candlestick Park for ever more.

Spike TV is on the list because Spike Lee claimed that people might connect the TV network with Spike Lee. He won an injunction to prevent The National Network changing its name to Spike TV. The case was settled soon after in the network’s favor. Case closed.

How does this minor spat warrant Spike TV’s inclusion on Time magazine’s Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes – because Spike Lee was upset?

The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had to change its name to the World Wrestling Entertainment following a disagreement with the World Wildlife Fund, so WWF became WWE. What’s the problem?

Andersen Consulting was required to change its name as part of its acrimonious separation agreement with Arthur Andersen. Accenture is not a lovely name, to me it sounds like a sneeze, but to say it was “regarded as one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history” is stretching it just a bit. Accenture today is very successful, unlike its misbegotten counterpart at KPMG that became BearingPoint. It sank without trace and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. And not to forget PwC’s consulting arm, which was primped and dressed as ‘Monday’ by Wolff Olins before IBM came along to save the day. 

Consignia is rightly on the list. Its sin was not so much the name itself, as naff as it was, but the ineptitude with which the proposed change was handled. Renaming a British institution like the Royal Mail was always going to be highly controversial. Well, controversial it was. And the name became the focal point for torrent of fear and loathing that eventually sank it and the CEO of the company.

Consigned to the scrap heap

Which brings us to Xfinity, the name that clearly inspired Time’s hastily compiled list in the first place.  The negative energy around the introduction of Xfinity seems to be generated by a perception of poor service from Comcast.

William Lozito of Strategic Name Development says Comcast is “trying to put lipstick on a pig” by instituting a name change as a way to cover up service complaints.

But things are changing at Comcast. It recently acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal for $13.75 billion, giving it control of the Peacock network, an array of cable channels and a major movie studio. Advances in broadband digital technology also mean faster Internet speeds and more high-definition channels. The acquisition puts Comcast in the position of being both a content producer—through NBC and its subsidiaries—as well as a media distributor.

This is a long way from what the traditional cable company offered. As lazy and clichéd as the name Xfinity might be, it is the beginning of a campaign to convey this new world of myriad content and delivery quality, and change minds about what Comcast is. Whatever Xfinity may remind people of today, Comcast is going to spend a huge amount of money to get that brand to mean what it wants it to mean.

Today, naming is as much about PR strategy as it is about brand strategy. Accordingly, I offer these Seven New Laws of Naming:

1. All name changes of any consequence will be controversial.

2. Controversy is good for newspaper articles and circulation figures. There will always be people who don’t like a name change for whatever reason, and reporters will always find them for a quote. Be prepared.

4. New names will always remind people of something more familiar to begin with. They have to be given a context in which to understand the name.

5. People will get used to new names over time as long as they are free from negative connotations that can not be overcome (plain dumb names not withstanding).

6. Corporate name changes are politically charged. They have to be managed aggressively and proactively.

7. Social media is important. The urls xfinitysucks.com, and xfinitysucks.org are not available. Someone at Comcast is thinking ahead.

Time Warner’s naming twavails

When it comes to name changes, the Time Warner organization has had more than its fair share of unfortunate miss-steps.

Time Warner’s misbegotten merger with AOL produced the behemoth ‘AOL Time Warner’ in 2000. It was a fractious marriage and the promised synergies never materialized. When Time Warner executives regained their senses and control of the company they dropped AOL from the corporate name in 2003 before finally ridding itself the business in 2009.

In this case the name was the least of Time Warner’s problems, however humiliating the unraveling may have been.

Its offspring, Time Warner Telecom, has made much heavier weather of its naming challenge.


Continue reading “Time Warner’s naming twavails”

Coinstar, Amazon and the entrepreneur’s naming trap

What has the name ‘Starbucks’ got to do with coffee?

Apart from now being the name of the world’s largest coffee chain, it has absolutely nothing to do with the dark, bitter brew.

The company was named after a minor character in Herman Melville’s book ‘Moby Dick’. As anyone who has read the book can testify, Starbuck drinks not a drop of coffee. According to the Starbucks website the founders considered naming it after Captain Ahab’s boat, the Pequod, but minds were changed when a friend tried out the tagline, “Have a cup of Pequod.” Starbuck was the fallback choice.

“Customers must recognize that you stand for something”, CEO Howard Schultz once astutely observed. The Starbucks brand and business is built around his vision of recreating the Italian coffee bar culture in the US, not the commodity product.

How important was coffee to Starbuck’s success? Essential. It gave the business an early focus on the culture of coffee and a ‘known for” brand. Today, the brand has widened into that of a place to relax, meet and work.

Stores sell many things apart from mocha frappuccinos  — packaged food items, hot and cold sandwiches, mugs and tumblers; select “Starbucks Evenings” locations offer beer, wine, and appetizers. The point being the name has the necessary flexibility to grow with the business.

There’s an important naming lesson in that observation for every entrepreneur.

They have a great idea for a new product; they reason, not unnaturally, that the product is the business and the business is the product and, therefore, the name of the product becomes the name of the company.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 3.03.19 PMCollege graduate student Jens Molbak had a great idea for all that loose change we accumulate in jars.

The bank won’t accept coins unless they are sorted and rolled. He came up with Coinstar, those green vending machines you see in supermarkets where people dump their change and receive dollar bills. Coinstar takes a percentage.

A nice idea, and a very nice business. The company has processed more than 350 billion coins in its nearly two decades of operation.

In 2009 Coinstar came face-to-face with the limitations of its name when it acquired Redbox, the DVD rental company. Molbak realized the future of the business is really about dispensing machines, not coins. Coinstar is a limiting name for a business that wants to expand beyond coins.

The company changed it name to Outerwall to better reflect its evolving lineup of automated kiosks and is now a multi-national provider of services for the front end of retail stores, including bulk vending, prepaid products (gift cards), money transfer, automated DVD rentals via Redbox and coin counting.

Business focus is essential, but when it comes to corporate naming entrepreneurs need to think beyond the product and ask themselves the question, ‘What business am I really in?’ Changing a company name just as the business is hitting its stride is disruptive, expensive and unnecessary with a little forethought.

MP3Car faced a similar dilemma.

The company traces its roots to a worldwide online community of geeks in the 1990s who installed personal computers filled with electronic music files, or MP3s, in their cars. Along the way, MP3Car’s engineers developed increasing expertise in building and integrating mobile computers and started consulting and selling computers to companies and government agencies.

“MP3Car.com is obviously a misnomer at this point,” said CEO Heather Sarkissian in a 2009 interview with the Baltimore Sun. “It’s a very well-known brand. However, it is very confusing to our [business-to-business] enterprise customers.”

The name was a stumbling block for potential clients and even investors.

“One investor thought all we do is put MP3 players in cars,” Heather Sarkissian said in the interview. “He told us we’d be out of business in two years. … I had to explain to him what we really do.”

MP3Car tried to save money by doing its renaming and branding itself.

“I’m telling you, it’s all been thought of. … It’s crazy,” she said. “This has been an incredible challenge.”

So much so that the company seems to have abandoned the attempt.


Jeff Bezos wanted anything but a limiting name when he founded Amazon.

It was very nearly called Cadabra, as in “abracadabra” – the word magicians use when performing a trick. His lawyer apparently misheard the word as “cadaver” so Bezos instead named the business after the river, reportedly for two reasons: one, to suggest scale – Amazon.com launched with the tagline “Earth’s biggest book store” (a great value proposition) –  and two, back then website listings were often alphabetically before Google came along.

On it’s march to global retail hegemony Amazon has helped to put retailers Borders Books, Tower Records and Blockbuster out of business.

Books now represent a tiny fraction of its revenues. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has become the retailer’s money machine, accounting for more than half of the company’s operating profit while on track to do more than $10 billion in sales this year.

What a mistake books.com would have been.