There was an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Mary was sick, and Rhoda offered her mother’s advice: “When all else fails, change your name. Change the name. Then the angel of death cannot find you.”
Officials in the Truckee Meadows have followed the same philosophy in pursuing the unpopular Tahoe/Pyramid Link highway. They now call it the “southeast corridor” or “southeast connector” or the “industrial corridor” instead of the Tahoe-Pyramid Link.
The “industrial corridor” term has a particularly thorny relationship with the truth since the term designates a route that cuts through a de facto nature preserve in Storey County.
This public relations technique is getting a workout in the Truckee Meadows. The Honey Lake Water Importation Project became the Fish Springs Ranch Water Project. Winnemucca Ranch became Spring Mountain.
It’s also in use at the state level. David McGrath Schwartz wrote last week in the Las Vegas Sun of how, during the special session, “Gov. Jim Gibbons and legislators—Democrats and Republicans alike—are going through linguistic contortions to define the steps they are taking to balance the budget as ‘revenue enhancements,’ or ‘redirection,’ or ‘rebate eliminations.’ Just not tax increases. Most definitely, not tax increases.”
A member of Gibbons’ staff, in fact, issued a memo defining just what the governor will consider a tax increase and what he will not. Not surprisingly, the memo has not guided anyone except the governor in deciding what to brand a tax increase.
And it’s employed at the national and international level, as well. The U.S. Army School of the Americas, founded in the Panama Canal Zone and later moved to Fort Benning, is known for teaching Latin American officials how to employ repressive techniques and human rights abuses to retain power, to the point that it became known as the “school of the assassins.” The name School of the Americas became so tainted that it has been changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
UNR Professor Bourne Morris, who used to be a copywriter in New York for the leading public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather and later headed its Los Angeles office, said this kind of thing can be tricky. Knowing when, and whether, to change names or brands should not be done carelessly, she said, or just because a company or agency is simply tired of it. There are, in fact, times when such actions should be avoided.
“If the brand image is positive and popular with your particular target audience, a change is crazy,” Morris said. “For example—Coca Cola, Nike, McDonald’s—these are very valuable brands. That’s why those companies are so quick to protect any infringement on their brands.”
She said making a change without first doing marketing surveys is foolish.
“Sometimes, when companies merge it’s OK. But what’s most important is to do it only when you’ve done the groundwork to know it’s needed. If you feel because you’ve done research that [finds] your brand is worn out, that it has an old fashioned connotation, it will make sense.”
And, of course, when a name or brand picks up an unpleasant or negative association, as with the Winnemucca Ranch or the Tahoe Pyramid link.
Morris said one big problem is that in many cases of rebranding, clients tend to substitute their own judgment for the customer’s without doing the marketing surveys to back it up, she said.
“They want to change campaigns because they’re tired of looking at it,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that the consumer is.”
CitiRide? Business v. government
There are different branding requirements for government agencies than for commercial entities, according to one local public relations executive. (She commented on condition that her name not be used.)
“With a government agency, you don’t have to worry about its brand,” she said. “Its function is what’s important. Names and slogans have to focus on what you’re doing for the public.”
She pointed to the change, on May 3, 2006, of the name of the municipal bus line from Citifare to RTC Ride.
“I’m not sure why they made the change. The original name wasn’t the best—who mentions the cost in their name?—but the new one is just as bad. What’s ‘RTC’ doing in there? Why mention its bureaucracy?”
Nor has the change taken hold. A survey of riders by the RN&R found that most of them still call the line either simply “the bus” or Citifare. A substantial number were not even aware of the RTC Ride name. Fortunately, searching for “Citifare” online still takes the consumer to the line’s website.
But if putting government into the brand is not recommended, the message seems not to have gotten to the city of Reno. In the 1990s, the city began stamping its logo on that previous icon of functional simplicity, the street name sign. What purpose it serves is uncertain—the logo is unreadable from passing cars. It’s clearly readable only within a few feet, and from a distance merely clutters up the signs.
PR agency owner Elizabeth Younger said she agreed that there is not the same need to publicize government agencies as private companies: “I’d say that’s probably true. You obviously know it’s the government.” But while a public agency’s profile does not need to be as high as commercial advertisers, she said, that can go too far. She noted that a recent seat belt agency advertising campaign mentioned the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety as its sponsor without overwhelming the message.
“I do think you have to let people know who’s sponsoring the service,” she said.
She added that, whatever the merits of including the RTC acronym, “Ride” is more descriptive of the bus service than “Citifare” was. “That says nothing to me. … Ride is real clear on what they do.”
One complicating factor on government projects is that, ultimately, the responsible entity is the taxpaying public as much as agencies. At one time, that was clearer (“Your tax dollar at work”).
Morris said that rebranding too often can be poison.
“Yes, you just confuse your target,” she said. “And you end up spending a lot of money without getting anywhere.”
KTVN, under the consultancy of Magid & Co. in the 1980s and ‘90s went through a dizzying series of formats, slogans, names (Newswatch 2, Newscenter 2, News 2, Your 24-hour NewsSource 2) and time slots. It now goes without any name at all, other than the generic Channel 2 News, but does use the slogan “Coverage You Can Count On.” (An indication of the originality of some of these brands can be seen in the fact that “Coverage You Can Count On” is also used by Jewelers Mutual Insurance, DRTR Insurance, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota, KFBK in Sacramento, KHAS in Nebraska, WBTW in South Carolina, WCTI and WRAL in North Carolina, WTNH in Connecticut, WGNS in Texas, WANE in Indiana, WAOW, WYOW, WBAY, all in Wisconsin, KING in Washington, WICU in Pennsylvania, WJBF in Georgia, WJLA in D.C./Baltimore, KOMU at the University of Missouri, and Bayer CropScience.)
That kind of rapid change in identity makes it difficult for consumers to become familiar with a product, which they need to do to be comfortable welcoming it into their homes. It’s especially important in a market with Nevada’s population turnover.
“Pepperidge Farm ran the same campaign for 20 years,” Morris said. “American Express had a campaign—'Don’t leave home without it.’ They ran that for many years, and nobody got tired of it. They finally dropped it only because the market changed.” The slogan was brought back in 2005 to promote prepaid American Express Travelers Cheque Cards.