The art of the rename: How brands decide what to call themselves next

What considerations go into choosing a new moniker?
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· 7 min read

From football teams to pancake mixes, a lot of household names opted for new monikers over the past year.

Some of them, like Pearl Milling Company, Washington Football Team, and Ben’s Original, renamed to rid themselves of racial stereotypes and slurs in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that arose last summer.

Others, like Rocket Mortgage, renamed for less newsworthy reasons; formerly Quicken Loans, Rocket Mortgage wanted to better align with its parent brand, Rocket Companies.

As these names settle into the cultural lexicon, we couldn’t help but wonder…how do brands that worked for decades to put one name into American households decide to take that name right back out? And once that decision is made, what considerations go into choosing a new name? We spoke with brand naming experts—as well as three brands that recently decided to change their names—to get the scoop.

Decisions, decisions

“Renaming a company is a big deal. It's very expensive and it takes a lot of effort, so there has to be a really good reason to change it,” Laurel Sutton, president of the American Name Society and cofounder of naming agency Catchword, told Marketing Brew. Catchword has worked on naming projects with brands such as Asana, FireEye, Upwork, and more.

She said there are three reasons why companies typically choose to rename: a change of business focus, legal requirements, or when a name has become inappropriate for cultural reasons.

Jonah Fay-Hurvitz, head of strategy at Red Antler—an agency that’s led renaming efforts for brands like Out East and Chime—agreed. “There should always be a strategic reason why you need a new name. A brand should never rename just for the sake of it,” Fay-Hurvitz told us. The most common reason for renaming? A company’s name no longer reflects its business, he said.

In the cases of Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima—now Ben’s Original and Pearl Milling Company, respectively—the reasoning was clear, as they no longer wanted to be associated with racially insensitive names.

  • “We changed our name to Ben’s Original and removed the image on our packaging to signal our ambition to create a more inclusive future,” Rafael Narvaez, global CMO and R&D officer at Mars Food, told Marketing Brew.
  • Kristin Kroepfl, CMO of Quaker Foods North America, said Pearl Milling Company had previously done work to “evolve the brand in a manner intended to remove racial stereotypes that dated back to the brand origins.” Although Kroepfl didn’t specify what that work looked like, 2020 proved its past efforts weren’t cutting it. “In June 2020, we acknowledged those changes were not enough and that we needed to retire the name and image,” Kroepfl explained.

Brands like Dunkin’ Donuts and Weight Watchers have also changed their names in recent years. In 2018, Weight Watchers pivoted to WW as part of its rebrand from a diet company to a wellness one.

Dunkin’ Donuts removed the latter half of its name in 2019. Jenna Lehan, a communications associate representing Dunkin’ at RF Binder, told us the donut maker noticed fans getting on a first name basis with Dunkin’ after its “America Runs on Dunkin’” slogan debuted in 2006. She described the name change as an opportunity for Dunkin' to recognize this relationship with customers.

To tweak?

Speaking of Dunkin’s evolution, naming experts told us the Boston favorite went down the most ideal path for a rename: shortening.

Fay-Hurvitz said retaining any existing brand equity is one of the most important parts of choosing a new name. “There are creative ways to do this like deleting or changing a word, for example. This keeps the overall sound and shape of the name, while removing the limiting factors,” Fay-Hurvitz explained.

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We’re looking at you, Ben’s Original. According to Narvaez, the brand used focus groups to determine its name in what he called the “largest listening exercises we’ve done to solicit input from consumers.” Respondents chose Ben’s Original as the best name from a list of homegrown options, because it solidified the brand’s vision for a more inclusive future while maintaining recognition among consumers.

Or to change completely?

But if that equity isn’t there, or if the name needs to be completely changed for a specific reason, Fay-Hurvitz said a total rename isn’t out of the question. “Some of the biggest brands in the world started out with different names that just didn’t work. Google was originally BackRub, and Instagram was originally Burbn,” he noted.

That’s what Pearl Milling Company did. “Retaining some aspects of the old name was something we considered as we reviewed potential names. In the end, we decided to move away from Aunt Jemima as it did not appropriately reflect the dignity, respect and warmth the brand stands for today,” Kroepfl shared.

“With Aunt Jemima, both parts of that name were offensive,” Sutton explained. “The ‘Jemima’ part is this very stereotypical, almost minstrel-show representation of African-American women. And then the ‘Aunt’ part of it was the word used for Black women who were slaves or servants. So there was no way they could have kept either part of that.”

For its renaming effort, Quaker hired a new Black- and female-founded agency, but declined to share which one. It also conducted several rounds of consumer testing and focus groups. Ultimately, Pearl Milling Company was chosen “because of the connection to the brand’s beginnings—a small mill in St. Joseph, Missouri, that specialized in a pearl milling technique and where the famous self-rising pancake mix was first developed,” Kroepfl said.

Visual learners

There are ways to make sure people still recognize a brand after it renames. “It was important to preserve certain design cues from the previous brand packaging to help transition people to Pearl Milling Company,” Kroepfl told us.

For instance, Pearl Milling Company has kept its red coloring, food imagery, and font styles on packaging so it “can continue to stand out” in a consistent way, she shared. Additionally, the Aunt Jemima name will remain on packaging for a limited time (on the bottom left corner) until the brand feels as though consumers equate the Pearl Milling Company name with the old one in order to avoid confusion.

Ben’s Original has done something similar. Narvaez said its updated name is featured on the products’ familiar orange background to help shoppers acclimate to the change. And wouldn’t you know it—Dunkin’ didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, either, opting to keep its familiar Dunkin' pink and orange colors and signature font.

“With all these questions, there's never one answer,” Sutton summarized. And the process of renaming can get pretty granular. For instance, Sutton said there are certain renaming considerations brands should think about if they want the brand to sound male or female (think: insomnia medication Lunesta purposefully ending with a feminine “a” sound, which American culture associates with softness).

Other factors play into it, too, like whether a brand should incorporate “ascenders” like “b” or “descenders” like “p” into a name. “It's very contextually dependent on the situation of the company and the actual name they're considering,” Sutton concluded.

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