Changing the name of a brand is a major decision that can have a colossal impact on its success. There are a variety of reasons why companies change their names, from shedding negative connotations of their business, to appealing to broader audiences.
Rebranding is an arduous process fraught with pitfalls. So to learn by example, here are 7 household-name brands that chose to give their names a do-over -- and did so with gusto:
1. BackRub Became Google
Larry Page and Sergey Brin created what would become the world’s top search engine in 1996 while they were students at Stanford. They called their fledgling business and technology BackRub based on its analysis of the web's backlinks.
As the search engine grew, they decided it needed a catchier name, so they swapped BackRub for Google, based on the numeral “googol”, which is the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros. According to the company, they liked the name because it represents the “seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.” Now that Google has become a verb, most people would agree that asking someone to “Google it” sounds a bit better than asking them to “Rub it.”
2. Datsun Became Nissan
While Japanese carmaker Nissan initially marketed its cars as Nissans in countries around the world, in the United States, Nissan’s cars were branded as Datsuns until 1981. This was because during World War II, Nissan was a major manufacturer for the Japanese military, and the company worried that American consumers might feel hostility toward them. By the 1980’s, however, Nissan felt that the animosity had subsided, so they scrapped the Datsun name, preferring to have Nissan’s brand be uniform around the globe.
3. Brad's Drink Became Pepsi-Cola
Now one of the world’s most iconic brands, Pepsi-Cola was the brainchild of a pharmacist from North Carolina named Caleb Bradham. In 1893, Bradham was toying with different soft drink recipes and stumbled upon the concoction that would later be enjoyed by millions. He named his creation after himself, calling it “Brad’s Drink.” As its popularity flourished, however, he decided to go with a less provincial-sounding name and in 1898 the company became Pepsi-Cola.
4. Blue Ribbon Sports Became Nike
Founded in 1964, this sports clothing and athletic gear juggernaut was once a small-time American distributor for the Japanese shoemaker, Onitsuka Tiger. It was launched by University of Oregon track star Phil Knight and his running coach Bill Bowerman, who began humbly by selling sneakers at track meets out of their cars. As the company grew, they branched off from Onitsuka Tiger in 1971 and changed their name to Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory--a good fit for an athletics company.
5. Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Became Sony
This multinational conglomerate began as a small electrical equipment company in Japan in 1946, called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo. Its inventive founder was a pioneer in transistor radios and television technology and as the company expanded beyond Japan, it changed its name to Sony Corporation in 1958. Desiring a name that would appeal to customers outside of Japan, the company went with a blend of the Latin “sonus” meaning sound and music and “sonny,” the American slang for boy.
6. Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web Became Yahoo!
Co-founded in 1994 by Jerry Yang and David Filo while they were PhD students at Stanford, the company that would become a leading search engine and pioneer of the early Internet era used to go by a much lesser known name. The search engine giant began as Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web, but by 1995 the founders realized they’d need something a bit more concise, so they renamed the company Yahoo! -- an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle." According to Filo, the exclamation point was added for “pure marketing hype.”
7. Sound of Music Became Best Buy
Before it became the multinational consumer electronics store it is today, Best Buy started in St. Paul Minnesota in 1966 under the name Sound of Music. By the early 1980’s, the company was a success and had expanded to 9 stores. However, in 1981 the largest store in Minnesota was decimated by a tornado. In the aftermath, the company held a “tornado sale” to sell off their damaged and excess products at a discount, and advertised these discounted products as “Best Buys”. In that one “Best Buy” sale, the company earned more profit than they did in an average month. By 1983, the entire corporation was renamed “Best Buy.”
While it’s impossible to say where these famous companies would be today if they’d kept their original titles, it’s clear that changing a brand’s name has the power to alter its history forever.