Saying Tata to Zica: when brand names go wrong

Brand Name > Saying Tata to Zica: when brand names go wrong

Mosquitoes have never had a good reputation but it has worsened in the past month, as worries over their role in the transmittal of the Zika virus grow. Unfortunately for car makers Tata Motors, they can also be absolutely terrible news for anyone trying to launch an entry-level hatchback. On Tuesday the Indian company announced that it was changing the name of its heavily promoted Zica car (an abbreviation of “zippy car”), to avoid a troublesome association with the mosquito-borne virus.

Tata isn’t the first company to say bye-bye to a brand name because it has developed unfortunate connotations. In the 1970s a popular brand of appetite-suppressing caramels called Ayds advertised itself with slogans such as “Ayds helps you lose weight”. You’ll probably guess what that happened next: Aids. The company resisted a name change for years but plummeting sales eventually forced a rebrand. Ayds became Diet Ayds (Aydslim in the UK). Unfortunately this dramatic change did not help and the product is no longer around.

Diseases aren’t the only things to have killed off brands. Isis has a whole slew of collateral brand damage under its belt. Once it became clear, in 2014, that Isis represented a long-term crisis rather than a temporary spike in the news cycle, a number of businesses named Isis rebranded. US mobile wallet platform Isis became Softcard; Isis Equity Partners became Living Bridge; Isis Chocolates became Libeert. And Isis, the golden labrador on ITV’s Downton Abbey, became sick with cancer and died. Although, it should be noted that the actor Hugh Bonneville has denied that the dog’s demise (purely on-screen) had anything to do with its semantic links to terrorism.

Isis Pharmaceuticals, a billion-dollar business with the ticker name ISIS, resisted a name change for longer than many other major Isis-named brands. In 2014 the company’s CEO, Stanley Crooke, told CNBC, “I don’t … want to capitulate to these terrorists by changing my name. They can change their name.” I mean, fair enough, it was a successful pharma company run by a guy called Crooke; he was probably justified in thinking investors weren’t overly worried by nomenclature. Nevertheless, the terrorists eventually won. After the Paris attacks the company’s stock dropped 4% and it changed its name to Ionis Pharmaceuticals. One hopes there isn’t an “Islamic Organisation in Northern Iraq and Syria” in the workings.

Changing a brand name is an excruciating and expensive undertaking. First you have to redo everything from adverts to signage to the free pens you give away. That can cost millions. Then you have to spend more money raising awareness of your new name. Research has found that sales can plummet by 5%-20% when a brand changes its name. So, when faced with unfortunate branding, companies weigh the risks and tend to only change their name if there is a serious business case for it. Several years ago, for example, General Motors changed the name of its Buick LaCrosse to the Buick Allure in Canada, because “LaCrosse” was slang for masturbation in Quebec. It soon went back to LaCrosse, however, because the marketing efficiencies of using one name across North America outweighed a few sniggers at a double entendre in parts of Canada.

As well as ignoring unintended associations, brands can also try to leverage them. Take the Australian ice cream brand Golden Gaytime, which was first released in 1959. As the meaning of “gay” changed, marketers probably considered changing the ice cream’s name. But, come on, who really wants a Golden Heterosexualtime? Instead the company embraced its name as a way to stand out and retained the tagline “It’s hard to have a Gaytime on your own!”

Of course, the best way to deal with a branding furore is to prevent one from ever happening, and most companies try to do just that by conducting massive due diligence before settling on a name. Before launching in Thailand, for example, Ikea spent four years auditing product names for innuendo before transliterating them into Thai.

Among the potentially problematic products spotted by Ikea’s cunning linguists were “Redalen”, a wicker bed frame that also means something like “getting to third base” in Thai. Ikea tweaked the name because, obviously, it would be horrific if shoppers were to associate a bed with sexual activity. Netflix and Redalen, anyone?

No matter how much due diligence a brand does, however, it’s hard to escape some sort of run-in with innuendo: the world is large, language is dynamic and people have dirty minds. And, as Tata has discovered, trying to avoid associations with unexpected global health emergencies is also a challenge. Sometimes a brand simply has no other choice than a name change. By the way, if you’re wondering what the hatchback formerly known as Zica has changed its name to, I’m afraid that’s still under wraps. However, I’m hoping it will be called the Tata ForNow.