How Changing Your Company’s Name Is Like Running For Office

I’m not a politician. I’m a CMO officer at a very large health system. But when my organization decided to change its name, I soon realized it was time to go on the campaign trail.

How Changing Your Company’s Name Is Like Running For Office

Watching the candidates currently vying for the highest office in the land, I can’t help but feel immense sympathy.

I’m not a politician. I’ve never been a senator, a governor, or even a real estate tycoon or reality TV star. I’m a chief marketing officer at a very large health system. But when my organization decided to change its name, I soon realized it was time to go on the campaign trail and embark on an operation every bit as complicated, nuanced, and demanding as running for any public post.

It hasn’t been easy. We’ve been on this journey for more than seven years, making overtures and failing, trying and not succeeding to get the wheels in motion and reinvent ourselves with a new name and feel. While countless startups struggle every day to come up with new and viable names with which to launch, it’s a much more complicated task for a $9 billion organization. We succeeded eventually, but only after we learned to treat the process more like a presidential race than another corporate process.

That’s because name changes, while they don’t happen too often, carry great opportunities but also considerable risks. The right name tweak can elevate a company’s reputation. I doubt that Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web would’ve caught on as a household brand, but the second name the company eventually settled on, Yahoo, sure did. But a name change can also undermine years or even decades of great reputation and customer loyalty.

Throw in a very large contingency of interested parties, from consumers and employees to board members, and you’ve got a high stakes game. How to navigate it? Here are three simple rules I learned on the name change campaign trail:

Get Into Poll Position

Names are subjective. They evoke connotations that we sometimes can’t even explain, and they play on emotions we sometimes don’t even fully understand.

Why does one name roll off the tongue and another rankles? What cultural associations do particular sounds have? To figure that out, the name change process begins with serious polling. Just like you’d do with potential voters, you want to ask the people who matter most, your customers, what it is that they truly value about your company. The answers aren’t always obvious.

Surveying more than 3,000 consumers, for example, we learned that while people in some parts of the country care primarily about convenience when selecting a hospital or a physician, and others are focused on getting access to the best doctors possible, New Yorkers overwhelmingly preferred to give their business to a health system that invested in innovation. Once we knew that, we had a pretty resonant emotional guideline to point us in the right direction.

Know Your Constituencies

No election was ever won by repeating the same one-size-fits-all message. Instead, successful candidates soar because they’re able to offer different constituencies nuanced messages that resonate well.

The same, we learned, was true with changing a company’s name. Our board is very large—more than 130 members—and while all were supportive and helpful, different groups had different apprehensions.

Some wondered whether changing our old name—North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System—would rob us of a unique and positive ethnic connotation people have come to associate with the word Jewish. Others wondered whether a name change would confuse a population accustomed to thinking about us in a certain way for decades. Each group had to be convinced, each set of concerns individually assuaged.

Have A Vision

People don’t vote for plans. They don’t care about process, and they couldn’t be bothered with metrics, goals, or other drivers of corporate and political culture.

What they’re seeking is vision, a real sense of purpose that neatly captures what the future may look like if we all got together and worked hard. Those contemplating a name change already know all the logistical musts—pick a name that’s easy to pronounce, make sure a URL is available, etc.—but it’s important that you sweat not only the small stuff but the big stuff as well.

Does the name inspire? Does it capture your wildest dreams for your business? Does it stir the spirit? These, of course, are notoriously difficult questions to answer. As businesspeople, we’re used to setting up measurable goals and empirical ways to determine whether or not we’ve met them. But a name, sometimes, is about feelings. Before settling on a name then, make sure it doesn’t only poll well and please the various constituencies, but also does the nearly impossible task of capturing your values in one elegant word.

With the renaming process now successfully completed, I’m thrilled not only with all we’ve achieved but also with all we’ve learned and with having answered that profound and thorny question Shakespeare put before us all those centuries ago. What’s in a name? Sometimes, it’s almost everything.