Marketing

So You Run a Company Named Isis ...


The Isis Wallet website

The Isis Wallet website

(Corrects isis's new name in paragraph 1: Softcard)

Isis, the helpful app, links a credit card to a smartphone so users can pay for in-store purchases with a swipe. Isis, the al-Qaeda offshoot, conquers territory in Iraq and Syria, stages massacres, and publishes videos of beheaded American journalists. Of all the pain wrought by infamous Isis, headaches for the makers of an app rate extremely low. But it’s a real problem for the startup, which on Wednesday announced a change of its name from Isis to Softcard.

“We have no interest in sharing a name with a group whose name has become synonymous with violence, and our hearts go out to those who are suffering,” Isis Chief Executive Officer Michael Abbott said back in July, when the company first decided to re-brand but hadn’t yet picked a new name. The payment service was already struggling to keep up with competitors such as Google Wallet (GOOG), PayPal (EBAY), and Venmo. A link to a terrorist organization wasn’t helping.

Companies have a long history of re-branding to distance themselves from bad reputations—in most cases, the legacy of trouble is self-generated. Arthur Andersen spent a decade after its role in the collapse of Enron doing business as WTAS, not reviving a version of the old name, AndersenTax, until this week. A year after the 1996 plane crash that killed 110 people, ValuJet became AirTran (LUV). Blackwater has tried to create distance from its controversial work in Iraq by adopting a new name, Xe, and tobacco giant Phillip Morris dubbed itself Altria (MO) in 2003.

Even terror groups struggle with damaged brands. Osama bin Laden briefly considered renaming al-Qaeda after the group appeared to have lost popular support among Muslims. And ISIS, the radical Sunni insurgency that has been waging war under the name Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has now simplified things by becoming Islamic State, although there’s no indication it seeks to shake its reputation.

There are far fewer examples of organizations seeking a name change because of actions taken by others, although it’s not unprecedented. The National Speakers Association recently tried to change its name to avoid confusion with a different NSA: the National Security Agency. Unfortunately, the speaking group picked a name that was already taken, so it switched back. The radio-controlled airplane maker known as Hobby Lobby International sold its name and re-branded itself after Hobby Lobby, the craft store chain, filed a lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate for employers.

Not everyone is wary of confusion. Who would mistake a biomedical company known for its work on genetic diseases with a religious terrorist group? Isis Pharmaceuticals (ISIS), a 25-year-old drug company trading under the ticker symbol ISIS, has no plans to change its name.

“It is, of course, an unfortunate twist of fate that an al-Qaeda offshoot is referred to by an acronym that matches our company name … [but] our company name is not associated with a retail consumer market,” Amy Blackley, a spokeswoman for Isis Pharmaceuticals, wrote in an e-mail. Since the company sells drugs to hospitals and doctors, the company foresees less risk from brand confusion. “Physicians and medical staff we work with know us very well,” Blackley added, ”and are not confused by the recent news regarding the terrorist group in Iraq.”

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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