Qwikster Branding Brouhaha: Blame the Name Game

Qwikster Branding Brouhaha: Blame the Name Game

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As DVDs gradually go the way of VHS tapes and buggy whips, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings touched off another firestorm this week when he announced that the company would split its disc-rental and video streaming into two separate businesses. Hastings also revealed that the company would rebrand the old-line DVD business Qwikster, a name that prompted waves of ridicule. “We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery,” Hastings wrote in his blog post announcing the changes.

But commenters on Twitter and Facebook had other associations, with one cracking that Qwikster sounds like “something you get in the back of a truck stop at 2am on a Tuesday.” Others noted that the new name evoked thoughts of failed web businesses Napster and Friendster, or even worse, chocolate milk and cartoon bunnies.

“The strategy is a good strategy, but the name is not a good name,” says Howard Belk, co-president and CEO of branding firm Siegel+Gale.

“The name does seem dated,” adds Martin Bishop of branding firm Landor Associates. “The question is, though,” he points out, “was that done accidentally or with intent?” It could be that Hastings and Co. wanted the DVD service to seem more passé than the streaming part of the business.

Intentional or not, Netflix’s move adds another example to a long list of recent branding brouhahas. Gap last year faced a public backlash last year after it rolled out a new logo designed by New York firm Laird & Partners. The new design was scrapped just days after its launch. Tropicana, similarly, had to backtrack when it changed its packaging. Here, some other notable corporate name changes:

PwC Consulting, part of tax firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, announced in 2002 that it would rebrand itself Monday to distinguish itself from its parent company as it was being spun off in an IPO. “Our new name -- Monday -- is exactly what we want it to be as we create our new business: a real word, concise, recognizable, global and the right fit for a company that works hard to deliver results,” the company’s CEO said in announcing the quirky choice. The jokes followed immediately. “It was a silly name. It made no sense,” says Belk, noting that we all hate Mondays. But the sun set on Monday quickly, as IBM bought the business for $3.5 billion before the planned IPO.

Altria Group
Tobacco giant Philip Morris became Altria Group in early 2003. In a jargony statement announcing the change, the company said that the “Altria name and logo powerfully express these enduring qualities: its drive toward excellence, its companies' focus on building brands, its passion for success, its openness to innovation, its commitment to its communities and societies, and its focus on its people.” The new name was a derivation of the Latin word “altus,” meaning high, but the vague nature of the name carried a key benefit: It didn’t have the taint of tobacco. “Altria was kind of a meaningless name,” Belks says, “and it was transparent as a means to conceal the fact that they were still in the tobacco business.”

Blackwater Worldwide, the military contractor that drew attention and condemnation for its role in the Iraq war, changed its tarnished name to Xe in 2009. In a memo to employees, Blackwater president Gary Jackson said the new name reflected the company’s shift away from providing private security and into more training and logistics services. But it wasn’t clear exactly how Xe reflected that change. “That’s a crazy name,” Belk says. “That name was so bad because you didn’t know how to say it and you didn’t know how to spell it.” It’s actually pronounced like the letter Z, but for a brand that was battered by criticism, the confusing new brand may serve as a form of corporate camouflage, Belk says.

As editor in chief, Yuval Rosenberg oversees all aspects of The Fiscal Times' website and email newsletter. His writing has appeared in publications including BusinessWeek, CNBC.com, CNNMoney.com, Fast Company, Fortune, Newsweek, Money and Time.