There’s a lot about consulting I love.
And then there are those times when we’re asked to help a station rebrand itself. It not that there’s anything inherently wrong with having to engineer a name change. It’s just that the implications are far-ranging.
Everything has to be changed – from the van wrap to business cards. And then there’s the degree of difficulty of ensuring your target audiences – listeners, clients, community leaders, and industry insiders get the message, all the more arduous in the radio industry today because of fewer marketing dollars to get the job done.
That’s a key reason why not to approach a brand name capriciously or casually. It IS a big deal, it’s often more costly than managers think, and easy to screw up.
Thankfully, the talented folks at HubSpot have recently published a guide to rebranding – or coming up with an effective brand name to begin with.
In “How to Come Up With a Brand Name,” Katrina Kirsch puts together a useful article that walks you through the whys/why nots and in and outs of building a new brand to identify for your product. Or in our case, a radio station.
Kirsch reminds us there’s a fine line between a catchy name (Amazon) and a forgettable or even confusing brand that’s hard to pronounce and even harder to spell (Cadabra). That’s right – before Jeff Bezos and Amazon took off on their amazing journey, Cadabra was the company’s original name. (Evidently, “Abra” ended up on the cutting room floor.)
I’ve found that media companies often make one of two critical mistakes when jumping into the brand fray. They either go with the first name that comes up (or the CEO’s favorite) or they spend beaucoup dollars on a new name, only to be disappointed with the result.
Coming up with a new name for a brand new station can be a fun, energizing process. It can also be a highly frustrating, circuitous, and expensive mess.
But it gets even more challenging when you’re tasked with rebranding a station (or any entity) that’s only so-so in the first place. A new name isn’t going to change the fortunes of an existing product that is flawed. And when nothing else has changed – the staff, the format, the hosts – the end result is often confusion, leaving everybody wondering what just happened.
So, let’s not screw it up. Kirsch quotes Josh Reeves who’s been there and done that. He now runs Gusto, the brand formerly known as ZenPayroll – a name that was chosen hastily:
“Choosing your name…will power everything else forward – the visual design, the way you message it to the team, the way you talk about it with customers. So if you’re going to sink your time and energy into anything, it should be this.”
So, here’s the list of attributes to consider in a rebranding journey. Good ones ought to fall into one of these buckets. I’ll list an example or two from Kirsch, and then a radio brand that fits the bill.
Descriptive: As the word implies, the brand tells you about what you’re going to get. The Weather Channel or PayPal are great examples of brand names that generally say it all and make it difficult for competitors to enter into the space.
In radio, we’ve been doing these – often to a fault – for decades. Marrying the station address (the frequency) to a format is child’s play in radio.
Whether it’s a music descriptor or calling out the format, these have been wildly successful for radio. Although these days, perhaps a bit too predictable for a new brand?
Evocative: This is where brands become more interesting, using a metaphor that tells you something about a brand’s creativity, energy, or attitude.
Uber and Virgin are good examples Kirsch uses to make her point.
In radio, many have also pulled off names that can be showstoppers. A favorite is Townsquare’s Sasquatch 92.1 in Duluth. Back in the day, there was X-treme, which made a statement about both the music and the station’s overriding philosophy.
Blends: This is where the brand actually takes two words to coin a new word and thus, a new handle. That’s what YouTube and Photoshop pulled off.
One of my favorites in radio today is ALT AZ, Hubbard’s Alternative station in Phoenix. You know what you’re going to get and where you are every time they ID themselves.
Given the call letters (KDKB) were famous for different music (rock), the rebrand quickly put the station on a new path.
Invented: This is where the creative juices flow – often in the wrong direction. Made-up names can be magical and can grab attention. The web is famous for these, and some – Google and Yahoo! – have worked well.
Others, however, are lame, hard to pronounce, and difficult to spell correctly, important when users and customers are encouraged to visit a URL where you’d better get it right.
If you get lucky, those made up names can become synonymous for the the brand’s purpose. Google means “search,” and Zoom meetings – much to the chagrin of competitors like Teams, WebEx, Skype and others – have become the common name for virtual get-togethers.
In radio circles, we have a ton of these – the Buzz, the Edge (yes, we still own it), Fresh, Breeze, Kiss, Lite, and Nash all fall into this category. The name gives you the vibe and the feeling, and also sets the brand apart from the pack.
Mike Stern has had his share of these. He programmed KXTE – or X-treme – in Las Vegas, a station whose music and attitude was nicely wrapped up in that now-familiar brand name.
Mike also spent time at Saga in Milwaukee. There was Lazer – a good brand, but rapidly became a tad dated. And we rebranded it to reflect the ethos of that city’s vibe – and most famous product.
The Hog turned out to be a great name for a rock station in Brewtown. (Of course, The Brew wasn’t bad either.)
Acryonymic: Sometimes, brands succeed by using their initials – like UPS or IBM. Remember it was Kentucky Fried Chicken before their marketers went to KFC, a great move that shortened the process (and probably used a lot less neon gas).
In radio, call letters often do this for us, when there’s purpose behind them. There are too many examples to list, because so many calls – whether they start with a “W” or a “K” can spell a word or remind you of their music, the company, or the audience (KISS, WABC, KOZT, WSHE).
Then there are the radio categories Kirsch doesn’t mention that make great branding platforms – when done right:
Nicknames: This is when customers or management end up coming up with a better way to refer to a brand that eventually becomes the company name. Abbreviations can work – Federal Express became truncated to FedEx, while McDonald’s is often marketed now as Mickey D’s. When the company echoes the way its followers refer a brand, it can be magic.
This happens a lot in radio, especially in east of the Mississippi markets where the “W” is dropped, and the station is known as MMR, BCN, or MMS.
Then there are those “names” that become nicknames – Jack, Alice, and others fall into this silo, too.
A sense of place – For some brands, this can be a limitation. In radio, it often works well. The airlines got themselves into the branding box when their original names evoked geography (Southwest, Northwest, Eastern), while they expanded their routes elsewhere.
But in the world of radio, call letters and brand names can utilize geography – really well.
The old Doubleday stations did this well with WLLZ (Wheels in Detroit), and WAPP (the Apple in NYC). Then there was WLUP (the Loop in Chicago) and KRCH (the Arch in St. Louis) that brings the city or region to the brand.
I’ve always loved KOIT in San Francisco which always makes you think of the iconic Coit Tower, a city landmark.
And of course, the WWDC – or DC101 brand – that lets you know where you are. KLOS did this well, too.
Kirsch provides other tips, including the spelling and pronunciation trap that even some big brands have fallen into.
This has been a double-edge sword for some companies, including jacapps, our mobile app company. The idea (OK, I was very involved here) was a “blend” – to take a piece of Jacobs – the “jac” – and combine it with the product – “app.”
The hope – and it worked – was to remind people that Jacobs Media developed radio apps. But we pronounce it “JAKE-apps” while many at first glance go with “JACK-apps.” We’ve made it work, but there have been clunky moments.
Then there’s the memorable piece, coming up with a brand name that will stay in people’s heads. Again, that’s Google, Chapstick, WTOP, and brands that incorporate a mascot of other visual device – WAPE and the Gater.
Kirsch also reminds us that meaningful brands can be effective. She mentions Robinhood, the investing platform. And in radio, that’s K-LOVE which tells you all you need to know about what they’re all about. Or iHeartRadio which turned out to be a lasting, venerable brand that says it all.
It also doesn’t hurt to have what she calls a strong visual identify. I go back to the old ABC FM rock station brands – yes, my alma mater, WRIF, which still uses the logo it received at birth more than half a century ago.
That logo shape become so associated with the station, it allowed for hundreds of variants, all of which scream “WRIF.”
From the names of bands to local sports teams to area venues and landmarks, that “racetrack” shape originally developed by the ABC Radio team way back in the 70’s has stood the test of time – and on car bumpers through the decades.
Sometimes, it comes down to how you display a brand.
Los Angelinos still vividly recall the way KMET billboards turned into the catchiest brand in Southern California. The call letters were OK, and the logo was pretty cool for a rock station of that era.
But when they started buying upside-down billboards and posters, that when the visualization exploded, along with the buzz.
It spoke volumes about the brand – its against the grain, counter-culture vibe jumped off those boards, reminding locals just what the DJs, the music, and the station stood for.
So, what’s the best process for developing a fresh brand or entering your station in the “witness protection program” of brand names.
- Outline your brand goals and identity – In radio, this is usually a no-brainer. Why does your station exist and what’s the vision? If the brand incorporates those basics, it’s a great start. If you’re the second (or third) format competitor in the space, however, calling yourself 95Rock when another station owns all the rock images is usually a recipe for failure.
- Consider your customers and employees – In radio, we’re always thinking about the audience, but sometimes companies lose sight of the online and social chatter. You don’t want your new brand name to become a joke (in most cases), or worse, a name that will be ridiculed by your own community.
- Brainstorm and discovery – You know the rules. More is more, especially that first pass when you’re starting with a white board in a conference room or in a virtual meeting.
- Refine your ideas – This is where you get it down to a binary choice – this or that – to express your brand’s personality and vibe. You have to ask those tough questions – is it memorable, sticky, and will it still look and sound good a year or five years from now?
- Get feedback – This is a step so many companies skip or gloss over because they become married to a concept. Yes, run it by the staff, but keep in mind, there’s a tendency to side with the boss’ choice. That’s where focus groups or online testing can help. And if you can’t be objective about your future brand, bring in an outside, dispassionate company with no agenda to help you make the call.
I’m counting on you to come up with examples of even better brands (and rebrands) that we came up with. And I’m sure you’ll include an epic fail or two as well.
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