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How to play the rebranding game

Some entrepreneurs find that their moniker becomes too limited and outdated as the business evolves and enters new markets. There are services out there that help you change.
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In the spring of 2007, James Siminoff hired a branding consultant to help him with a problem. He believed that a lousy name — SimulScribe — was holding back his young mobile-software company. The New York City business had raised $5.7 million from angel investors and released software that could transcribe a voice-mail message, then send it to customers as an e-mail or a text message. SimulScribe's user base was growing 20 percent a month, and the technology had attracted buzz in the tech press, including a glowing review in The New York Times.

The name SimulScribe seemed to convey the idea behind the technology. After the product launched, however, customer feedback indicated that it was hard to remember and easily mistyped. Given that the company's strategy was to build a user base primarily through word of mouth, this was bad news. "If you're selling a product on the Web that you want people to talk about, the name is the most important thing," Siminoff says.

As his investors clamored for a change, he hired an experienced branding consultant at a cost of $30,000. But when the guy came up with a list of uninspired suggestions such as and, "I just completely lost it on him," Siminoff admits. "I fired him halfway through the contract."

Siminoff is hardly the only business owner to get stuck on a name. Many entrepreneurs find that their moniker becomes too limited and outdated as the business evolves and enters new markets. The problem is that changing names early in the life of a company can confuse customers. And the whole process is made more complicated these days by the need for a rebranded company to switch Web addresses. New dot-coms and dot-nets are being registered at a rate of 2.5 million a month, according to VeriSign.

Danny Altman, founder of A Hundred Monkeys, a naming and branding firm in Mill Valley, California, believes it's better to change than to stick with something that isn't working. "In their first few years, start-ups usually go through some fairly wild gyrations," says Altman, who helped rebrand the Rhode Island State Lottery as The Lot and who has worked with Bill Hambrecht, the Silicon Valley investment banker. "Almost all of the start-ups I've worked with have started with really bad names but waited until they were more advanced to seriously think about marketing and branding," Altman says.

So if you blew it the first time, how can you improve your chances of choosing a good name the second time around? Altman typically takes a client through an eight- to 10-week process that starts with broad philosophical questions: Who are we? What are we good at? What territory do we want to occupy? The answers serve as a jumping-off point for a series of brainstorming sessions that produce as many as 50 potential names. The list is whittled down to five to 10 candidates, which are vetted for concerns such as their defensibility as trademarks. After that, picking the winner is usually a matter of personal taste.

Jeff Hyman, a serial entrepreneur in Evanston, Illinois, has hired A Hundred Monkeys on two previous rebrandings and, most recently, to christen Strong Suit, a start-up recruiting firm he owns. Each time Hyman has gone through the process, whether for a start-up or for an existing company, Altman has helped him come up with something a little edgy — a name that some customers like and others are unsure of. And that's part of the point. A name can't be too safe or neutral. "If you have a name that makes everyone happy, it's probably pretty boring," says Hyman. (He declined to share rejected names.)

A new Web site called NameThis hopes to streamline the process. For $99, you can post a description of a business or product and solicit potential names for it. NameThis's users can make suggestions and vote for their favorites. The site then ranks the suggestions according to an algorithm that judges their popularity among NameThis's users, as well as the names' uniqueness and relevance. If a name is picked, the person who came up with it is paid a small fee, and NameThis helps the client track down the corresponding domain name.

The site launched too late for Siminoff, who came up with a new name on his own; on a redeye flight from L.A. to New York City, PhoneTag popped into his head. The Web address was already owned, but after a few months of halting negotiations, the owner agreed to sell it for $30,000.

The rebranding campaign proceeded from there. Siminoff kept the same logo, swapping in the new name for the old, and left the design of the Web site largely intact. But there were glitches. Another domain-name owner with whom Siminoff had been negotiating tried to sue SimulScribe for breach of contract, but the case was dismissed. And in April, just ahead of the official name change, SimulScribe's technology was selected for a personal-tech segment on the Today show. "I told my wife, 'I can't believe we're on TV with the old name,'" Siminoff says.

So far, the retooled brand seems to be a winner. In the six months since SimulScribe became PhoneTag, the number of daily sign-ups has risen 40 percent, and the number of accounts produced by customer referrals has tripled. Revenue is on pace to hit $5 million this year. "The name change has made an enormous difference," says Siminoff. "I think we'd probably be double or triple the size we are now, had we had that name a year ago."