What's in a name? Big brand value, if name's the right one
By Michael Lewis
Pity Miami newcomers: just when they learn a name, it changes. We can't keep our hands off institutional brand names we expensively create, then quickly destroy.
Officials keep adding names to street signs, turning generic Southwest Eighth Street, for example, to globally known Calle Ocho, then diluting that valued brand by adding block by block names of this old Cuban general and that old Miami banker.
Not only does it confuse drivers, it dilutes any marketing call to "Visit Colorful Calle Ocho."
So, what's lost in the name game? How much valuable marketing baby do we throw out every time we change the name of its well-used bath water?
The query isn't academic. Last week the county renamed Miami Metrozoo as Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens, a title that so rolls off the tongue that commission Chairman Dennis Moss stumbled over it at voting time.
The change comes as the zoo celebrates its 30th birthday July 4. The legislation says it's "the most appropriate way to commemorate" the date — about as logical as saying that a 250th birthday on July 4, 2026, will be the perfect time to change The United States of America to some cumbersome name that Congress in its finite wisdom can cobble together.
Any name change has implications: the zoo attracts 800,000 people a year, 25% from elsewhere. It's not Walt Disney World (indeed a brand to reckon with) but the zoo is an economic catalyst.
But the renamed zoo is likely to go by a friendly new nickname, Zoo Miami, not the longer handle.
What will fall off is "metro," which lost impact when we added "Miami" to our Dade County brand name on Nov. 13, 1997, and dumped the Metro Dade nickname.
Miami's global recognition is totally lacking in the name of Major Francis L. Dade, who was massacred with his troops in 1835, or the generic "metro." The county latched onto a valuable brand held by a city that it encompasses.
Perhaps the zoo's dumping of its dumpy prefix Metro will enhance its brand when coupled with extensive marketing to make sure the brand trips off visitors' tongues more easily than it did off Commissioner Moss's.
The zoo isn't the only long-term institution shifting names. The Historical Museum of Southern Florida will unveil a new one, perhaps History Miami, April 29 as it celebrates its 70th year with "a new name and direction."
That's 70 years of marketing value on the chopping block. But with a new focus that presumably narrows Southern Florida to Miami-Dade or just plain Miami, a new title may be called for.
That will be true too of the Florida Marlins, a professional baseball team (did you know we had one?) now in its 18th season that promises a remake to the Miami Marlins just as soon as the public fully sinks $3 billion, interest included, into a stadium that opens in 2012.
Unlike the zoo and museum, the Marlins won't destroy a costly brand: the team payroll has long ranked among baseball's lowest. Marketing has followed suit.
Another brand on the line is the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, a title both unwieldy and unclear, since the urban theater can be confused with the Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
A consultant last December told the agency that controls the Gusman (downtown version) "You need to think of a name and stick to it."
But sticking to a good name is rare in Miami, where office towers and banks go through names faster than a kid through an ice cream cone.
A colorful icon for two decades has been named CenTrust Tower, NationsBank Tower, Bank of America Tower, Bank of America Tower at International Place and now Miami Tower — until managers can lease its naming rights once more.
Unfortunately, with each change, dollars poured into affixing the old name to the public mind are undermined.
Famous brands like Southeast and Barnett and First Union had real value that eroded with each merger or takeover.
And these banks had good images.
There was of course reason for AIG to rename its many enterprises last year after it cost taxpayers bailout billions. And turning Andersen Consulting to Accenture was brilliant, since Arthur Andersen melted down shortly thereafter.
There was also good reason for Commercebank in Coral Gables to become Mercantil Commercebank in 2007, latching onto the handle of parent Mercantil just as New Jersey's Commerce Bank was expanding here, causing confusion.
But now that Commerce Bank has become TD Bank (itself a subsidiary of Canada's Toronto-Dominion, a far clearer title), we have no plain Commercebank left, though two companies spent heavily on that branding.
Name changes carry two risks: lost value from the old brand and weaker recognition of the new.
We didn't gain much when our Center for the Fine Arts became the Miami Art Museum in 1996. The center never pretended to be a museum, owning no art. By calling itself a museum, it now must build a collection.
But the Performing Arts Center of Miami-Dade County, now the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, gained a $30 million contribution from its name donor, certainly worth the change.
But has a long string of names at Joe Robbie Stadium (I forget the latest, but we all knew Joe Robbie) been worth it? One change last year to a little-known beer was trade, not cash, and lasted only months. Not branding wizardry.
By comparison, the zookeepers are marketing geniuses. At least they have a long-term aim.
Pray they do as well as Samuel Clemens (see the book review this week) and Marion Michael Morrison.
The unknown Mr. Clemens changed his name to become famed orator and writer Mark Twain.
Mr. Morrison, lesser known still, changed his and became John Wayne. Now that's a strong brand!