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What’s in a name?

What are the key issues if a charity wants to change its name?


This paper is designed to look at some of the issues surrounding a name change for charities, and in particular the pros and cons. It also tries to set out some of the best guidance on going about a name change, and then presents a number of arguments in favour and against Alzheimer’s Society carrying out a name change. Wherever possible, we have tried to give examples to illustrate the points we make.

Why would a charity want to change their name?

Reason 1: Names are too easily confused. One of the most common reasons that charities want to change their name is that their name is easily confused. It is particularly the less well-known charity who may acutely feel the impact of similar names. Before their name change to Action on Hearing Loss, this was the problem that affected RNID. It could be argued that there is a similar situation with Breast Cancer Care, Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, where the combination of Bs and Cs defeats distinction by most members of the public – compounded by thetroika’s love of pink.

Reason 2: Too generic. While there are few charities who deliberately chose a generic name, there are a number who have ended up with generic names. Typically this comes about because of undue haste to escape the wrong name: Scope and Crisis would be two examples of this. Though neither United Response nor International Rescue Committee could claim to be examples of the peak of creativity.

Reason 3: Instant Abbreviation. There are some names which lead not to instant oblivion, but instant abbreviation. The result of which is a carefully thought through name made instantly redundant: try remembering what PDSA, BTCV, and AoHL actually stand for. Not all abbreviations are bad, Oxfam and Unicef, stand out as two which are now words in their own right.

Reason 4: No longer acceptable. There are some names which for a variety of reasons become unacceptable. It’s not surprising that The Spastics Society wanted to change their name, nor Our Dumbs Friends League, nor the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. Time or social norms have overtaken a number of names.

Reason 5: No longer relevant. The less dramatic version of reason 4 is that a name becomes redundant as language or society changes. So when the League Against Cruel Sports was founded in the 1920s, the word League was in common use, but no longer. The same goes to words like Society, National, Federation, and quite possibly in the near future, UK, which become part of our history.

What makes for a good name?

Memorable. Perhaps the most important hallmark of a good name is that it is memorable or distinctive. There are many names which can be heard dozens of times before they lodge in the brain, and others which go in one ear and out the other. The most memorable names often come with memorable visual identities – Virgin would be a good example.

Representative/Self-explanatory. A good name should give an indication of what the organisation does, or at very least not mislead. So a name like the Animal Health Trust gives a pretty indication of what it does (even if it fails the memorable test).

Inviting. Names are the front door of an organisation and what it does, so a name should make people want to know more, get involved, or give. So a name like Acorns Children’s Hospice not only gives a clear idea of what it does but also conveys warmth and care.

Can’t be shortened or misspelled. The charity sector is littered with charity names shortened to 3 or 4 letter acronyms. Something about the lazy human brain wants to shorten almost any name. So the only real solution to this is to have a short name, with no easy way to shorten further. An additional problem is where names are easily misspelled, something our name, nfpSynergy, frequently falls victim to.

Not Founders. Founders rarely make good names. Not only do they usually have a first name and a surname, but they go out of public consciousness: Leonard Cheshire Disability and Sue Ryder are two classic examples of names which only now mean anything to people in their sixties or older.

Internet-friendly. In an age of the internet names need to be easily searched for. So any names with children and hospice probably doesn’t match that need, nor do Crisis and Scope. There are inadvertent bad names too: one public affairs agency decided to call itself Mandate, a good political concept. Nice idea but of course the internet searches came up with ‘Man date’ too. Oh dear.

Not being UK. We have had the referendum we know, but it would be a brave person who would bet the house, or the name of their charity, on us still having a UK in 10 or 20 years. This is a shame as abcxyz UK had come to denote being a charity, in the same way abcxyz plc had come to denote a public company.

So which are some of the best charities names at the moment? Well for us here are five good ones:

WaterAid: short, does what it says on the can, memorable and internet-friendly. Given that WaterAid’s awareness and income are growing rapidly it clearly works for them.

Oxfam: have come through being shortened and now for most is a name in itself. Being the charity with the highest level of spontaneous awareness is testament to how well the name works.

Macmillan Cancer Support: What is good about Macmillan’s name is not so much the full version but the shortening to Macmillan. Say to anyone that you are supporting Macmillan and everybody knows who you mean.

Save the Children: Inviting to those interested in children, with an action verb in it, and the benefit of doing what it says on the can.

Accenture: Not a charity name but conjured up for Andersen Consulting (by a junior Norwegian employee) when they rebranded. It’s unique, it can’t be shortened, it works well on the internet, and has tones of aspiration and professionalism.

Does it work? Case studies of awareness

So here are four case studies of name changes and their impact on awareness. There are many other measures as to whether a name change is a success, but we use awareness as a single and simple indicator.

Age Concern and Help the Aged merge to become Age UK

Chart 1 shows the change in awareness for the name change of the precursors of Age UK and then the new identity. Our conclusion would be that this is probably about as

good as can be hoped for from awareness after a merger, not least given the total awareness pre-merger was so high.

Arthritis Research Campaign to Arthritis Research UK

While starting with a lower awareness base pre-name change, chart 2 shows the new name displays a clear increase in awareness over the old. Interestingly the name change is technically very small: UK replaced Campaign. However the old brand could never quite decide whether to use the name in full or be shortened to ‘arc’. So the increase inawareness may be as much because they are more explicit about who they are.

NCH becomes Action for Children

It’s hard not to feel that the leadership of NCH would have hoped for more of a boost in awareness than shown in chart 3: given the £200 million turnover and investment in advertising in particular. Though we understand that getting the buy-in of 5000 staff in itself was a major achievement.

RNID becomes Action on Hearing Loss

On this data alone this must be one of the least successful name changes to date. In chart 4, total awareness is a quarter of what it was before the name change and shows no sign of moving upwards. Income at RNID declined from £47 million in 2010 to £37 million in 2013, before the boost from the sale of its headquarters.

What are the challenges of a name change?

It’s easier to decide a name is wrong than to find a name that’s right

We meet many organisations, many charities, who don’t like their names. They know that the current name is wrong for a variety of reasons. They may even have a high degree of agreement across the organisation. The problem is that agreeing that an old name is not good enough is still a long way from agreeing what the new name should be. Some people want a completely new name, others a slow development. The result is all too often a fudge. Leonard Cheshire Foundation spent a long time thinking about a name change. Many thought that being Disability UK was the solution. They ended up with Leonard Cheshire Disability, which could hardly be described as revolutionary.

New names will never be right for everyone

One of the reasons that charities so often do a name change that doesn’t deliver the revolution they hoped for, is that there is rarely a name that works for all stakeholders. So when YWCA changed their name the staff thought Platform 51 was a great new name. External audiences really didn’t like it. The internal vote won, the name was adopted, and then a few years later changed in favour of a new name, Young Women’s Trust, which was as vanilla as Platform 51 was hot chilli. So in any name change the organisation needs to decide who the name needs to appeal to most (and that is rarely the trustees).

Short-term hit versus long-term benefits

As the case studies show a name change will almost certainly result in a short-term hit in terms of awareness, and possibly income. The benefits of a name change are usually to be felt over decades, while the downside is felt over months or years. To compound this challenge, the reasons that a name change is needed will rarely diminish. If youneed a name change now, you almost certainly will in 10 or 20 years’ time, probably even more acutely. So not making a decision doesn’t make the issue go away, it just pushes it down the road for others to deal with.

Once a new name is announced the work has just begun

There are many organisations who make the effort to go through a name change only to see the change delivering less than they expected. This may be because a bad name was picked (Platform 51, 8.59, Action on Hearing Loss) but more often it’s because the organisation went back to the day job once the name change was made. If we had a rule of thumb it would be that only one third of the necessary work in a successful name change happens before D-day and two thirds afterwards.

Who is the name change for?

Perhaps the biggest single strategic choice in a name change is to decide who is the key audience or audiences whose awareness, attitude or understanding will be positively impacted on by a name. It can rarely be everybody. Our instinct would normally be beneficiaries. So the name Help the Aged was probably not the best name for a person thinking about receiving their services, but it probably worked better with donors. However this will always be a key and finely balanced decision. We listened to a CEO tell her staff that the fact they were confused with other charities didn’t matter. In the workshop that followed, staff made it very clear that to them it did.

Balancing the short-term loss of awareness vs the potential long-term gains

Are the benefits of a name change (higher awareness, greater distinctiveness, increased relevance) greater than what a name change will lose (support of a particular audience or generation, the loss of awareness built up over years, etc.)? It’s a value judgement. Our observation is that trustees almost always place greater value on the awareness bird in the hand, than the two or three birds in the bush.

Can alternative solutions do nearly as good a job?

One of the challenges in thinking about a name change is that approaches to creating a distinctive and appropriate identity need not only be done through changing the name. It can be done through a strapline, the colours and style of a logo, the words and action of an organisation and so on. So for an organisation that isn’t wild about its name, there are ways round the problem without changing the name, akin to the way a football team can cover for a weak defender.

A strong brand strategy is at the heart of a strong identity

Linked to the point above, a name change doesn’t happen in isolation. A name change should be part of a wider brand and identity strategy. Any organisation who carried out a name change in isolation from the wider brand would be asking for trouble, or more exactly a waste of time, resources and opportunity.

Five golden rules of a name change

1. Put someone in charge. For a name change there needs to be a project manager who can focus on the project more or less full time. They need the ear of the CEO and senior managers, and the authority to bang heads together.

2. Do the groundwork. We have lost count of the number of times that organisations tell us they know what people think about a name change or a brand. Yet digging a little deeper the research is almost always partial, out of date, actually not about that issue at all, or only done on selective audiences. We cannot emphasise strongly enough that if you want to have a successful name change, it’s critical to understand what key audiences think about the brand and a possible name change1.

3. Go at the right speed. Name changes are a big decision. We often find that charities have talked about name change perennially for years, like a kind of strategic Hailey’s comet which never quite goes away, and comes back once in a while. We would say that it takes 6 months to do the groundwork on whether a name change is the right decision, another 6 to decide whether the right name can be found, and another 6-12 months to implement the decision.

4. If in doubt, don’t. It’s probably unlikely that many boards said ‘We haven’t quite got the right name, but let’s go with this mediocre one anyway’. However to the outside world that’s often how it looks. People got so far they decided to go with a mediocre name anyway, rather than do nothing.

5. Invest in a name change. Any organisation that is going to change its name needs to invest in it. Invest in the groundwork, the creative and brand expertise, the new materials, and the activities that will build awareness going forward. It’s possible to do a name change on a shoestring, but the benefits will take longer to be realised.


1 And yes as a research agency we are biased about the value of research

So should Alzheimer’s Society change its name?

The arguments in favour

Alzheimer’s is yesterday’s language The public parlance increasingly uses the term dementia and not the term Alzheimer’s. It is of little comfort that this appears to be a development specific to the UK. The fact remains that Alzheimer’s is yesterday’s term, and dementia is today’s. Over time this gap in usage and understanding of the the term dementia as opposed to Alzheimer’s is only likely to increase.

‘Society’ adds little value The use of the term Society in the name adds no value. It doesn’t tell people anything about the charity and its work. So of the two words in the name, the first is increasingly out of date, and the second adds no value.

It’s a crowded, indistinguishable market Dementia is the disease of the 21st Century, while cancer was the disease of the 20th century. Funding from the NHS for dementia is increasing, and the political and public interest in dementia is only set to increase. Yet despite the fact that Alzheimer’s Society is the largest charity in the field, there is little evidence that it gets the awareness or credit for this. In short, Alzheimer’s Society doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

It’s a cold brand The Society talks about how people and those with dementia are at the heart of its work. Yet the brand and the name is cold and gives no sense of being about people, warmth, care or comfort.

It can work Look how successful Age UK has been in its name change.

The arguments against

What new name? It’s easy to argue that the current name isn’t quite right, but what would be the new name to replace it? It would need to be Dementia ‘something’. Dementia UK is gone and Dementia Friends is not quite owned by the Society: Dementia People? Dementia World?

It’s a huge project Make no mistake changing a name is a huge project. The most recent charity of a comparable size to change its name would be Age UK, and then only after the merger. Changing the name is a huge project that would affect every part of the organisation.

The brand, not the name is the issue It’s not the name that’s the real issue for the Society, it’s the brand. As has already been argued the brand is cold and clinical for a charity that claims to be all about people. The colours are cold and austere. And all of this can be changed without a name change.

You have invested a lot in the current brand The Society has invested a lot in the brand and name as it stands. It is about to invest an awful lot more in early summer through advertising. What would be the point of doing that to then change the name in a year or so’s time.

It can not work Look how RNID has lost what little brand awareness it had.

So how do you decide?

What do key audiences think? For us understanding what those at the frontline of the work of Alzheimer’s Society think and feel about the brand and a name change is key. Do Dementia Friends find the relationship confusing? Do those with dementia see Alzheimer’s Society as the natural place to go? Would a name change bring more people to your services, and deliver more support for you work?

Is there a name that might work? While a decision about a name change is very difficult, a vital ingredient is seeing if a new name that could get broad consensus exists. If no name can be found, and the pressure for change from the frontline is minimal, then the decision is pretty easily made.

If a name could be found, and the message from the frontline clearly indicates that the name is a major issue, then changing the name becomes a real issue.

Joe Saxton and Michele Madden March 2015



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