The delicate balance between protecting and pioneering identity

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Recent weeks have seen the emergence of two industrial and engineering news stories that focus on the importance of choosing or altering a name – The first was the announcement by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) that they were going to open up their voting process to the public for deciding the name of their new £200m polar research vessel. The second has been the decision by Italian aerospace and defence industry champion, Finmeccanica to rebrand as Leonardo, after the peninsula’s greatest Renaissance inventor and artist. Under the new motto ‘genius at your service’, the company follows others in the sector, such as Safran, formed from SNECMA and SAGEM and Thales from Thomson-CSF, in ditching a well established name.NERC Poll

While the potential of Finmeccanica’s fresh rebranding effort is yet to be seen, the result of the NERC’s poll is clearly visible. Topping the voting by a substantial margin is the name RRS (Royal Research Ship) ‘Boaty McBoatface’, which was suggested by BBC presenter James Hand. While it is likely the NERC will chose a somewhat more conventional and polar explorer themed name, what the poll demonstrates is both a resurgent British sense of humour and more specifically the alliance between popular social media and the chaotic anarchy of internet culture. For a poll, which was only expected to appeal to those in the polar research or ship design sectors, the results have been impressive, with over 5300 different names suggested and Boaty McBoatface securing 102,000 votes, more than seven times as many votes as the nearest rival. The site was so popular it went down for three consecutive days.

Fostering a renaissance

For what was previously Finmeccanica, the rationale behind changing names was a little more complex. CEO Mauro Moretti explained that “[the name] Finmeccanica is not well known and is hard to pronounce.” This has some truth to it, it’s not unheard of to hear trade show attendees add additional syllables to the name. However it is worth noting some of the negative press that has been associated with the Finmeccanica brand, including the failed AgustaWestland Indian VIP helicopter contract in 2013. This and other incidents have even seen criminal charges levelled and arrests made.Finmeccanica - Stand

For Leonardo the future is brighter, freed of direct association with the old brand and yet given a name which is inherently linked to Italian design and engineering. The challenge now is to ensure that this new identity is effectively deployed and kept clear, as much as possible, from any further scandal or negative PR.

There are few absolutes when it comes to naming a company, product or service. Each company needs to be aware of the difficulties and challenges that can come from ditching a respected identity for a new look. Conversely, being over-attached to branding can be a curse if that branding is itself seen as representative of a company’s failings or scandals. One thing however is certain. Whatever the NERC’s new ship is called, it will be of considerably greater interest to the public than if the poll had never been held.