Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, better known as RBS, suggested the possibility of a name change this week for the venerable bank, which nearly collapsed in the financial crisis a decade ago.
He did so openly and reasonably, stating that the damage to its reputation remained "very serious" and saying any change needed to be accompanied with further proof that the organisation had truly turned a corner. So, for now a name change is under review.
At such moments passersby find it easy to mock a company’s desire for a new identity as a shallow exercise, an inevitable failure, or worse yet a cowardly act. It is even easier to skewer the branding professionals rushing in to offer their help filling in the blank.
Many of the brand strategists will in turn argue the conservative point that no one throws away equity and awareness stretching back centuries. Nothing appears more sensible than a critical review advising prudence.
All this ignores the reality, however, that led to Davies’ honest reflection. One path requires painstakingly restoring a lost reputation; Volkswagen is left with no other choice. But a new name can in fact break the immediate recall of old news to tell a better, more relevant, more attractive story. Accenture and Ally were born from the ruins of Arthur Andersen and GMAC and quickly found new life. If you can survive the relaunch, news cycles are rapid and memories are short. We spend a lot of our time fighting changes that we then easily adopt.
Inevitable hue and cry
Furthermore, if the real risk of a name change on this scale is appearing inauthentic, Davies’ revelation was an innovative way to invite the public to share in his thinking and understand the difficulties RBS continues to face. He may even have hit upon a way to inoculate RBS from the inevitable hue and cry that accompanies any shock announcement. Now all that’s left is to build a better case and choose a better name than the infamous and ignominious Consignia.
That better case may begin with a clear presentation of the RBS Group portfolio. NatWest, Ulster Bank and Coutts are strong assets alongside a more modest RBS bank. Some might suggest swapping out RBS for an equally established but more admired NatWest. A more advisable course uses this moment to create greater distance between the holding company and its more tangible banking brands.
Examples include existing giants like Unilever stepping out of the shadows. At other times a company that shares its name with its lead product decides to clarify roles and relationships through a new name, as in the arrival of Alphabet above Google. This September, Michael Kors, synonymous with its founder and about to buy Versace, announced a change to Capri Holdings.
The risks of change are easy to point out. The risks of remaining idle are less often catalogued. What seemed impossible yesterday is a smartphone today that will be gone tomorrow. The next opportunity may lie in the growing confidence of foreign markets or the emerging impressions of today’s teenagers. The affection some feel for Carphone Warehouse may be misplaced.
When was the last time you considered RBS truly honoured as royal? Is its Scottish provenance a key detail in the digital age? Are your younger cousins banking with Monzo? We should accept that a new name and identity, accomplished with taste and judgement, could connect more strongly with more people in more places. For all the Norwich Union nostalgia, viva Aviva.
Christian Turner is global director of naming at brand strategy firm, Siegel+Gale