How to Popularize an Edgy Name or Rename: The SyFy Name One Year Later

By Mark Skoultchi

July 8, 2010

A year ago the SciFi Channel changed its name to SyFy. The reaction was swift and negative. Everyone – from the press to the science fiction loving audience to the naming world – hated the new name. We here at Catchword thought it was a disastrous move. (Check out our snarky reviews here, here, here, and here.)

Big companies that make risky branding choices can count on negative reaction and critical press. (SyFy was slammed for months before it launched. And let’s not forget Wii, widely hailed as one of the worst technology name of the century for months pre-launch.) Consumers rarely welcome change, and they especially don’t like new, edgy names. The big companies experience these negative reactions tenfold, because all eyes are focused on them, waiting for their next move. And finally, let’s not forget that everyone’s a critic, especially when it comes to naming.

Today, as SyFy has its first birthday party, I find that I’m ready to join in the celebration and eat some birthday cake, rather than wanting to be the party pooper and defame the name, again. What changed? What did SyFy do right to make its edgy new name stick?


Embrace negative press
Many companies aren’t prepared for the negative press that comes along with a company rename or product rename. An adverse public reaction to your marketing decision can be poison to a relaunched brand. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember the old axiom, “Any press is good press”? If you prepare for the inevitable onslaught of criticism, you can use it to your advantage. Both Wii and SyFy enjoyed months of free publicity for their name changes (Wii was previously codenamed Revolution). You literally can’t buy that kind of media exposure. Sure, it was negative exposure, but because both companies adhered to the following steps, they managed to come out on top.

(Note: Another strategy is to avoid the negative reactions altogether by avoiding risky or edgy names. For example, Microsoft’s Project Natal was all anyone could talk about for a year. Then they announced their very safe, comfortable new name Kinect, and the product dropped from the headlines a week later. Without no juiciness or excitement inspired by the name, there was nothing to sustain the product’s media presence.)

Be confident
Once you decide to launch an edgy name, stick with your decision. Trust your instincts and never waver. SyFy’s President Dave Howe acted with certainty when discussing his company’s new name. “SyFy ushers in a new era of unlimited imagination, exceptional experiences and greater entertainment that paves the way for us to truly become a global lifestyle brand.” Whether he believed in the decision or not, he never let any hesitation show. What’s more, he didn’t get defensive in the face of criticism. Put a brave face on, and be a leader that your customers can believe in.

Go all the way
The clich├ęs abound: Go all out, the whole nine yards, stay the course, etc. The basic principle is this: Commit to your new name and then fully support it with every resource you have. The biggest companies have the most resources to support a new name or renaming launch. (Unfortunately, they’re sometimes the least likely to want to commit these resources.) In SyFy’s case, they went for the whole shebang: A new name, a new tagline, a new logo, a new graphic identity, and a new ad campaign. In short, they built an entirely new brand around their relaunch. And the supporting elements were nothing short of spectacular.

Be excellent
SciFi had become well-known for their smash hit Battlestar Galactica. That show helped moved them out of the cheesy B-film low budget made-for-tv realm and into the big leagues. They were perfectly positioned to capitalize on this new identity. But they had to do more than slap a fresh coat of paint on a clunker of a car. (You can rename a Pinto, but it’ll still be a Pinto.) The newly christened SyFy continued airing their high-quality shows (Eureka, Sanctuary, etc.) while introducing some stellar new content (Warehouse 13, Caprica, etc.). By reinforcing their new brand with quality products, SyFy helped convince their viewers that the new name signaled something fresh and exciting.

Summary
We here at Catchword give our clients this exact advice when we present edgy company or product name candidates. Ground-breaking names are fun and have a lot of brand potential (Google, Yahoo, Yelp, Wii, etc.). Everyone wants a bold, daring name, but few companies are prepared to do what it takes to successfully launch one. And, while we often recommend this type of company or product name, the recommendation comes with one major caveat: If you’re going to go with a ground-breaking name you must:

  • Prepare for negative reactions and use them to your advantage
  • Be confident in your decision and trust in what you’re doing
  • Go all out, commit to the new name and never hesitate
  • Have an excellent product that will blow the socks off of your customers.

Take it from a former naysayer turned ardent supporter of the name SyFy: Getting people to like your edgy new brand name is possible, but it takes a lot of hard work. But if you go the extra mile, you’ll likely end up with a better brand and a more memorable brand name than if you go the safe route. Finally, a mea culpa: After reflecting upon my personal transformation regarding SciFi/SyFy, I promise to be a little more accepting of the next brand or product rename that initially ruffles my feathers.

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