Guest Post at DuetsBlog: A Difference That Makes No Difference

By Laurel Sutton

March 6, 2013

This blog post originally appeared at the DuetsBlog.

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Besides the big story of American Airlines taking over US Airways, recent news of acquisitions includes the buyout of OfficeMax Inc by its larger rival Office Depot.  The Depot insists that the deal was a merger of equals – despite the fact that its shareholders get the larger part of the combined company. Once the deal is done, though, the big question is: What will the new entity be called?

Typically, in an acquisition, the smaller brand is subsumed under the larger one (think of all the small companies gobbled up, and debranded, by tech giants like Cisco).  Sometimes, as with the case of companies that want to be portrayed as equals, you get confusing amalgams of names for a while, like PricewaterhouseCoopers (the result of the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand).  Once everyone’s egos settled down, however, they went with the mercifully short and sweet PwC. And there’s always the endorsed brand strategy, where the tie between the brands is more subtle: think of all the Marriott offerings, like Residence Inn by Marriott, TownePlace Suites by Marriott, etc.

But the OfficeMax/Office Depot situation is complicated by the fact that the names are already very similar. (It might not be an exaggeration to say that many people don’t realize that they are two separate companies; perhaps the merger will just make shopping easier for everyone.) If it’s really treated like a merger of equals, are they really going to go with a name like OfficeMaxDepot? Maximum Depot? Office Office? Office2 or Office², perhaps?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter. Name changes do matter when customers have loyalty to a brand and all it stands for; OfficeMax and Office Depot (and Staples, too, for that matter) are differentiated only by the colors of their wordmarks. They’re both big-box stores that sell cheap office supplies and offer rewards programs to frequent buyers. Reams of paper and piles of Post-Its are commodities, and don’t inspire the warm, fuzzy feelings that tie customers to a particular shopping experience. Will customers even notice the change?

So while this acquisition is big news to the shareholders and employees, in the end it will have little impact on the buying habits of the general public. They’ll continue to shop at whatever office supplies store is closest, or which has the best coupons. As First Officer Spock once said, “A difference which makes no difference is no difference”*, and to the average school supplies shopper, it will just be Office Something, the place you can buy HP printer ink at a discount.

*James Blish, Spock Must Die (1970), Bantam Books

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