The gammadion cross is an ancient religious symbol that Hindus and Buddhists have considered sacred and auspicious since the second century B.C. A plus sign with its four legs bent at 90 degrees, the cross is known better by a different name–the swastika. With some pretty far-reaching marketing, Nazi Germany effectively destroyed any peaceful, auspicious associations with the symbol, especially in the western world. To the horror of they symbol’s originators and the millions persecuted by the Third Reich, the Nazis had rebranded the swastika as a symbol of merciless tyranny.
While the swastika obviously represents quite an extreme example of this type of unfortunate appropriation, recently we’ve seen some others, including, most notably, ISIS. The patroness of nature, magic, healing, and motherhood, Isis is a principal goddess of Egyptian mythology, still worshipped by many today. But if you were to stop anyone in the street today and ask them who Isis was, I’m fairly certain you’d only hear about the terrorist organization. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria dominates headlines and political debates. Once again, an auspicious symbol has been eclipsed by a ruthless regime.
On top of that, the goddess’s name isn’t the only one that’s been tarnished by the terror group. Recently ISIS pharmaceuticals, a drug company based in California that makes medicines for rare diseases, finally decided to change its name after years of resistance. “They can easily distinguish between us and a Middle Eastern terrorist group,” said Vice President of Corporate Communications D. Wade Walke last year. That’s probably true, D. Wade, but what do you think went through people’s minds when they received your business card that said ISIS on it? In late 2015, the company changed its name to Ionis Pharmaceuticals, unarguably a less inspiring name, but one free from associations with terrorists. Better late than never.
Even more recently, the Indian car company Tata Motors had to scramble to find a new name for a car that was just months away from release. The car’s original name? Zica. Only weeks ago, the WHO declared the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern.” Linked to severe birth abnormalities, the mosquito-borne virus has spread to dozens of countries throughout the Americas, prompting widespread travel restrictions. Tata held an online competition asking people to suggest new names for the car and received over 37,000 suggestions. After what must have been quite an exhausting shortlisting process, the company settled on Tiago, the Portuguese equivalent of James. Viral associations aside, I actually like Tiago much better than Zica. It’s got a nice sophistication and it even says ‘go.’ You go, Tata.
So did Ionis and Tata make the right call to rebrand? Absolutely. In an age where most purchases involve a search engine, it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that people who search for you don’t get bombarded by images of genocide or pandemic. And although the odds of this type of name appropriation happening are astronomically low, maybe it’s a good idea for all brands to have an emergency rebrand kit next to their case of bottled water and flashlights.
The gammadion cross is an ancient religious symbol that Hindus and Buddhists have considered sacred and auspicious since the second century B.C. A plus sign with its four legs bent at 90 degrees, the cross is known better by a different name – the swastika.