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Yelling Up the Wrong Tree

Posted by: Chris Davenport on May 29, 2012
Yell to change its name
Cheerleader Yelling Into Megaphone, Revere F. Wistehuff

Renaming companies has a bad name. With the announcement that Yell will change its name to Hibu, yet another sensibly-named brand bites the dust. It's hard to come by company names that are short, inoffensive real English words – most of them were snapped up long ago. So when a well-known one is replaced by something totally abstract, people get vocal. Comment streams fill up with clamorous incredulity and mockery; detractors scour the web for obscure homophonous Eastern profanities; but it looks like people are shouting about the wrong thing.

I'm not going to tell you whether I like the name Hibu. It doesn't matter whether I like it. It doesn't even matter if I understand it – many a successful company has been built on a name that doesn't actually mean all that much. A back story seemed to be missing here, and chief executive Mike Pocock's suggestion the name was meaningless did little to fill the void. Back stories can help, particularly around launch, but Google doesn't need you to know what a googol is for you to use their services every day. It doesn't even matter if I can pronounce Hibu. People pronounce Porsche and Nike differently all the time. I have at least two pronunciations for both of them, which I rotate whimsically. That doesn't stop me wearing Nikes and wanting a Porsche.

It's quite natural for people to view abstract names with a degree of suspicion at first because we're conditioned to decode meaning from strings of letters. If the name doesn't give this up to us on scrutiny, we feel shortchanged. That's why, at first glance, people prefer names with obvious meaning, like Yell. Empty vessels aren't bad, they just need filling with meaning, and that takes time.

Yell's new name: Hibu 

The big question here – the one given only cursory focus in most of the commentary – is why? Why did they change their name? According to Pocock, the company renamed itself because it was "viewed as a dinosaur." Looking at their latest figures (a loss after tax of £1,189m), the two may share the same fate, and I suspect it would take more than a Thesaurus to save a Tyrannosaurus from extinction.

So the real debate here should focus on whether the company is evolving fast enough to survive in a brutal environment, and whether the response was appropriate in the circumstances. The name-change seems to reflect a major pivot in their business model toward an online social marketplace. It's difficult and brave for big companies to attempt such a pivot, but in this case, it's also essential.

Does the business have the time for us to embrace its abstract moniker, embrace the high and silence the boo? If the brand response to this business issue is simply a style change, the answer has to be no. If the business manages to abstract itself from its current difficulties, the name will feel more familiar with each passing day.

Chris Davenport is Head of Verbal Identity

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