Can you “hibu”?

Yell/YellowBook has recently announced it will rebrand as “hibu”, (pending the approval of its shareholders in July) in an effort to be more identified as a service provider to SMBs that goes beyond just traditional print Yellow Pages.  A study using 165 cases of company rebranding  found that no matter whether a rebranding comes from a change in corporate strategy (e.g., M&A) or constitutes an actual marketing strategy (change the corporate reputation), the effort aims at enhancing, regaining, transferring, and/or repositioning the corporate brand equity.

Such a radical name change like this certainly raises the issue of whether Yellow Page publishers need new brands to attract (and retain) new users. Company rebranding is a tricky game – remember the “new” Coke?  Some other recent examples include the company we all love to hate; cable-television and Internet conglomerate Comcast, a name synonymous with poor customer service and overcharging which in February 2010, began marketing its Internet video services under the new name, Xfinity, leaving customers to wonder what exactly the name meant. As a writer for Time magazine quipped, “Will the name change work? Probably not, but at least it’ll sound a bit edgier when you’re put on hold … with Xfinity.”

Another example would be The Gap.  In October 2010, the clothing retailer Gap abandoned it’s long standing logo consisting of a blue box with “GAP” written in white inside, for a slightly altered new version described by Marka Hansen, Gap’s president for North America, as a “…journey to make Gap more relevant to our customers.” Apparently, the customers didn’t share his view, and following a tide wave of online criticism/outrage, the company did an about-face within a week.Unique company or product names, by themselves, may not have any actual meaing to begin with. But if backed by a strong, successful branding campaign, they can come to signify whatever the companies want them to mean.  Case in point — AFLAC, a large international insurer but hardly a household name until the last few years, is now well recognized using a duck as a key spokesperson and promoter.

The success of any rebranding is more tied to the level of advertising needed to create an image around the name.  “I don’t think the name of a company is hugely important in the long run,” suggests professor David Schmittlein. He adds that even fabricated names are “real names” in the sense that “they are pronounceable words. I think of them as largely empty vessels – reliable and durable empty vessels that can be filled up with positive associations.”

The Yellow Page industry is no different.  This name change for Yell follows several recent publisher branding changes, made in order to separate the company from the “baggage” of the print Yellow Pages label as they pursue new digital products. Hence, we’ve seen names like Idearc, ZipLocal, LocalEdge, Sensis, Truvo, and Eniro.

A primary case study could be made the creation of Verizon Communications, which was formed in June, 2000, following the merger of Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp. The genesis of the unique company name came from the Latin word “veritas” meaning truth, combined with the word “horizon”, all to project something more forward-looking and visionary. The Verizon symbol was also selected because it uses the two letters of the Verizon logo that graphically portrayed speed.  (Source)

In making this change, Verizon, beyond having a huge advertising budget to promote the change, had several other branding advantages working in its favor:

  • A huge fleet of telephone company vehicles driving around the market each and every day (aka – rolling billboards)
  • As a public utility, numerous daily articles and stories in which the public was reminded of the name change  (as in free publicity)
  • A growing cellular presence which helped push the name even more quickly, even in areas where they were not the incumbent telephone provider.

Yell/Hibu is certainly handicapped in the transition without these supporting efforts.  The question for Yell/Hibu is whether its shift in branding, which accentuates its move to new digital products, can be accomplished in time.  Yell has been undergoing a radical transformation since its leadership changed in 2011 with the retirement of John Condron. Current CEO Mike Pocock is trying to shift the business from just a directory publisher to a provider of a complete range of local advertising and e-marketing services.

With a nagging debt load which contributed to a GBP 1.4 billion loss for the year and prompted the company to retain Goldman Sachs and Greenhill to help it build a new capital structure, can the company amass a big enough budget to truly promote and implement the name change?

Ironic isn’t it though that the funding for this name change for Yell Group is actually coming from the very core print products they seemed to be in such a hurray to distance themselves from (print is 71.3% of Yell revenue,  78.1% for YellowBook – per the newly renamed Goddard Report).

Certainly, the future isn’t what it use to be….

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