A Rose by Any Other Name

Surviving a corporate name change

November 1, 1997

What’s in a name? For real estate companies, the answer is thousands, even millions of dollars spent to develop name recognition.

So if a legal or marketing storm causes you to abandon one name for another, consider taking some tips from John and Don Horning, CEO and president, respectively, of what they say is Wisconsin's oldest and largestindependent real estate company.Ironically, as of this summer, the company boasts the state's newest name in real estate.

It was a simple matter of outgrowing their name that pushed these cousins into scuttling “Wauwatosa Realty Co.” and renaming the brokerage “Shorewest, REALTORS®.”

“After 51 years in business,” says John, “the Wauwatosa name was a fixture in the communities we served.” But to outsiders moving in, the moniker was little more than a tongue twister. “Worse,” laments Don, “people thought we serviced only the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa,” where John's father (Don's uncle) started the company in 1946.

Yet, with its 1996 acquisition of six former Coldwell Banker--Premier Realty offices, the company now has 14 offices and 550 salespeople across the eastern half of the state; it needed a name that reflected this growth.

And so began the process of a corporate name conversion, a feat of marketing finesse that few companies savor and some don’t survive.

Consumer focus groups, organized by the company's advertising company, suggested several new names: Flagstone, Prestige, Premier. “Cornerstone” looked like the winner, until a trademark search by a law firm uncovered 10 pages of Cornerstones, including several nearby financial institutions.

It was one of the attorneys who offhandedly suggested “Shorewest.” Perfect. The name captured the brokerage's broad reach--spreading west from the shores of Lake Michigan--and had a certain “ring about it,” says Don.

In April 1997 the Hornings told their people of the imminent change--but not what the new name would be. “We didn’t want word to leak out slowly,” says John. “We felt it was important to hit the public hard and fast with the new name,” to kind of shock them into remembering it. Although some old-timers grumbled for sentimental reasons, most of the sales force agreed with their bosses’ reasons for the change.

Salespeople had several months between the announcement and the change to use up their personal marketing materials with the old name. Those who had personal brochures left over got reimbursed for reprinting their marketing materials with the new name or got stickers to cover the old name with the new. The company paid for their new business cards.

The Big Tease . . .

Over the following three months, vendors hustled to produce 14 new office signs, 2,500 For Sale signs, 2 million business cards, and countless other marketing pieces. All this activity was cloaked in secrecy: Promotional photographs of a sign with the new name were taken late at night, and the yard signs were stashed out of state until their unveiling.

During this period, the company ran print ads touting its heritage and the skill of its sales force. Those ads also told consumers to watch for its new, yet-to-be-announced name, a strategy of mystery that created a measure of anticipation in the field.

Bowing to the wisdom of marketing gurus everywhere, the two Hornings decided to keep the company's recognizable black-and-red color scheme. Still, out went the old logo, which was shaped like a house. But the redesign included the house's triangular roof, which reminds consumers of the company's heritage and suggests a moving into the future--the roof could be a road disappearing into the horizon.

On July 24, at a hotel gala, the Hornings revealed the new name to the gathered staff and salespeople. “We were heartened by their immediate acceptance of the name and logo,” says John, recalling his nervousness before the announcement.

The next day kicked off a $1 million yearlong media blitz. Ads in newspapers and on television, radio, and billboards barraged the company's four-county marketplace. Most made the change tangible by depicting a Wauwatosa sign being swapped for a Shorewest sign. “We wanted every person in the region to see the Shorewest name at least 20 times the first two weeks,” says company publicist Alan Gaudynski.

Soon salespeople and consumers alike prompted “a renewed vigor in the company I haven't felt for years,” says John. This vigor is expected to propel the company's sales from $950 million in 1996 to the billion-dollar mark in 1997. In comparison, the anticipated $1.5 million-plus cost of the name change (including marketing and new signage and literature) appears meager.

“If we had been a smaller company, I don’t know whether we could have pulled it off,” John says. “We wouldn't have had the resources to recoup the investment. And had we not hit the ground running fast and hard with the new name, I'm not sure the public would have noticed or cared. The success of the change hinged on the name's sudden and overwhelming presence.”

The old name might be gone, but not its collective wisdom and marketing savvy. “Ask around,” says Don. “Consumers know what Shorewest is and what Wauwatosa became.”

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