Facebook has plans to change its name as soon as next week, according to a new report from the Verge, and it’s no surprise why. The social media giant’s brand has become toxic after years of scandals, from the Cambridge Analytica data debacle to helping promote violence in Myanmar.
But Facebook is far from the first company to try a bold new rebrand after its name became associated with harming society in some fundamental way. There’s a long tradition in the U.S. of companies changing their names, only to keep doing the same old horrific shit they were always doing.
Today, we’re taking a look at a few of the companies that changed their names because they became too controversial, like agribusiness giant Monsanto and tobacco company Philip Morris, or because they were trying desperately to rebrand as something more healthy, like Dunkin’ Doughnuts.
Unlike Facebook, at least Dunkin’ Doughnuts never fuelled genocide in Myanmar. They just make doughnuts, coffee, and other treats, as far as we’re aware.
Philip Morris became the largest tobacco company of the 20th century with brands like Marlboro and Virginia Slims. But when tobacco’s negative health effects became irrefutable in the 1990s, the company knew it had a problem. Rather than stop making a product that kills one-third of its users, Philip Morris decided to change its name to Altria Group in 2003.
Much like Facebook’s plans, the Philip Morris name didn’t completely die. Altria Group simply became the umbrella company housing all of the corporation’s other interests, like Kraft Foods.
A lot has changed since 2003, when the Altria name was first started. The company sold Kraft, then spun off its overseas division, Philip Morris International, leaving just Philip Morris USA under the Altria name.
If you heard the name Monsanto in popular media during the early 2010s, it was probably for something horrendous. Monsanto was associated with the worst of gigantic agribusiness, from the creation of Agent Orange used against civilians by the U.S. military in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to monopolistic control of the country’s seed market. In fact, Monsanto even regularly sued small farmers who saved their seeds in an effort to protect weird intellectual property.
So it’s no surprise that after a merger with German drug giant Bayer in 2018, the Monsanto name was killed off, despite being around for 117 years. But Monsanto even considered changing its name before it was bought by Bayer, according to Liam Condon, the head of Bayer’s crop science division, who said as much on a conference call about the acquisition in 2018. But ultimately it decided to just stick with Monsanto because changing names can be very expensive.
That’s one of the hardest things about changing your name from a corporate perspective. Not only does it cost money to change the name on the door, you have to throw out all your old “I heart Monsanto” beer koozies.
What do you do if your brand name is associated with the worst customer service in the U.S.? That was the problem facing cable and internet provider Comcast, which was consistently considered to be one of the worst internet service providers in America during the 2000s and 2010s.
Comcast became Xfinity in 2010 and most consumers didn’t notice. There was simply a new name for their terrible service. But Comcast didn’t go away completely. Comcast Corporation owns AT&T Broadband, NBC Universal, Sky Group, and DreamWorks Animation, among plenty of other companies.
Time Warner Cable
Comcast wasn’t the only cable and internet company of the early 21st century that ran into major customer service issues. Time Warner Cable was absolute garbage (I say this as a former customer) and caused plenty of innocent people to suffer from shitty service. Did Time Warner Cable seek to rehab its reputation through better service? Well, it changed its name.
In 2016, Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable, dropping the name entirely and turning the company into Spectrum. And just like Comcast, most people didn’t really care what their internet service provider was called. They just wanted it to be better.
And while changing a company’s name can be expensive, as we learned from Monsanto, it’s much more expensive to actually provide a better product.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
The brand name Kentucky Fried Chicken was perfect in its simplicity. You knew exactly what you were getting when you showed up to Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1980s. But by the early 1990s, health foods were becoming much more mainstream and Kentucky Fried Chicken was basically the opposite of health food.
Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC in 1991, and despite a strange and opaquely sourced article from Snopes about a legal fight with the state of Kentucky, it was obviously because “fried chicken” was associated with unhealthy food.
There was also a weird urban myth that circulated on the early internet about KFC’s chickens being some kind of mutant variety that couldn’t legally be called chicken. That was also untrue, though it would’ve been a much more badass reason.
Valeant Pharmaceuticals, a Canadian-based drug company, was implicated in some rather creative accounting practices by the SEC. In 2018, an executive at Valeant even went to prison for the fraud, which included using a mail-order business to artificially juice sales.
Valeant’s name was changed to Bausch Health, putting its most wholesome brand, Bausch & Lomb, front and centre. Who doesn’t love and appreciate products that take care of their eyes?
Much like Kentucky Fried Chicken, there was a certain purity to the Dunkin’ Doughnuts name. You knew exactly what they were selling. But when you’re trying to expand your reach and introduce new products that have nothing to do with doughnuts, sometimes you just have to shorten the name.
That’s what Dunkin’ Doughnuts did in 2018, even if few people noticed. And while it’s likely Dunkin’ dropped the “doughnuts” name at least partially over health branding concerns, the company didn’t admit to as much when it announced the rebranding.
“By simplifying and modernising our name, while still paying homage to our heritage, we have an opportunity to create an incredible new energy for Dunkin’, both in and outside our stores,” Tony Weisman, Chief Marketing Officer at Dunkin’, said in a press release at the time.