The jinxed brand name – and why it has to go

Have you ever wondered why some brand names always remind you of something negative, no matter how much positive promotion is thrown at them?

How to write better brand names

A brand name associated with failure or other negativity is a very hard gig to recover from

Solving the problem is never easy, and like a gangrenous lower limb, the only effective cure usually is amputation.

This is not the first time I write about brand names and it’s only now that I’m doing some work connected with Apprenticeships here in the UK, that the issue of the jinxed ones arises. More of those later. Meantime, on with a couple of other jinxed brand name stories…

The Rover brand name and its downfall

There was a story circulating in advertising circles back in the naughty nineties about the ill-fated British car manufacturer, Rover.This company was the residue of some of the famous British car brands of the past – Wolseley, Riley, Morris, Austin, Rover, MG, LandRover, Jaguar, the original Mini, etc. – and employed thousands of workers in Longbridge, near Birmingham; Cowley, near Oxford; Swindon, Wiltshire; and a number of other plants around England.

How to write better brand names

The Rover plant at Longbridge, near Birmingham, England, in its heyday

Times had been tough. The battles between trade unions and management back in the 1970s (when the company was known as British Leyland) had been bitter and destructive, and the entire Rover machine – literally and metaphorically – was still suffering from the nasty aftertaste of those awful times. Jokes from those bad old days of the Thatcher regime that followed Red Robbo a.k.a. Derek Robinson who led the Longbridge rebellions still rang loud when I worked on Rover business in the 1990s: quote …

“A rich American business man was in London with his young son and asked him what he would like for his birthday gift. The little boy answered, ‘a cowboy outfit.’ So his father bought him British Leyland…”

With true British grit, however, the Rover Group of the 1980s and 1990s had picked itself up and begun to rationalise its range, its production and quite a few other things. It enjoyed a brief and reasonably successful flirtation with Honda, and actually between the two companies had managed to produce some quite good cars that were a cross between Honda’s excellent technology and Rover’s (then) good steel and build quality. This was while Rover was largely owned first by British Aerospace, and later by BMW.

By the time we got to the launch of the Rover 75 in 1999 (on which I worked as associate creative director and content creator for dealer and press launches) the products and the infrastructure were looking quite rosy again.

How to write better brand names

The Rover 75 – I loved this car and got to drive various models as I was was a senior member of the creative team who launched the 75 to the dealer network and press. It looks dated now, but you still see quite a few around in the UK.

The ad man who offered the solution to the jinxed Rover name

Sadly I can’t identify or show this ad man (largely because he is still very much alive and knows where to find me), but suffice it to say that at the time he was probably the most famous advertising guru in the UK and the USA, and is still an icon of advertising magnificence.

As the Rover Group sought advice from no-one but the ultimate, they invited this guru to a board meeting at Longbridge and asked him to guide them on their best way forward.

“Simple,” he replied, standing tall, twirling is bow tie then fiddling with his hands in his pockets (there’s a couple of hints for you…) “There’s not much wrong with your business now. There’s not much wrong with your products now. There’s only one thing wrong here and that’s the brand name, because it’s associated with failures and disasters.”

Long, painful silence.

“So it’s easy,” smiled the man. “Drop the name. No more Rover. Be something new.”

And the rest is history. Rover remained Rover, BMW ended its relationship with them by asset-stripped everything worth having and leaving the last few embers of the British car manufacturing industry to burn out by themselves.

And another car name associated with jinx and failure…

Before we leave the car business, no piece on jinxed names and business generally should be published without at least a nod at the lovely, doomed De Lorean.

How to write better brand names

Massive failure as a business, but it was pretty, wasn’t it? The jinxed De Lorean…

After this sad tale of disaster – when a car to die for was to be produced for its American owners by workers in northern Ireland – ended in a fiasco, people today still use derivatives of “a De Lorean story” when describing a massive business fail.

Ironically the character of the De Lorean car went on to fame and fortune (well, the fortune went elsewhere of course) in the Back To The Future movies a few years later.

OK. But why is the name Apprenticeships jinxed?

I will probably get into trouble here because apprenticeships are quite successful here in the UK.

But memories are very long – too long sometimes. And more than once I’ve known people associate the word “apprenticeship” with the image of Victorian, 19th century apprentices who were basically young boys taken on to slave away in workhouses until they were 21, paid little or nothing, and often not even fed properly.

It was on that whole issue that Charles Dickens wrote his famous “Oliver Twist” story.

Given that the UK education authorities want to change the image of apprenticeships so that they are perceived to be on a social par with other vocational and academic means of qualifying…where’s that tall man twirling his bow tie and fiddling with his hands in his pockets?

And it’s not enough to throw an extra word at “apprenticeships,” either. The jinx just gets passed on.

Back in the 2000s I worked for a number of quasi-government organisations who were trying to punt apprenticeships and they thought of a great way to solve the image problem …. YAY! Call them “modern apprenticeships!

Nope. Needless to say it didn’t impress anyone then and it still doesn’t now. Nor does the government’s “let’s keep it in plain language, shall we” approach…but that’s just a personal opinion.

In summary: what DO you do with a jinxed brand name?

Simple: like the man in the twirly bow tie said, dump it.

It doesn’t matter how much your brand has changed; if its name hasn’t, customers will still cling to the negative association.

Start again with a new image. New name. And hopefully, assuming the right lessons have been learned, a whole new future.

What do you think?

Please share your views!




  1. Interesting comment just came up on Facebook, from Liz Rabone:
    On the other hand, Skoda are still called Skoda and they’re doing well now.
    Unlike · Reply · 1 · 14 mins

    Suzan St Maur True – although in their case I think it was their purchase and total overhaul (which was excessively publicised) by VAG that almost made a point of the name … “Skoda were crap but now look what we’ve done to them – still cheap sh*t but VW quality.” A very good example of turning a negative into a positive which with branding is incredibly hard and a huge gamble.

    In the case of many other brands, though, I think it’s usually too late to rescue them in this way.

    An example of how it has worked, however, can be seen with Daewoo – a truly crappy South Korean brand that GM bought up for pennies and rebranded as Chevrolet in Europe and Asia. The cars are still crappy but people love them because they’re “Chevvies…!” Hope you don’t mind but I am copying this discussion over to HTWB as it’s a very good point that other readers might find interesting.