What is in a name? Bureau of Meteorology fails to forecast the gathering storm
Interbrand AUNZ CEO Nathan Birch knows a thing or two about brand names – Interbrand has named Wi-Fi, Viagra, Expedia, and last year rebranded Coon Cheese to Cheer Cheese, “so we’re no strangers to heated online commentary around renaming”.
Last week, the Bureau of Meteorology wasn’t prepared for that heat, and ended up backtracking on its attempt to ditch ‘BoM’.
Nathan weighed in on the storm in this opinion piece for The Australian.
It’s been quite a week of weather whiplash and backlash. On Tuesday, the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology requested media outlets update their style guides.
The age of referring to it as the BoM or the Weather Bureau were over. Instead, it would now go by the Bureau of Meteorology or the Bureau.
In this latest name change-related PR disaster/public mockery the issues have been well documented: Not securing the Twitter handles ahead of the announcement, launching the rename during a period of widespread flooding, reports of a toxic work culture, criticism from environment minister Tanya Plibersek.
Added together, a flip-flop felt inevitable and it happened Thursday afternoon, when a spokesperson told press: “The community is welcome to refer to the Bureau in any way they wish, including referring to us as the ‘BoM’. It is up to individual media outlets to determine their style guidelines.”
The Bureau wasn’t doing anything wrong releasing its initial Tuesday statement and wanting to cement its brand assets — in fact, it deserves praise for implementing tighter brand governance. Where it fell down was engaging a comms agency, versus branding experts, to advise on the renaming, and underestimating the typical scrutiny and backlash any rename or rebrand is met with, let alone a government one.
At Interbrand, we’ve named a few different brands — including Wi-Fi, Viagra, and Expedia. We also worked on giving 85-year-old brand Coon cheese its new Cheer Cheese identity, so we’re no strangers to heated online commentary around renaming.
So before getting back to BoM, a bit of context around naming.
Names are easy (and fun) to criticise: comments like “I could do that in 10 minutes!” and “They paid some consultancy thousands to come up with that?!” spring to mind. But the road to one is complex.
There are more than 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and more than 2.5 million registered businesses in Australia, according to the ABS. So the chances of finding the essence of your brand by plumbing the depths of Greek and Roman myths, legends, and Gods’ names to find the next Nike are next to zero.
It’s an emotional and political process. That’s why we implement criteria for success, based on a combination of the brand strategy that’s been developed and our experience with naming. This is critical in instances in which there are numerous stakeholders, which would have been the case for the Bureau. Such criteria minimise subjectivity, ensures those involved are on the same page, and helps the project team navigate the naming process with more clarity.
In fact, sometimes what you discover at the end of a renaming process is that keeping the name you already have is the best solution.
Now, let’s cross to the weather.
Admittedly, Bureau of Meteorology is a bit of a mouthful. So, as is customary in Australia, the process of syllable sacrifice and nicknaming was undertaken. BoM was the result. It’s worth noting at this point that telling people you don’t like your nickname tends to guarantee that nickname sticks, which is effectively what’s happening now. From a brand perspective, BoM has equity, appeal, and is/was/forever will be most likely widely used — by Aussies, and by the Bureau itself.
At the time of writing, the URL and app were still using it. If you’re seeking to change behaviour, you need to lead the way.
According to Guardian Australia, “the rebrand was broadly unpopular among existing staff” and “[an insider] said they were treated ‘like naughty schoolchildren’ if they slipped up and referred to the BoM instead [of the new terminology]”.
Which brings us to a matter that runs deeper than naming: change. It’s hard. And without sound strategic reasoning and a broader story to tell, it’s even harder. Especially if you’ve embraced the (nick) name you’re trying to phase out and there’s internal resistance to retiring it.
The official statement read: “With an ever increasing number of severe weather events, it is more crucial than ever that the Bureau of Meteorology’s insights, wisdom, data and information are shared, understood and acted upon.”
Could the Bureau still achieve that as BoM? Could it maintain the same level of trust and credibility? The rationale seems more curious than convincing, though it does sound bureaucratic.
When brands rename, customers and employees alike can have an adverse reaction – especially if, as media reports, you’re already starting from a place of resistance. You need to be prepared for a critical reaction. But if a brand has developed the strategic rationale, narrative to support the name, and made attempts to take people on the journey, it can weather the initial backlash and move forward with confidence.
The change from Coon to Cheer is an apt example. The organisation’s management initiated the change. Working thoroughly through the strategic decisions behind it, testing the names in research (not essential, but it can help validate decisions), and developing a considered narrative all went a long way to managing the vociferous response against the rename.
The Bureau’s new name is part of a broader rebrand. This is easy to overlook and forget because a brand’s name is one of its most visible, recognisable, and used assets. Although names don’t operate in isolation (a brand’s verbal identity, visual identity, and strategy work together), they’re often treated and assessed as such.
Still, you need to be able to stand behind your name. Inside and out, people need to understand what it means and how it works as part of your brand. Failing that, you end up in a ‘refer to us any way you wish’ scenario like this one. As the rebrand story continues to unfold, we’re keen to see what the forecast is for the Bureau. Or BoM. Whichever you prefer.