“O.co” a no-no.

Remember Overstock.com? You could be excused for remembering it as Overstock, and not realizing that it had changed its name to…wait for it…”O.c0″. Because plenty of its loyal customers continued to refer to it as Overstock.com…and thanks to that inertia, the company decided it was time to go back to a brand that people wouldn’t let go.

Netflix learned the same when it went through the tortuous gymnastics of splitting its business and creating the short-lived Quikster brand. About the only good to come of that move was whatever billings the branding agency involved got for coming up with the name. What happened to Overstock is just another reinforcement of how potent and powerful effective branding can be. Going to “O.co” made very little sense, in the first place.

There’s a certain impulse toward finding (and owning) the most elementary and fundamental branding possible; if you can make your brand synonymous (”Kleenex”) with some aspect of basic existence, that’s great. But trying to “own” a letter of the alphabet will probably work out no better than trying to make your brand reducible to a single word (Pizza Hut as “The Hut,” or Radio Shack as “The Shack”) when the effort actually suborns effective branding.Language and naming work they way they do for good, concrete reasons.

Names succeed because they provide a cognitive shorthand for us — so “Overstock.com” makes all the sense in the world, because it’s a capsule that perfectly encompasses the intent of the brand. But “O.co” or “The Hut” are simply coy and contrived by comparison, and don’t serve the needs of language, either. There are plenty of synthetic brands out there, of course, but they’ve most often got the advantage of belonging to startups or companies that are changing their scope in profound ways. In the case of brands like Overstock.com, the stake in the ground may be sunk too deep to move.

What’s the lesson for small businesses and startups? I’d say there are two:

1. A simple and direct brand or name works wonders. It’s just plain truth: consumers won’t buy on the basis of your brand, but on the basis of what it represents. So make sure that shows up clear and plain. Can you be funny, punny or whimsical? Sure — if it helps drive identity and a cogent idea of what your business is all about in the mind of your target audience.

2. Don’t get tricky. It’s easy to outsmart yourself. But you’ll never outsmart your audience. The sooner you learn that lesson, the better.

3. Change your identity only with great caution. Don’t futz with your name unless you’ve got a very, very good reason to do so — a reason that’ll show up in the bottom line, first and foremost. Even if you think it’s a good reason, be sure to test your new name or identity concept first, to gauge reactions and likely responses.

4. Don’t do anything out of boredom with your branding. That’s not a good reason to change an identity. If it’s truly affecting your business in an adverse way, you should consider a change. But don’t try to “energize” or “re-invigorate” your business by making a branding change — there are better and more salient ways to improve your marketing than that.

5. Change for the right reasons. Those can include a brand being visually archaic, or off-key for your evolving business, or not well-thought-through in the first place. But once you’ve got a sharp, well-developed brand in place, approach changing it only with the greatest of trepidation.

It’s your brand, and it’s your toehold in the minds of your customers — don’t mess with success unless it’s absolutely necessary!

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