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Branded for Life

What if a Familiar Name Becomes A Different Animal?

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page F01

Think of IBM, and the image of a computer is liable to come to mind.

AT&T? A phone.

Toys R Us has said it is considering getting out of the toy business to focus on its profitable baby accessory unit. (Brian Branch-price -- AP)

Toys R Us? Yeah, toys aplenty.

Those are the associations that marketers have spent billions trying to hammer into consumers' brains through an unyielding deluge of television spots, print ads and billboards.

But what happens when a company's business shifts and the brand needs to shift with it? It's a question more companies are confronting, and some aren't liking the answer. Bonds between a company name and a product can take years or even decades to form in the minds of consumers; they can take just as long to break.

IBM Corp., for instance, sold off its personal computing division early last month, continuing its march away from hardware manufacturing -- as the name International Business Machines may imply is what the company does -- and toward consulting services.

AT&T Corp., meanwhile, announced last year that it would stop marketing its traditional consumer phone service, which had been at the firm's core for a century. Instead, it has recast itself as "the world's networking company."

And Toys R Us Inc. said it was considering getting out of the toy business altogether, choosing to focus instead on its more profitable baby accessories division.

So what's in a name? For businesses that have developed widespread brand recognition, plenty. The world's most valuable brand, Coca-Cola, is worth upward of $67 billion, according to annual rankings by Interbrand Corp. At least theoretically, that's what the company could get for the words "Coca-Cola" and "Coke" if the Atlanta firm lost its mind and decided to sell what may be the most recognized brand name in the history of commerce.

Not to worry. "A brand is one of those things a corporation holds onto very tightly. It's one of the most important corporate assets," said Barbara Hulit, vice president and director at the Boston Consulting Group.

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