Changing the name of the game

MENTION the word "Aviva" and some people would be excused for thinking of buses or trains.

But the possible confusion with Arriva, the transport company, has not stopped Aviva, the international savings, investments and insurance group, from scrapping its 200-year-old Norwich Union brand in favour of the parent name.

Aviva – formed in 2000 by the merger of Norwich Union and CGU – is Britain's biggest insurance company and once had 40 trading brands across the world. But the board has decided the time has come to scrap almost all of them. The RAC motoring organisation is one of the few that will retain its name, but all the rest will go.

It's a controversial move that's not without its risks, but a company spokeswoman says the Aviva name has become established and that it makes sense to have one name that will help transform the company around the world.

As well as NU, its other brands once included Commercial Union, which promised in adverts not to make a drama out of a crisis. Before that there was Perth-based General Accident. But "Aviva" is believed to have more commercial staying power across national boundaries. The company says the name has resonance in many markets because the word is derived from "viva", the Latin for 'life'.

Uniting behind one brand is part of the "strategy to grow and transform the business to compete on a global scale".

The move is all part of a vision developed by Andrew Moss, the group's chief executive, of "one Aviva, twice the value". It recognises the fact that around 60% of the group's business is now generated outside the UK, including Europe, the United States and the Asia Pacific region, where NU will have little or no meaning.

In the UK, however, NU is a household name and has raised its profile further through athletics sponsorships. Brand experts and some working in financial services are unconvinced about phasing it out over the next two years. Ken Dixon, planning partner at Newhaven advertising agency, is critical of the brand overhaul, especially in a volatile market where many people are worried about the impact of the credit crunch.

"I'm not sure it's a good idea in the current climate where there is a lack of stability and trust. While Aviva probably had the change in the pipeline for some time, it could have been put on hold. The new name might work globally, but people in the UK have grown up with Norwich Union and to scrap it seems like branding going a bit too far. It involves throwing away a lot of heritage.

"If someone was looking for a pension, I would imagine that NU would be one of the names near the top of the list, but Aviva might make them think of trains."

In a bid to make consumers aware of Aviva and to appease natives of East Anglia, who will lament the demise of an iconic regional brand, Aviva will replace Flybe as the shirt sponsor of Norwich City football club.

Aviva is not alone in the financial services sector in thinking that supporting football will win more widespread support. AIG – a financial services giant in the United States, but relatively new to the UK – is the shirt sponsor for Manchester United, while Aegon, the Dutch owner of Edinburgh-based Aegon Scottish Equitable, will have its name on the kit of Ajax FC players from July. Aegon knows all about the challenges of rebranding, having unveiled the Aegon Scottish Equitable brand for its products in 2006, rather than dropping the Edinburgh institution's name altogether, which it had initially considered.

Despite the compromise, Aegon was not without its critics. Alan Steel, chairman of Alan Steel Asset Management, a Linlithgow-based firm of independent financial advisers, says he has visions of "Avon calling" to sell him cheap perfume when he hears the company's name.

But Lesley McPherson, spokeswoman for Aegon in the UK, is adamant the exercise has worked and explains the thinking behind it. "Customers in the UK, in particular corporate clients, are increasingly looking for a company with global scale, which Aegon has, but they may not have been aware that Scottish Equitable is part of this group.

"The Aegon brand is not as well known among the IFA community, so ditching Scottish Equitable would have been a bit dramatic."

There is no guarantee that Scot Eq, as it is commonly known, will be around forever as the brand is constantly being monitored. Last year Steve Clode was given the new role of director of marketing and customer strategy to keep an eye on the brand and raise the company's profile.

But Aegon is unlikely to become as familiar in the UK as it is in its native Holland. In the Hague, the name is everywhere. The company's headquarters are on Aegon Square, and it will soon replace ABN Amro on the Ajax team's shirts.

Not everyone is sold on expensive re-branding exercises. Referring to Aviva, Steel says: "It amazes me that someone can throw away 200 years of history… The change will confuse clients and gives advisers yet another thing to explain."

Not surprisingly, Moss has defended the company's decision. "People are becoming more mobile and are targeted by international brands competing for their business across borders through the global media. For our customers, the Aviva name will be recognisable and will represent the same quality, financial strength and security whenever they do business with us."

The rebranding is a mammoth task, given the size of the group. It employs 57,000 staff across the world, operates in 20 markets and achieved worldwide sales of long-term savings, fund management and general insurance products worth 49.2bn last year.

But there are many examples of failed rebrandings of large institutions, such as Royal Mail becoming Consignia, only for the latter to be consigned to the dustbin and the original name reintroduced.

Campbell Laird, managing director of Three Brand in Edinburgh, has warned that it is difficult to get a revamp right, especially in an area as sensitive as financial services, where trust and recognition are vital.

He says: "Companies need a name that is easy to understand and in one sense NU is good as it has tradition. But I can see why the firm would want something less formal and staid. Virgin Money, for example, has been really successful and I've read that it actually sells more pensions than NU. 'Union' sounds old-fashioned and 'Norwich' is a distant location for some people.

"But there is a danger of a financial services company sounding light and fluffy. Scrapping NU is a dramatic change rather than an evolution and Aviva will have to work on making the distinction from Arriva."

There is also the infamous attempted renaming of part of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Graham Sturzaker, design director of Scottish branding agency Elmwood, warned: "The success of the rebrand relies on Aviva telling a story to consumers that is relevant to them. Otherwise they run the risk of entering the graveyard of failed re-brands lying alongside the likes of Monday, the short-lived name for PricewaterhouseCoopers' consultancy arm."

There have, however, been some success stories which Aviva may hope to emulate. "In other sectors there are good examples of successful rebranding," said Laird. "Look at Diageo, which has worked and is an improvement on UDV Grand Metropolitan, as it was called at one point. 'Dia' means 'day', to represent a 24 hour company, and 'geo' means 'geography' to show it's global. It's memorable and distinctive, which is what a brand should be."