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Terrorists make Isis too toxic a brand

Jay MacDonald

William Shakespeare once pondered, “What’s in a name?”

To which Isis, the New York-based mobile payments joint venture between AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, replies: Plenty — especially if a like-named militant group starts commanding front-page headlines for sectarian violence in the Middle East.


Isis did more than ponder. On Monday, it announced plans to scrap its brand and search for a new one, now that its former name has been taken hostage by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, whose ISIS acronym is pronounced the same.

“However coincidental, we have no interest in sharing a name with a group whose name has become synonymous with violence and our hearts go out to those who are suffering,” CEO Michael Abbott writes.

Isis launched its Mobile Wallet product nationwide last November. It enables mobile phones to connect to contactless payment terminals via near-field communication (NFC) technology.

Name changes are hardly new to the telecom industry or the Isis partners.

AT&T, originally a subsidiary of Bell Telephone, was known by dozens of names following the forced divestiture of the Bell monopoly into Regional Bell Operating Companies (or “baby Bells”) in 1984.

T-Mobile is the anglicized version of DeTeMobil, derived from the name of its German-based parent company, Deutsche Telekom.

And Verizon? It began as the “baby Bell” known as Bell Atlantic, merged with GTE and eventually adopted the name Verizon, a portmanteau of “veritas” (Latin for “truth”) and “horizon” (English for “unlimited talk and text”).

Because branding is such a high-stakes game, epic failures have been rare. Most typically, companies insert their own foot into mouth when a product brand gets embarrassingly lost in translation. Such was the case with the Latin American rollout of the Chevy Nova, which in Spanish translates to “no go,” and the IKEA mobile children’s workbench that went by the curious Swedish moniker Fartfull (no translation necessary).

In fact, in pedestrian terms, a company really has to put their foot in it to be forced to shed their own name. Perhaps the most recent example of a corporate full facial was insurance giant American International Group, whose acronym AIG became the epithet for the credit default swaps that helped precipitate the Great Recession. Following its collapse in 2008, AIG rebranded its insurance unit as 21st Century before selling it to Farmers.

But Isis? Unless I’m mistaken, no company has ever walked away from its own brand due to the actions of militant insurgents.

The partners might be wise to emulate Apple’s Siri and adopt a similar reassuring, nonmale corporate bowsprit. A teacher of women and tamer of men. A nurturer and healer. A mother figure adored by all.

In fact, the Egyptian goddess Isis would be perfect.

Ufortunately, she’s on hiatus.

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