A Truly Beloved Brand: G Adventures

REPRINTED FROM PROFIT MAGAZINE

Ask a communications expert about the wisdom of changing the name of a successful company, and you’ll get succinct advice: don’t. “Unless it’s completely irrelevant or legally necessary, or the name has become totally stagnant, I wouldn’t change your name because it’s such a massive undertaking,” says Mia Wedgbury, president of High Road Communications in Toronto.

But this fall, Toronto-based tour operator Gap Adventures was forced to do just that when a legal ruling in a trademark infringement lawsuit brought by Gap Inc. gave it three months to devise a new identity in the U.S. market. The apparel chain claimed the Canadian company was intentionally confusing consumers to boost its business. Bruce Poon Tip, the travel company’s founder, initially waved off the attack. “I didn’t see how people might think they were buying pants when they were buying adventure travel.” He had picked the name (which stands for Great Adventure People) in 1990 only after deciding the original moniker, Pathfinder, might produce confusion with the car brand.

But after a four-year legal battle that cost more than $5 million to fight, Poon Tip was tired of the distraction. Initially, he considered only changing the name in the U.S., which represents 14% of the company’s business. However, several factors argued for a global revamp. First, in Europe and Australia, a “gap year” denotes a year off between school and work, creating the suggestion the company catered to students. According to Branding 101, a global company must have a consistent image. Finally, Poon Tip thought Gap’s highly loyal customers would take a name change in stride. “I’ve never believed that the name matters,” he says. “It’s what you do that breathes life into your name.”

At it turned out, customers disagreed. When Toronto branding firm Level5 Strategic Advisors polled consumers, the results were stunning. A question asking for alternate name suggestions produced such aggressive opposition to a name change that Level5 took the question out mid-survey. The agency’s president David Kincaid compares consumers’ attachment to Gap to the intense passion fans feel for their favourite rock band. Adventure travel is a “highly emotionally driven category,” he says, and his research found a striking uniformity in how employees, customers and partners viewed the brand. That was the good news; the downside, warned Kincaid, was that a renaming would erode that brand equity.

It was a scary finding, Poon Tip says, but he pushed on. Over eight weeks, Gap’s marketing team and Level5 ran strategy workshops and “name-storming” sessions, with employees invited to contribute suggestions. Poon Tip had two favourites: G Adventures, which would be relatively low-hassle and allow the company to keep its G logo; and Yolo, an internal brand that’s an acronym for “you only live once.” Staff liked the idea of creating their own word, like Google or Geiko. Kincaid’s team, however, resisted Yolo, saying it would require too much explanation in the marketplace. Meanwhile, G Adventures didn’t make it past an early poll of company executives.

Level5 narrowed the options down to two: Planeterra, the already trademarked name of Gap’s non-profit foundation, and Go, an active word inherently linked to travel. Poon Tip realized that Go could also stand for “great ocean,” which is the English translation of the Dalai Lama, a significant figure for Poon Tip who inspired him to stick with the business during an early crisis. While both Go and Planeterra scored strongly, Go skyrocketed when consumers heard the story behind the name.

Go was a go. The company even bought the domain, at considerable cost. But Poon Tip started having second thoughts. It bothered him that some survey respondents found the name boring. “When they thought of it in relation to us, they thought it was unexciting,” he says. There were also lots of companies already using that name. Even the fact it was so specific to travel started to strike Poon Tip as too safe, and potentially limiting. He looked at other name changes, such as Overstock.com changing to O.co, and that took him back to G.

Not long after, he held a conference call with 18 global executives. He stated the case for Go and for G, then asked for opinions. His team leaned slightly toward Go. Though he went into the meeting split 50/50, it proved to be like the coin toss test: his reaction to the outcome showed him which way he really leaned. He especially liked that the word “go” is still present in the logo’s circle around the G but, likethe Fedex arrow hidden within its wordmark, it’s speaking only to those who know it’s there.

While the change is relatively small—the company is just dropping two letters, and keeping the Great Adventure People tagline—the logistical challenge is significant, says Wedgbury. “The name is how people find your brand,” she says, and there’s a risk of confusing the marketplace and losing clients, and, of course, the cost of changing everything from signage to the website to merchandise. The company’s dispersed operations complicate the picture. “If I’ve booked a trip with Gap and I suddenly I see a new company name when I arrive, that doesn’t instill confidence,” says Wedgbury. And since it’s a court-mandated change, an oversight, at least within the U.S., can have financial implications.

But it’s the soft costs that will be most complex, says Kincaid. “They need to make sure that every consumer touchpoint understands the reason behind the new name,” from employees at an Australian call centre to tour leaders in Peru. “This isn’t something you can dribble out. The most effective word in marketing is ‘new,’ but you only get one chance to say it.”

Since Gap isn’t required to rebrand outside the U.S., Poon Tip plans to roll out the name change over six to 12 months. The company has generally eschewed traditional advertising in favour of viral marketing and referrals, but this change, says acting global VP of marketing Cindy Zesk, “will present a new set of challenges.” Travel agents, who represent 70% of Gap’s bookings, will be the biggest one, she says. “So we’ll take it to a real personal level, with speaking engagements, personalized emails and phone call explaining why we’re doing this.” With consumers, she says, the company’s value proposition “is a way of life. It’s not something we can put in an advertising tagline.”

G Adventures, Poon Tip admits, tends to leave people cold until he explains his vision for spinoff brands such as GLodge (a property being built in the jungle of Peru) and GNation (a social networking platform). Like Apple’s ‘i’, the G offers limitless extendibility. Having to change your name after 21 years in business is “not an ideal situation,” he admits, “but we’re taking it as an opportunity.”

Nevertheless, he remains bitter about the legal fight. He still owns the gap.ca domain name. “I might sell it to a porn company.” He insists he’s not kidding.

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