What's in a name? Possibly a Porsche

San Francisco-based Tixtogo.com has a lousy name -- a point the company's brass is the first to admit.

San Francisco-based Tixtogo.com has a lousy name -- a point the company's brass is the first to admit. So it's making an offer management hopes people will find hard to refuse: Suggest a name the firm ends up using, and you'll win a Porsche Boxster.

Tixtogo, which started out as a way for event planners to sell tickets online, has since branched out. It now does such things as help nonprofit organizations to collect donations, clubs and other groups to sign up members, and business and government agencies to schedule training courses and seminars.

But CEO Lu Cordova knew the firm needed a new name when she joined the startup in May. But after long hours of brainstorming with the company co-founders, she said nearly all the suggested new monikers were either trademarked or featured domains already in use. At one point, the company considered hiring an agency to come up with a new name, but balked at the price.

Cordova recalled joking with a friend that if he could come up with a name, she'd buy him a car. She also made the same comment -- a little more seriously -- at a conference at Stanford.

And so a contest was born.

Offsetting damage
"To rename the company, you have to know what we do -- and you have to know on a fairly deep level," Cordova said. "And we will be able to tell everyone who enters our contest what the new name is once we choose one."

She's hoping that the contest will not just get the company a new name, but will attract enough attention to help offset the damage a name change can cause to brand identity.

It's a delicate balance. A new name may help spruce up a company's image by giving people a better idea of what the company does. Or it can help a company branch into new fields by distancing itself from an earlier, more focused brand.

But changing a name can also destroy any brand awareness the company may have built up. It can also cost a considerable amount of money to research new names, check trademarks and copyrights, and check its meaning in other languages and cultures. If it's a public company, it might have to change it stock symbol as well.

Those may seem like formidable barriers, but Tixtogo.com is hardly alone among Net companies in its desire for change.

Perils and pitfalls
Mining Co. Inc. became About.com (Nasdaq:BOUT). Goodnoise Corp. switched to Emusic.com Inc. (Nasdaq:EMUS). Computer Literacy Corp. turned into Fatbrain.com Inc. (Nasdaq:FATB). Progressive Networks took its most popular product and morphed into RealNetworks Inc. (Nasdaq: RNWK) Mercury Mail became Infobeat, which then became Exactis.com.

'When you launch a Net business it's like a baby -- you don't change your baby's name a year later just because you feel like it.'
-- Marissa Gluck, Jupiter Communications

Some of the name changes seem designed to catch on to the "dotcom" trend. That's something companies should be cautious of, said Marissa Gluck, an analyst with Jupiter Communications' advertising strategies division.

"When you launch a Net business it's like a baby -- you don't change your baby's name a year later just because you feel like it," she said.

And while some of the changes are designed to make it easier for consumers to identify the company, Gluck pointed out that some of the most successful Net companies have names totally unrelated to their products.

"Look at Amazon.com or eBay. Or Monster.com -- there are dozens of other sites that have career or jobs in them, but Monster stands away from the pack," she said. "They're trying to get a memorable name, not to pigeonhole themselves. Amazon didn't call themselves books.com for a reason. Generally, you don't want to change. You want to try from the beginning to have a good name."

A name grown old
But sometimes what appears to be a good name at the birth of a business may not age well. For example, after 15 years and a merger, Robert Cudd, FatBrain.com's vice president of marketing and editorial, said Computer Literacy Corp. no longer offered an accurate picture of what the company was all about.

"We had expanded into categories outside computing," he said. "It wasn't a very memorable name. It didn't pop up on search engines as being unique. It was hard to type."

The company, which sells books, training materials and documentation for business professionals online, didn't rush the change, however. It went through extensive internal and external work looking for names, testing them out and developing a changeover process.

"There was a huge execution effort to get all of our existing customers to understand that we were making the change and the reasons behind it. We rallied people within the company to talk to their vendors or customers or constituents," he said. "The longer we go with it, the more people like it."