Missing identity Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002

When Gemini Holdings sold its successful Internet service provider, USA OnRamp, to Stargate Industries in 1998, the holding company’s top executives thought enough of the name to make sure they reserved ownership rights to it.

The name, after all, had earned considerable brand equity for Gemini Holdings through its Internet business. But perhaps more important, it also represented the company’s less well-known side — its then-emerging network integration division. The name, they figured, had gained enough recognition to bring credibility to the network integration side. And it did.

What they didn’t figure was that the name would continue to remind people, even a year and a half later, more of the Internet side of the business than of the network integration side.

This year, the company decided that, while keeping the old name had served its purpose during the transition, it was time to make a change.

Ultimately, executives traded USA OnRamp Network Integration Corp. for NetwoRx, a name they believe does a better job of concisely describing what the company does — computer network management services. The experience highlights just how tricky it can be to name — or rename — your business.

When to let go

The company struggled with the issue of the right name for its network management services company. David Gilpatrick, vice president and chief operating officer of Gemini Holdings and chief overseer of the holding company’s computer services business, remains staunchly convinced that the USA OnRamp name opened doors that otherwise might have remained closed once the company sold off the Internet side of the business.

But he admits the name didn’t quite describe a network integration company that bills itself as a “virtual MIS department,” providing service for companies that find it impractical to have a management information systems person on its staff. USA OnRamp worked crisply as a name for an ISP, but became a bit unwieldy when “Network Integration Corp.” was tagged on.

To some degree, the name created confusion, as it was widely associated with the ISP business, not a computer network management firm. Still, the company grew to $3.5 million in annual revenue, with 100 active commercial clients and 20 school districts — all under the old name.

But to wait until it had more clients, Gilpatrick reasons, would have made the transition to a new name that much more difficult.

And because profits in hardware had just about dried up, USA OnRamp had been aggressively shifting its emphasis to network services rather than hardware sales. After taking those factors into consideration, the company made the decision — the change would have to come early this year.

After 40 hours of meetings and brainstorming sessions, Gilpatrick says, he came up with the new name in a flash, outside of all of the group activities. Still, the time invested to create a new name was far from wasted.

“The 40 hours were absolutely critical,” says Gilpatrick.

The process, he says, forced the company to focus on all of the elements of the name change, from its descriptive qualities to how it could be used in marketing efforts.

“If we hadn’t done that,” says Gilpatrick, “we wouldn’t have known where we were going with it.”

The roll-out

To introduce the new name, NetwoRx trickled information to clients a few months before its formal adoption, mentioning the coming change in e-mails and posting it on its Web site. In the meantime, the company’s marketing director worked on the new corporate identity.

On the day the company mailed its official announcement to its clients, personalized and signed by company executives, NetwoRx employees, including Gilpatrick, called their clients’ offices — attempting to contact the company owner, if possible — to deliver a personal announcement of the change.

Employees changed telephone and voice mail greetings to reflect the new name, and a week later, the company aired radio commercials for NetwoRx, delivered by Pittsburgh talk-show icon Fred Honsberger on KDKA radio during drive time. In all of the communications, Gilpatrick says, he made sure the message to clients remained consistent and clear: While the company’s name was changing, its ownership and management remained intact, and clients could expect a seamless transition.

Too slow to let go?

While Gilpatrick maintains that the company might have been a bit slow in making the change, the decision to use the old one to jump-start the network integration business was a sound one, giving the business added credibility. But the change was needed, he acknowledges, to move the company aggressively forward.

Still, he says, name isn’t everything when it comes to success. While the wrong name can hold back a good company, a great name won’t make a success of a poor performer. In the final analysis, customers care about results, from NetwoRx or any other business.

Says Gilpatrick: “The bottom line to the customer was, ‘Hey, is my service going to change?’”

How to reach: NetwoRx, www.usa-networx.com or (412) 391-4382

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN.