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What's in a name? Probably more than you think.
And this week, The New York Times reports that American International Group (NYSE: AIG ) once again sells more fixed annuities than anyone else -- but not under the toxic AIG brand name, of course. Americans still want what AIG is selling, but only if it comes with another name, like First SunAmerica or Western National Life.
The AIG name hardly inspires confidence these days -- but the company's products under other names are beating out fixed annuities from the likes of Genworth Financial (NYSE: GNW ) and MetLife (NYSE: MET ) .
That which we call a rose by any other name may still smell as sweet, but the concept doesn't always transfer to the business world. It's amazing what some fresh letterhead, or a new label for a product, can do for a company.
In the software industry, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) is doing all it can to make us forget about Windows Vista, even though Windows 7 makes reviewers think "Vista, service pack 3." The damage done to the Vista brand name by a hurried and bungled launch almost three years ago was too much to overcome, even when the actual product ironed out most of the launch problems by way of updates.
The 1990s were not kind to the tobacco industry. The largest tobacco producers were ordered to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to settle a firestorm of health-related lawsuits, and tobacco was suddenly the longest four-letter word in the dictionary.
So what did market leader Philip Morris do? Distance itself from that sordid past, of course. Philip Morris has been known as Altria (NYSE: MO ) since 2003, though the Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM ) division thereof has since spun out on its own. It's Altria for American tobacco and Philip Morris internationally. Got it? Good. I suppose the Philip Morris name still carries weight abroad.
Even mighty Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) is dabbling in undercover operations, rebranding a few stores and running them like independent cozies in an effort to keep growing without flooding the coffee-store market with the Starbucks name. That desperate gambit might not work out too well, though.
Did I miss your favorite name change? Tell us all about it in the comments below. And remember that each comment is really a charitable donation -- just under a different name.