The D.C.-area football team the Washington Redskins have been under pressure for about 50 years to change their name, on account of it being a pejorative for Native Americans. That pressure reached a critical point when the NFL commissioner reversed his position on the matter, saying he now supports changing the name. While some vocal detractors, notably ESPN’s Rick Reilly, still defend the Redskins name, and as the matter crescendos it seems fairly likely that the Redskins will be the Redskins no more as soon as next year.
Which got us thinking: what major companies used to be called something else, and why did they make the change? Here’s a hint: they didn’t change their name because their old one had positive connotations:
Phillip Morris to Altria Group (MO)
In 2003 Phillip Morris as a name had become synonymous with Big Tobacco, and the first wave of lawsuits filed by smokers who felt they had been misled about the negative health consequences of smoking. That year the company rebranded itself as Altria, supposedly derived from the Latin word for “high,” although linguists insisted it was phonesthesia meant to invoke the term altruism, a positive characteristic seldom applied to cigarette peddlers.
Ostensibly Altria made the switch out of the name Phillip Morris because they were expanding their focus beyond cigarettes, incorporating companies like food manufacturer Kraft into their stable. Matthew Myers, president of the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids, encapsulated the skeptical view of the name change when he said it was a "hypocritical ploy to divert attention from the fact that [Philip Morris is] first and foremost a cigarette company."
United Fruit to Chiquita Brands International (CQB)
There was a time when “banana republic” wasn’t just a place in the mall to buy some nice khakis, but the neocolonial Latin American governments propped up by fruit importers. The undisputed leader in these dirty politics was United Fruit, the massive banana trading concern that allegedly masterminded poltical unrest in several Central American countries to solidify favorable taxation rates and land rights, most notably in Guatemala during the Arevalo regime.
Seeking to distance themselves from their checkered past, when billionaire Carl Lidner Jr. bought the company in 1984 he renamed it Chiquita Brands International.
Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company to the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)
With this name change, there's no international intrigue or a history selling carcinogenic productsat foot here. In this case, the name change took place simply because the original name no longer accurately described what the company was doing. Not to mention, the old name was just kind of god-awful. Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company doesn't really roll off the tongue.
What a lot of people don't realize, however, is how long ago this anem change took place. IBM has been around since the 1880s, when it was selling computing scales and punch card machines. As the company grew, they decided to highlight the reach of their products and the company's diversification.
Retitling the company with "machines" was a stroke of genius in its vagueness, as it was technically accurate all the way through the company's foray into the PC revolution and beyond.
(image courtesy of WIkimedia Commons)