By Jackie Crosby
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).
It’s a headache that no one at the International Species Information System could have predicted.
The company is known across the globe as ISIS. Its website? Isis.org. Unwittingly and arbitrarily, a name once associated with an ancient Egyptian goddess now has become synonymous with terror.
“We’re a small nonprofit,” said Diane Hammond, ISIS’ marketing strategist. “At first, we thought the connection was a little extreme. But it hasn’t gone away.”
The Bloomington-based nonprofit, launched in 1974, develops software that helps zoos and aquariums in 87 countries keep track of their animal data.
The organization has heard from people who want to sign up with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Employees have been spooked by what a company official called “nuisance-level pranks.” The large ISIS name on the front door has come down.
Now, the zoological software company is on the hunt for a new name.
Those who find their names now linked with militants known for public beheadings and attacks such as the massacres in Paris can be found across the globe, from mom-and-pops to major corporations.
In an age of social media, these firms are finding themselves in crisis mode.
“Fundamentally, it takes you away from day-to-day tasks of what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Rob Rankin, president of Minneapolis marketing agency Clarity Coverdale Fury, which is working with ISIS in Bloomington. “There’s time, energy and money that has to be diverted that just wasn’t on your radar screen. It’s important to address them and address them quickly. In many cases they just won’t go away.”
Isis Books & Gifts in Denver has been vandalized four times in recent months. Isis Equity Partners in Britain became Living Bridge. After 15 years, a French rock band changed its name from Isis Child to Angel’s Whisper after losing fans and booking engagements. In Nova Scotia, a social service organization known as Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services changed its name to ISANS — Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia.
For long-established companies, a name change doesn’t happen lightly. A brand is a company’s core identity. It conveys personality and meaning and helps a firm stand out from competitors.
One study, from Millward Brown, found that sales can drop 5 to 20 percent after a name change.
Isis Pharmaceuticals, a publicly traded company, resisted the pressure to change its name for more than a year. But the California-based company made headlines two weeks ago when it announced its new name of Ionis Pharmaceuticals. The old name was a distraction, company officials said, and they wanted people “to think about the lifesaving medicines we are developing.”
Current events have overtaken some other well-known names. Ayds, makers of the square-shaped diet candy, at first dismissed the rise in the early 1980s of the similarly sounding AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Within a few years, as the AIDS epidemic grew, sales of Ayds fell and the company never recovered.
Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture as a way to distance itself from its work with Enron’s scandalous bankruptcy. Tobacco giant Philip Morris changed its name to Altria Group after 156 years.
More often, a name change happens when it doesn’t convey what the company actually does. Edina specialty retailer Hot Mama changed its name to Evereve, because consumers thought it sold maternity clothes. Other times, the name just doesn’t work: Google came out of the chute as a search engine called BackRub.
Before the rise of the Islamic State, the name Isis oozed with positive attributes.
Strong and beautiful, she was the one of the most important deities of ancient Egypt as the goddess of love and fertility. In 1975, Isis was a TV superhero and the subject of a Bob Dylan ballad. She was the spirited yellow Labrador retriever in the British TV series “Downton Abbey,” who welcomed guests to the big house with ebullience. (Actor Hugh Bonneville roundly denounced rumors that she was written off the show because of the association with the Islamic State.)
In light of the unsettling associations, a formidable sisterhood of Isis has erupted, made up of women and their families defending their given names.
British filmmaker Isis Thompson produced a documentary to show how the world events had become intensely personal.
“I find myself breaking into a little bit of a sweat when I have to introduce myself,” she said. “It’s like having to say, ‘Hi, my name is Nazi Thompson.’ ”
More than 63,000 people named Isis and their family members have signed a petition to ask the media to stop using the acronym when reporting on the terror group.
The Washington Post, New York Times and the Star Tribune are among the news outlets that refer to the militants as ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
It’s difficult to gauge how widespread the impact is.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists more than 270 products or business names among active federal trademarks using “Isis.”
In Minnesota, a handful of other businesses with the name have registered with the Secretary of State’s office, including Isis Dental Hygiene Temps LLC in Minneapolis; Isis Designs in Richfield; Isis Inc. in Watertown, Minn.; and Isis LLC in Wayzata.
A Wikipedia page notes the ways in which universities, software companies, organizations and others have distanced themselves from the name.
For the leaders at the Bloomington-based ISIS zoological company, the rebranding effort begins in earnest this month. Hammond says the leaders now see it as a “happy coincidence.” When completed, everything from company stationery to website and licensing will get a new name, a new logo and a new tagline.
“That’s the bread and butter of any organizational brand,” Hammond said. “We’re essentially going to be starting over in terms of our public-facing identity.”