February 22, 2017
Pop quiz: Aprio is the name of a) a defunct Nissan sedan, b) a Yamaha scooter, c) a Vancouver software firm, d) a line of indoor-outdoor furniture, e) a 65-year-old accounting firm.
Answer: All of the above.
Last January the Atlanta accounting firm known by its 5,500 clients as HA&W, decided it wanted a more modern corporate identity. It hired a branding firm and paid it a steep fee to overhaul its image. For 13 months, the branding team conducted dozens of interviews and focus groups and huddled with a team of naming experts that included English Ph.D.s schooled in Latin roots and phonemes.
In the end, HA&W's partners would have to decide whether it was the best decision to toss out a trusted brand that had taken decades to establish in favor of Aprio, a made-up word. Would potential clients be more attracted to a name that sounds less like a traditional accounting firm and more like a tech company or a car brand? Lacking the huge marketing budgets that have promoted corporate name changes like those of Accenture (formerly Anderson Consulting) and Altria (Philip Morris), how would the new entity get its message across? HA&W's rebranding saga offers a case study in the challenges and pitfalls an old-line firm must navigate as it tries to remake its image.
The old name stood for the initials of three long-departed partners, Habif, Arogeti and Wynne. In 1952, founders Isaac Habif and James Arogeti, both first-generation Americans from Sephardic Jewish families, got their start as bean counters for the city's real estate and manufacturing businesses. When rainmaker Merrill Wynne made partner in the 1970s, he joined the masthead. Habif and Arogeti have since died and Wynne has retired. Two years ago, the firm shortened the name on its website and letterhead to three initials.
Meantime HA&W had expanded into litigation support, succession planning, and other services, which brought in 20% of its 2016 revenue of $75 million. In late 2015, CEO Richard Kopelman and marketing head Danielle Berg started discussing a website redesign. They decided they needed a brand overhaul. "The industry is changing," says Kopelman. "We wanted to position the firm for the next 65 years."
For help, they hired Davis Brand Capital, an Atlanta-based firm that has consulted for clients like Progressive Insurance and Panera Bread. Kopelman and Berg won't reveal Davis's fee but such firms typically bill well into the six figures. To take stock of the accounting firm's image from the inside, the Davis team did 30 one-on-one interviews with partners, and focus groups with another 50 staffers. What they heard repeatedly, according to the branding firm's CEO and founder, Patrick Davis: "The firm's name feels so stodgy compared to the work we're doing." Five months in, Davis advised Kopelman and Berg that they should consider two options: update the HA&W logo or change the name altogether. They agreed to move ahead on both fronts.
Davis, who wrote an unfinished English doctoral dissertation at Washington University in St. Louis on the structure of meaning, together with six similarly well-educated staffers, made an initial list of 800 names, then slashed it to 250. A final eight went to the 12-person team at HA&W working on the branding project from inside. Among the names they rejected was Corevisor, which they felt sounded too hard-edged. Another reject, Equia, was meant to evoke "the balance of horses' hooves that work in unison," says Davis.
Instead, the HA&W committee chose Aprio, a word Davis's team created along with a story the firm could tell clients. "Aprio is derived from the Latin root words for head and heart," says Kopelman, which captures HA&W's two priorities, precision and relationships. The story is a stretch. The Latin word for head is caput, and heart translates as pectus or cor. "Aria," says Kopelman, "is the song of the heart." But that's in Italian, not Latin. The Davis team tested the name on a total of 30 people in two focus groups, who gave it positive reviews.
Before the focus groups started, HA&W hired an Atlanta intellectual property lawyer to vet any trademark problems. Davis's team was not the first to invent the word. Nissan had introduced its now-discontinued Aprio sedan in Mexico a decade ago, Yamaha Motors had chosen the name for a scooter sold outside the U.S., and a Santa Barbara company called Giati produced its Aprio line of tables and chairs from 2007 to 2013 and still holds a registered U.S. trademark on the word. In 2004, a Vancouver entrepreneur shortened the Latin verb aperire, meaning "to open," to Aprio, and used it for the name of his company, which sells software designed to help boards of directors communicate. HA&W's lawyer advised that none of those prior uses posed a trademark problem, since the law turns on whether a reasonable customer could confuse two products or companies of the same name in the same market. The classic example: Delta Faucets' trademark does not infringe on Delta Airlines'.
In a final step, Berg presented the name change and logo redesign (a sans serif font with a plus sign instead of an ampersand) to all 39 HA&W partners in a series of meetings. Kopelman also met with retired name partner Merrill Wynne and with emeritus partner and cofounder's son Robert Arogeti. Everyone agreed: HA&W should become Aprio.
In December, Berg ran a series of two-hour brand training sessions attended by all 400 of the firm's employees, which included instructions on how to tell the head and heart story. On January 12 at 4 p.m., the firm sent out 35,000 emails to clients, business partners and other contacts, announcing the name change, with a link to aprio.com.
The new site's homepage says that the firm will operate under the dual name HA+W/Aprio for 24 months, and includes a two-minute video with shots of smiling children running down a hallway, a grey-haired couple walking on a beach and a man in a business suit jogging up a flight of stairs, with piano music playing in the background and a voiceover that says, "The future is a question, one that must be answered by us all." Visitors to hawcpa.com were redirected to aprio.com. The firm bought an ad that ran in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on January 13, the same day the paper published a story about the name change, and it spent $9,000 on a month's worth of 30-second spots that ran three times a day on Atlanta's National Public Radio station.
In the last few weeks, CEO Kopelman says he has gotten a flood of positive feedback. Both employees and clients, he says, have given the firm kudos for breaking away from its fusty past. From its customers in 40 countries around the globe, Kopelman says he's also heard how easy Aprio is to pronounce in languages such as Spanish and Japanese.
But Ian Warner, CEO of Vancouver's Aprio, says he was startled to learn that a company in Atlanta whose clients he believes could also be in the market for his products, had chosen to use his company's name without first contacting him. The Vancouver Aprio does business internationally, including in four states in the U.S., which Warner believes could give him a claim to earlier commercial use of the trademark. (His firm, whose website is aprio.net, hadn't bought the aprio.com domain because it had belonged to Aprio Technologies, a California semiconductor firm that was later acquired by a competitor.)
Nathan Belzer, an intellectual property lawyer in Savannah, GA, agrees that Warner could make a case, though he says the Atlanta Aprio would also have a strong defense since it could argue that accounting and board software are completely separate businesses. Still, says Belzer, an Atlanta Aprio victory "is not a slam dunk."
Last week, Warner asked Berg to consider adding a phrase like "accounting and professional services" to her firm's name. "I think there's an amicable way to resolve this before we load up on lawyers," he says. Berg says she and her colleagues believe customers will not be confused about the two brands. Both parties likely want to avoid a court fight that could cost each side well over $350,000 to litigate, according to Atlanta intellectual property lawyer Richard Tillery.
Berg says she is not concerned that a Google search currently ranks aprio.net higher than aprio.com. Forbes contributor Gabriel Shaoolian, who runs 18-year-old New York digital marketing agency Blue Fountain Media, says she's right not to worry. He doesn't advise clients to buy up every domain name, like dotinfo or dotbiz. "Dotcom is king," he says. As for search optimization, it would be easy to drive aprio.com to the top slot on Google by embedding computer codes called metatags and header tags, building up inbound links (like this Forbes.com story), and by ensuring the site functions well on phones and tablets. Berg says that Firefli, a Roanoke, VA, digital agency that designed the accounting firm's website, has all of that covered.
Trademark and search issues aside, how strong a brand will Aprio prove to be? "A made-up name is inherently a bad idea," says Steven Manning, founder of Igor, a 15-year-old Sausalito, CA agency that specializes in naming, "because it doesn't have any value as a branding or advertising tool and it doesn't mean anything to anybody." Aprio's head and heart story, he says, is "nonsense." Far preferable are real words with obvious meanings, like Gogo, which Igor coined for the in-flight Wi-Fi service.
To make a manufactured name like Aprio unforgettable requires a massive marketing budget, he says. Accenture spent $175 million on rebranding after it changed its name in 2001 following a legal dispute (an employee in Oslo came up with the name, a mashup of "accent on the future"). All told, says Berg, HA&W spent $500,000 on its rebranding effort, including the fees to the branding and website design firms, and the hundreds of HA&W employee hours devoted to the project. A pittance compared to Accenture's outlay but significant money for a firm HA&W's size.
If HA&W was set on using a made-up name, says Manning, it could have done worse. "Aprio has a pleasant look and sound," he says, especially compared to a harsh name like Acquient, a security consulting firm in Carrollton, TX. "Made-up names may be devoid of meaning, but they all have a personality," he says. "Aprio is more in the Google/Oreo human camp than Scient or Viant, two dotcoms from the '90s."
Then there is the issue of pronunciation. The Vancouver Aprio puts the accent on the second syllable, while Atlanta's Aprio assumes that people will emphasize the first. "I don't really care how you pronounce it," says Vancouver CEO Warner. "When people ask me what the word means, I just say it's made up. As long as you don't call us late for dinner, we're O.K." The accountants in Atlanta have higher hopes.