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San Francisco Chronicle

November 23, 2005

SBC starting all over with the name game

By David Lazarus

It was almost exactly three years ago that phone giant SBC announced it was wiping the Pacific Bell name, which it acquired in 1997, off the face of the earth.

"Our main competitors today possess national brands," SBC's chief exec, Ed Whitacre, said at the time. "To compete more effectively, it's critical for SBC to position itself as what it is -- the leading national brand in the telecommunications industry."

Not anymore.

This week, after clearing all the regulatory hurdles, SBC has begun wiping the SBC name off the face of the Earth, adopting instead the newly purchased (for $16 billion) AT&T moniker.

"No name is better suited than AT&T to represent the new company's passion to deliver innovation, reliability, quality, integrity and unsurpassed customer care," Whitacre said in announcing the latest switch.

"This is the brand that will lead the industry in delivering the next generation of communications and entertainment services," he said.

Bay Area consumers have every reason to feel confused, considering how many names our dominant local phone company has sported over the years (Pacific Telephone & Telegraph, Pacific Telesis, Pac Bell, SBC, etc.).

But the flurry of makeovers in recent years is exceptional even by modern corporate bed-hopping standards.

"You could well expect customers to say, 'Give me a break!' " commented Gary Martin, managing director of the Burlingame office of the Brand Institute, a nationwide brand consulting firm.

Not only has the local phone company changed its corporate clothes with unusual frequency, he said, but the latest switch has a clunky, alphabet-soup aspect to it.

"When you have names like SBC and AT&T that are acronyms in nature, there's a greater potential for confusion," Martin said. "It's not like you're talking about something distinctive like Yahoo or Google."

Nevertheless, every branding pro I spoke with said that if you had to choose between sticking with the SBC name or going with a brand as deeply rooted in the American consumer psyche as AT&T, you go with AT&T.

"It's the mother brand in the telecommunications business," observed Bill Schneider, senior strategy consultant in the San Francisco office of brand consultant Wolff Olins.

He quickly added, though, that Bay Area residents who once suffered through AT&T's spotty cable-TV service "still have a bitter taste in their mouths."

It's perhaps par for the course these days that a company buys another company's name and immediately acts as if it's the rightful heir to the other firm's corporate legacy.

Take Pan Am, once the most storied brand in aviation. Pan Am's Clippers pioneered commercial intercontinental air travel.

Today, the Pan Am brand is controlled by a small New Hampshire airline called Boston-Maine Airways, which has adopted the Pan Am name and offers its Clipper Connection service to a handful of East Coast destinations and Puerto Rico.

"It's pretty amazing," Robert Culliford, Boston-Maine's general counsel, said of possessing one of the most famous names in air travel.

"We're doing everything we can to keep up with the standards of the name," he said.

SBC spokesman John Britton, a former Pac Bell spokesman, said he's now an AT&T spokesman. And he's excited about the change.

"We're in a whole new era," he said. "People want access to a digital lifestyle. It's all about innovating and providing new technology, and that's what we're focused on."

For customers, Britton said, bills will start arriving in envelopes bearing the AT&T logo next month. The bills themselves will stop carrying SBC's name by February.

On the other hand, Britton said, there are no plans at present to change the SBC e-mail addresses of the company's thousands of Internet customers.

"We expect a quick, smooth transition," he said. "It's been incredibly well planned."

As for SBC Park, no announcement has been made, but it's almost certain the Giants will be playing in AT&T Park by next season -- the former Pac Bell Park's third name in three years.

Britton declined to comment on the millions of dollars spent by SBC over the past few years to build brand awareness among consumers nationwide. That money is now wasted.

He did, however, pledge that the new-and-improved AT&T will be no less shy about throwing cash at marketing efforts.

"We're going to have the largest advertising campaign in the history of either company," Britton said. "We're investing in the most recognizable telecommunications brand on planet Earth."

Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, a San Francisco brand consultant, said phone companies seem to change names more than any other business.

"They tend to figure that this will help them leave their baggage behind," he said. "But then they always accrue the same baggage."

Manning also doesn't think this is the last of it. "Once they finish with the AT&T name, they'll probably go back to Pac Bell," he predicted.

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