When the founders of Google first developed a search engine in 1996, they named it “backrub.”
The idea was that the program looked at “back links” to understand and rate a website’s importance, according to Businessinsider.com.
A year later, they rebranded as Google. It was supposed to be Googol, after the large number that includes a 1 followed by 100 zeroes, but one of the founders misspelled it, and the misspelling stuck.
Corporate and cultural history hangs on such seemingly trivial things, but in this case the change spared us from hearing people in schoolrooms, boardrooms and living rooms say they need to “backrub” things.
Yes, sometimes a name change is needed. But sometimes, such as when you’re a singer changing to an unpronounceable symbol or a transit authority changing, apparently, just for the heck of it, it’s a bad idea.
As transit authority acronyms go, you could hardly do better than UTA, which, of course, is short for Utah Transit Authority. UTA, after all, covers the first three letters of the four-letter name Utah. The name combines place and function in the minds of those who hear it, and in a way that rolls off the tongue.
But now the Utah Legislature has passed a bill that would change the name to the Transit District of Utah, or the consonant-confusing acronym TDU. The letters T and D sound an awful lot alike. Instead of rolling off the tongue, they get stuck in the teeth. Anyone with a lisp has no chance.
UTA has suffered from mismanagement in recent years, which has diminished public trust in the agency. The name change is part of a much larger bill that dramatically changes the agency’s structure and brings it closer to the fold of state government.
But the road from restructuring to renaming is a leap without, apparently, much data behind it.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, is getting a little testy about it all. “Everyone’s focusing on about eight words, one line out of about 6,000 lines,” he told the Deseret News. “And that’s not the focus of the bill.”
But if you know human nature, or public relations, you understand why a name change is a big deal. An agency’s name is its face. The many people, myself included, who ride the rails to work each day use “UTA” in everyday conversation. It’s part of our world.
We’re the same people who, despite more than one name change to the local NBA arena, still call it the Delta Center.
Marketers urge caution when large companies want to change names. It’s a delicate process that ought to be preceded by the use of focus groups and other research. You risk losing some of the good effects of the old name, including brand loyalty, in the search for something else.
Even government agencies should change names only when it makes logical sense. The Department of War became the Department of Defense after World War II because the United Nations made the quest for peace a popular, if unattainable, focus. More recently, the congressional General Accounting Office became the Government Accountability Office, because that better describes its investigatory responsibilities. And the National Imagery and Mapping Agency changed to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, probably just because it sounds more awesome.
So, it’s worth asking, what research did the Legislature conduct? How many focus groups were employed before they landed on TDU? Where is the data showing the change would erase negative feelings about mismanagement or that the acronym UTA is part of the problem?17 comments on this story
Harper and others also have criticized UTA for saying the name change would cost $50 million. Every bus sign, rail sign, uniform and anything else with a logo on it would have to be changed. Every train and bus would have to be repainted. A public relations campaign would be necessary to let people know of the change.
Where is the Legislature’s estimate of the cost, even if spread out over time? Surely, the change won’t be free.
Gov. Gary Herbert gets it. He signed the UTA reorganization bill but said he wants to push pause on the name change. People, he said, are “going to make their determination … based on the product, how it works, not on the name.”
You shouldn’t need to backrub that one to know it makes sense.