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What’s in a name? Chattanooga brands evoke emotion, and changing them is a tall order

What's in a name? Chattanooga brands evoke emotion, and changing them is a tall order
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Want some attention for your brand? Try to change it.

“One of the last bastions of trust that really exists is in brands,” says Kody Dahl, creative director at Whiteboard, a Chattanooga-based creative agency. “When the brand changes, the space in which the consumer feels safe changes.”

It is a particularly risky process when a local brand with a loyal following needs to change gears. Just ask Amanda Nelson Farnell, director of marketing and cooking at Alchemy Spice, who recently joined the nearly 20-year-old company as part of a brand update.

Farnell has been using Alchemy seasoning in her catering business for nearly a decade when new owners Henry and John Oehmig hired them. The brothers shared their plans to shorten and simplify Alchemy’s signature exotic product names (think Fat Elvis becomes Memphis Dry Rub and Sgt. Pepper becomes Herbed Pepper), and Varnell had opinions.

“I was very concerned when they told me they were changing all the names,” Farnell says. “I’m an outside healer, and I said, ‘You guys screwed up. “

They’re laughing now, and the handmade spice company has tripled its sales since Oehmigs took over, but navigating changes in branding is serious business, says Henry Oehmig.

“It’s a leap, but business is a leap, and you’re trying to take smart bets,” says Oehmig, who bought the Alchemy Spice Company in 2019.

The new owners quadrupled foodservice sales, put Alchemy on shelves in 51 Publix stores across Tennessee, and added a new digital platform that increases the visibility of products in new places across the country.

“We wanted to take this lovable little company that is centered around the market and product line and try to put it into something with a broader appeal and enhance the distinct nature of it,” says Oehmig. “Change is always difficult, but we have generally positive vibes.”

For Barry White, CEO of Chattanooga Tourism Company, the rebranding he and his team took on was much broader than just their organization. They were renaming the city.

“Our initiative was to reveal the essence of Chattanooga’s brand and who we are as a community,” says White, who has been in the position since early 2018. “The organizational change came naturally as a follow-up to that.”

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Brands evoke feelings, and changing them is a difficult task

White says Chattanooga’s rebranding was an in-depth process that sought feedback from thousands of visitors, potential visitors and residents. During the process, the city’s character emerged as a place “we’re very proud of where we live, but we’re bringing people back down to earth and we’ll take care of you while you’re here” loud and clear, he adds.

“Our product is Chattanooga,” White says. “Anytime we’re outside of this community to market ourselves, we’re Chattanooga.”

He adds that rebranding his organization for 2020 as Chattanooga Tourism Corporation is long overdue after 55 years of being known as the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The CVB nickname has been around for a long time, and trying to explain that we work in an office is not very friendly,” White says. “It seemed like a lot of bureaucracy.”

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/Chief Marketing Officer Bill Chase at Bellhop on November 1.

For Bellhop, the company that until earlier this year was known as Bellhops, rebranding was much more than dropping a letter from the end of the company’s name, says marketing director Bill Chase.

Over the past decade, as Bellhop has grown from a labor-only company dependent on the transition of housing to a full-service national moving and storage company, it has needed to change its approach to better reflect the ways it has grown the business with its customers, Chase says.

“The Bellhops name sounded like you were just hiring a few people to come into your house in exchange for a full service purchase,” he says. “Change allows us to add other services, and Bellhop becomes more of a destination.”

Chase says dropping a letter from a name may sound like little things, but there are a lot of implications for that letter. There’s a new website domain to buy, new shirts to order, new banners to install, trucks that need repackaging, email signatures that need updating. There, he adds, is getting people to change their habits, which may be the biggest hurdle for them all.

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Contribute to Photography Bellhop / The original logo of the company now known as Bellhop dates back to its days as a sleep engine that launched nearly a decade ago.

“We have thousands of old Billhops jerseys in the field, and we had to send new jerseys to everyone on the podium, but some of them look like old ones,” he says. “We’re like, please donate an old one or wear it to the gym.”

Even brand professionals should remember to forget about the old name, says Sarah Marshall, senior brand manager at Bellhop.

“I think it definitely took me two months after we cut it short,” she says. “It feels awkward at first.”

Eric Brown, founder of Whiteboard, says the best reason to go through the complex process of rebranding, or even just updating the brand, is to keep up with the company’s evolving story.

“It’s more than just a logo, it’s a lot more than just a typography,” he says. “The time to rebrand is when the truth is not fully realized.”

The most notable, and most unfortunate example of this being hit recently, Brown says, was Facebook’s renaming of Meta in November.

“Facebook was in trouble,” he says. “All my friends, and for the first time my parents, are asking, ‘What do we offer? What have we subscribed to? Then Facebook decided to rebrand it.

But in general, the reasons for rebranding are less about damage control and more about reversing changes that are just a part of doing business, Dahl says.

“It’s about communicating the true truth about your business to the right people,” he says. “You change when you don’t accurately portray who you are and what you do, or when you tell your story to the wrong audience.”

For Steve Smith, CEO of Food City, the challenge has been to introduce a new brand into a market where an old, storied local brand has had a hard time, he says.

Family-owned and founded in Chattanooga in 1908, Red Food Stores sold to French retailer Promodes in 1980, and then to Dutch grocery giant Ahold in 1995. Ahold then renamed Red Food Stores to Bi-Lo. In 2015, family-owned Virginia-based Food City purchased 29 Bi-Lo supermarket stores in the Chattanooga area.

“It was a lot more complicated than just going in and grabbing some Bi-Lo stores,” Smith says. “You had a company with a very rich history with the Red Food organization that goes back decades in the history of Chattanooga. And over the course of 20 years they bounced from ownership to ownership that didn’t always give back much. We knew what we were getting into, we knew we had to rebuild to do with it “.

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Staff photo by CB Schmelter/Food City President and CEO Steve Smith speaks to the Times Free Press at New Food City on Highway 41 in Ringgold, Georgia, in 2019. Food City purchased existing Bi-Lo stores in the Chattanooga area in 2015 They focused on telling the story of their brand in a market with a lot of history. “You had a company with a very rich history with Red Food that goes back decades in Chattanooga’s history,” Smith says.

Smith says the purchase was an opportunity to introduce a new brand and build trust in it, but that it took a lot of work.

“You want your customers to trust you and you want your colleagues to trust you too,” he says. “We had to win mates when we came to Chattanooga.”

Food City’s leadership has done this by investing in stores and their employees, as well as building new stores throughout the area, including in East Ridge and on South Broad Street, Smith says. He adds that people still remember red food in abundance.

“We still hear about red food,” Smith says.

Ultimately, rebranding means signing up for some heavy work, and maybe some tough feedback, Dahl says.

“The agent of change itself, no matter how good the change is, no matter how good the reasons for the change are, you have to have an appetite for discomfort in the public eye,” he says. “You have to have a good reason for this rebranding, and a good reason from your audience’s perspective.”

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