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Pat Gillespie recently bought Rhonda’s Maternity, a shop in Toronto’s tony Yorkville area. Ms. Gillespie is a fashion designer who bought the store from its namesake, Rhonda, who opened it in 1971. (Jennifer Roberts For The Globe and Mail)
Pat Gillespie recently bought Rhonda’s Maternity, a shop in Toronto’s tony Yorkville area. Ms. Gillespie is a fashion designer who bought the store from its namesake, Rhonda, who opened it in 1971. (Jennifer Roberts For The Globe and Mail)

THE CHALLENGE

Help me, Rhonda: Should new owner change shop’s name? Add to ...

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized firm overcome a key issue.

Fashion designer Pat Gillespie has just bought Rhonda Maternity Ltd., a retail clothing boutique in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville neighbourhood. It was called Lady Madonna when it first opened in 1971, but those naming rights were lost and it became Rhonda in 1986, after the original owner, Rhonda Flomen, who is now retiring.

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The store targets mostly first-time moms-to-be who are concerned with projecting a professional image at work, but the shop also offers dressy and casual wear. Most new customers come from word-of-mouth referrals at the office, through Google searches or are simply walk-ins. However, the store occasionally welcomes repeat and even next generation customers. “The ones who have heard about it from their mothers actually come in with their mothers,” the new owner says.

Ms. Gillespie’s part in the story goes back 25 years. She worked briefly for Rhonda’s as a salesperson when she was fresh out of design school before starting her career as a buyer in women’s fashions, then sold her own designs to the store after she co-founded a manufacturing company for maternity wear in 1989 (it closed in 2008). More recently she was the designer for Rhonda’s house brand. While Ms. Gillespie plans to add new clothing lines and wellness products to the store, plus update the decor, graphics and website, including e-commerce, she’s torn between keeping the Rhonda name, building on its heritage and known location, or rebranding with a younger, fresher name.

“I’ve seen the store through all its history, so it’s hard for me to judge how other people see it,” Ms. Gillespie says. “I’ve also known Rhonda personally for many years, so I feel too close to make an objective choice.”

Ms. Gillespie’s biggest worry is that the name Rhonda sounds as dated as the Beach Boys’s song Help Me, Rhonda from the mid-1960s. Rhonda is no longer a popular name for a baby girl and “doesn’t have a cool retro vibe,” she says.

Another concern is that she’s not Rhonda. “People ask if there’s a Rhonda,” Ms. Gillespie says. “And we say, ‘Of course, and here she is.’ But that won’t have the same meaning now.”

If she changes the name, the store would become Carry, the same name she plans for her new private maternity label. However, with a $30,000 budget for her relaunch, there isn’t much money to rebrand.

“No matter what the name, I’ve got lots to invest in sweat equity,” Ms Gillespie says. “I’m willing to really work social media and put in time and energy.”

The Challenge: Should the new owner keep the name Rhonda and celebrate its legacy, or rebrand as the trendier Carry?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

John Torella, senior partner, marketing, for the consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, Toronto

Ask yourself some questions. How is the brand currently perceived? The name has some strengths and weaknesses. It’s been around for a number of years and has built an image as a specialty maternity wear store. They definitely have some strengths in terms of perception of quality, service and convenience as well as a strong private label. The name Rhonda may feel stale to her but I think that’s in her mind. The name, although dated, can be refreshed and revitalized with a new logo, colour, typeface and graphics. If you think about brands that have gone on and on, they’re constantly evolving. Dove is a great example.

When you change the name, the danger is that you have to start all over to build awareness, understanding and acceptance to where people will come into the store and give you a trial. I wouldn’t be frivolous about making that kind of major change. A name is what you make it. I can literally make any name work. If Häagen-Dazs can be made a name for ice cream, you can make Rhonda Maternity work.

There’s an axiom in branding. It’s harder to forget than to remember. If you want people to forget about Rhonda’s, you’ve got to make a huge investment in getting them to remember a new name. To me, that’s very risky. My advice is to stay with the name. Refresh and revitalize it. Make the experience new and exciting so that the look, feeling, merchandise and staff all feel revitalized.

Revitalize the website before doing any kind of advertising so it’s contemporary, dynamic and interesting. Curated content is so crucial. Mothers-to-be are looking for information. They want to know. Your website is a critical piece. Make the experience new. That’s about product, the store look and service. Does it give you a takeaway feeling of modern or does it look old fashioned? That’s as important as the name.

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