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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.
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.
Claude Auchu, partner and creative director of design, lg2, an advertising agency based in Montreal
I'd change the name. People go to Yorkville because there's a maternity store, not particularly because there's a Rhonda store. What's important are referrals at the office or from friends. If someone recommends Rhonda's in Yorkville and you go to that location and find a maternity store called Carry instead, you're still going to enter.
Anther reason is that Ms. Gillespie will probably feel more like she owns that place if she changes the name. It will draw a line between before and after she became the owner. She'd probably feel more motivated by changing.
Whether she keeps Rhonda or changes to Carry, she needs to be out there. I went on Rhonda's Facebook page, and since August, 2011, there are only 26 fans and the last post was May 15th. Whatever the brand name is, if you don't work your store and your brand, it won't make a difference whether it's a good name, bad name, old name or new name.
Grab attention on the street by working on the signage and having a good showcase for the window display. When I went on Google street view to see her storefront, it was really cluttered. There are a lot of stores on each side and underneath, so even when you're on the street, you have to look for Rhonda. It's not in your face.
Tony Smith, vice-president and creative director, Hudson's Bay Co., which recently decided to replace "The Bay" with "Hudson's Bay" in its department store branding, Toronto
Rhonda isn't a modern, compelling, fresh name. It doesn't resonate in 2013. It doesn't even have the 20s hipster-cool thing going on, whereas Carry is very current, on-trend in naming.
I was also thinking about the rhythm of her customer base. You come to this store once or twice, maybe three times in your life, but you don't have repeat customers that you're trying to create a long-term association with. Her target is first- or second-time young mothers. You have to stay with the times and attract that kind of customer. For online shopping, Rhonda sounds dated as well. If a list of maternity stores came up in a search, I wouldn't click on it first.
In the case of Hudson's Bay, we went back to the original name because we felt that a "back to the future" approach was where we were taking the company – maintaining our heritage while modernizing at the same time. It's a hugely old brand, and for most of the hundreds of years it's been around, it was Hudson's Bay Company. Now that Bonnie Brooks has brought in Burberry, Coach and other high-level brands, there's a current cool factor in going back to the original name.
But in Ms. Gillespie's case, I definitely land in the camp of "in with the new." It's a chance to create a new identity. There are costs involved in getting new business cards, signage and all that stuff but it's worth it. Calling the house clothing brand Carry as well is genius. There's your news right there. That's what you can hang your story on.
Do a PR push to coincide with the opening. Have a party to get the news out and generate a little buzz so people are aware. If you just change the name and don't do anything to make it news, you're missing a huge opportunity. Third party recommendations are best, so approach the editorial departments of the magazines like Today's Parent and Canadian Family and the newspapers. Because it's new ownership and she's freshening it up, you can actually make a story out of the newness. You just get one shot to be a real story when you do the changeover.
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