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

Want some attention for your brand? Try changing it.

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

And it's a particularly fraught process when a local brand with a devoted following needs to shift gears. Just ask Amanda Nelson Varnell, the marketing and culinary director for Alchemy Spice Company, who recently joined the nearly 20-year-old business as part of a brand refresh.

Varnell had been using Alchemy spices in her catering business for close to a decade when new owners Henry and John Oehmig hired her. The brothers shared their plans to shorten and simplify Alchemy's signature quirky 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," Varnell says. "I'm an external processor, and I said, 'You guys have messed up.'"

They laugh about it now, and the hand-crafted spice company has tripled sales since the Oehmigs took over, but navigating changes to a brand is serious business, Henry Oehmig says.

"It's a leap, but business is a leap, and you try to take smart bets and risks," says Oehmig, who bought Alchemy Spice Company in 2019.

The new owners have quadrupled food service sales, landed Alchemy on shelves at 51 Publix stores across Tennessee, and added a new digital platform that elevates the visibility of the products in new places across the country.

"We wanted to take this loved, small, market-centric company and product line and try to position it into something with broader appeal and reinforce the premium nature of it," Oehmig says. "Change is always difficult, but we have had positive responses on the whole."

For Barry White, the CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Company, the rebrand he and his team tackled was a whole lot broader than just their organization. They were rebranding the city.

"Our initiative was to uncover the essence of Chattanooga's brand and who we are as a community," says White, who has been in his role since early 2018. "The organization change came naturally as a follow-up to that."

Refreshing Chattanooga's brand was an in-depth process that sought feedback from thousands of visitors, would-be visitors and residents, White says. Throughout the process, the city's character as a place where "we're extremely proud of where we live, but we-re down-to-earth people and we'll take care of you while you're here" came through loud and clear, he adds.

"Our product is Chattanooga," White says. "Any time we're outside of this community marketing ourselves, we are Chattanooga."

But the 2020 rebrand of his organization as the Chattanooga Tourism Company was long overdue after 55 years of being known as the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, he adds.

"The CVB moniker had been around quite a while, and trying to explain that we work for a bureau is not very friendly," White says. "It sounded like a lot of bureaucracy."

For Bellhop, the company that was known until earlier this year as Bellhops, the rebrand was about a lot more than just dropping a letter from the end of the company's name, says Chief Marketing Officer Bill Chase.

Over the last decade, as Bellhop has grown from a labor-only business based on dorm moves to a national, full-service moving and storage company, it needed to change its style to better reflect the ways the business has grown up with its customers, Chase says.

"The name Bellhops sounded like you were hiring just some people to come to your house versus buying an entire service," he says. "The change allows us to add on other services, and Bellhop becomes more of a destination."

Dropping a letter from a name may sound like small stuff, but there are lots of implications to that letter, Chase says. There's a new website domain to buy, new T-shirts to order, new signage to install, trucks that need re-wrapping, email signatures that need updating. And there's getting folks to change their habits, which may be the biggest hurdle of them all, he adds.

"We have thousands of old Bellhops T-shirts out in the field, and we had to send new ones to everyone on the platform, but some of them like the old ones," he says. "We're like, please donate the old one or wear it to the gym."

Even the brand pros have to remember to forget the old name, says Sarah Marshall, senior brand manager for Bellhop.

"I think it definitely took me a couple months after we shortened it," she says. "It feels awkward at first."

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

"It's way more than a logo, way more than typography," he says. "The appropriate time to rebrand is when the truth isn't fully realized."

The highest-profile, and most unfortunate, example of that to hit recently was the rebranding of Facebook to Meta in November, Brown says.

"Facebook has been in trouble," he says. "All of my friends, and for the first time my parents, are questioning, 'What are we on? What did we sign up for?' Then Facebook decided to rebrand."

But generally, the reasons for rebranding are less about damage control and more about reflecting changes that are just part of doing business, Dahl says.

"It is about telling the truest truth about your business to the right people," he says. "You change when you're either not accurately depicting who you are and what you do, or you're telling your story to the wrong audience."

For Food City CEO Steve Smith, the challenge was introducing a new brand into a market where an old and storied local brand had fallen on hard times, 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 rebranded Red Food Stores as Bi-Lo. In 2015, family-owned, Virginia-based Food City bought the 29 Bi-Lo supermarkets in the Chattanooga area.

"It was more complicated than just coming in and taking over some Bi-Lo stores," Smith says. "You had a company with a very rich history with the Red Food organization that went back decades in the history of Chattanooga. For 20 years they bounced around from ownership to ownership that didn't always put a lot back into it. We knew what we were getting into, we knew we had rebuilding to do."

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

"You want your customers to trust you and you want your associates to trust you, too," he says. "We had to win the associates over when we came to Chattanooga."

Food City leadership worked to do that through investing in the stores and their people, as well as building new stores throughout the area, including in East Ridge and on South Broad Street, Smith says. But folks who remember Red Food are still plentiful, he adds.

"We still hear Red Food," Smith says.

Ultimately, changing a brand means signing up for some heavy lifting, and perhaps some challenging feedback, Dahl says.

"The factor of change itself, no matter how well you change, no matter how good the reasons are for changing, you have to have an appetite for discomfort in the public eye," he says. "You have to have a good reason for that change of brand, and a good reason from your audience's perspective."


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