Special Report

The Surprising Reasons These Companies and Brands Changed Their Names

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After a multi-year saga, the NFL franchise in Washington, D.C. has a new name – the Commanders. The team had played for two seasons as the Washington Football Team. That was a temporary stopgap name to replace its old name, Washington Redskins, which franchise owner Dan Snyder had been under immense pressure to change, as it was seen by many as a highly offensive racial slur.

The Commanders became the latest in a long line of brands, companies, and organizations that had to change their names as a way to make them more successful and marketable and to distance themselves from scandal.

To determine surprising reasons brands changed their names, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed notable cases of companies and brands that changed their names because of a negative public image, a new marketing strategy, or because of another issue with their previous name.

Some companies change or tweak their names in the hopes of shifting their public image. A number of restaurants and food companies have changed names in the hopes of seeming healthier. 

Others have tweaked their monikers as they grew. A number of notable internet and tech companies used somewhat strange placeholder names in their early stages, but then decided that names like BackRub, Cadabra, and Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web were just a bit too bizarre to make it big.

There are also some name changes in corporate history that were necessitated because of bad public relations. Many companies on this list were engulfed in major scandals – some involving fraud, racism, and even murder. After these stories broke, the businesses were forced to rebrand in order to distance themselves from the malfeasance and the public outrage that came with it. These are America’s most hated companies.

Click here to see the surprising reasons these companies and brands changed their names

Source: TennesseePhotographer / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

1. Subway
> Former name: Pete’s Super Submarines

The fast-food sandwich chain now known as Subway was founded in 1965 — only back then it went by the name Pete’s Super Submarines, or, Pete’s Submarines, as it read in ads and on billboards.

The shop was initially named after the man the restaurant’s founder, Fred DeLuca, had borrowed money from to get the operation off the ground. The relatively cumbersome name was short lived, however, as it was often misheard as “pizza submarine.” The chain changed its name to the now familiar Subway in 1968.


Source: Rob Carr / Getty Images Sport via Getty Images

2. Washington Commanders
> Former name: Washington Redskins

After two seasons as the Washington Football Team, the NFL franchise representing the Washington D.C. area changed its name to the Commanders. The franchise had played under the moniker of “Redskins” for nearly 90 years but finally changed it after mounting pressure.

The “Redskins” name was considered highly offensive by many, as it is a reference to the scalps of Native Americans who were killed for a bounty. The team’s logo was also a caricature of a Native American man.

Source: Courtesy of Bausch Health Companies Inc.

3. Bausch Health
> Former name: Valeant Pharmaceuticals

Canadian drugmaker Valeant Pharmaceuticals announced plans to rebrand as Bausch Health in 2018, as the company was embroiled in several major scandals. Valeant received negative press after it purchased the rights to existing drugs and then inflated their prices. It was also revealed in 2015 that Valeant paid kickbacks to mail-order pharmacy Philidor to encourage the company to push Valeant products instead of cheaper generic drugs. A Valeant executive and the CEO of Philidor were both convicted on four charges related to the scheme and sentenced to a year in prison.

Valeant and several of its high-level employees were also investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2016 for “improper revenue recognition and misleading disclosures.” The company eventually settled these charges in 2020 for $45 million. The former CEO, CFO, and controller also agreed to pay penalties.

4. AirTran Airways
> Former name: ValuJet Airlines

On May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades, with no survivors among the 110 passengers and crew. Following the crash, despite initially ruling the airline safe, the FAA grounded ValuJet Airlines flights in June 1996 for three months. The FAA stated ValuJet knowingly flew planes that were potentially unsafe. Although it later returned to offering inexpensive flights, in 1997 ValuJet acquired AirTran Airways, taking the smaller airline’s name.


Source: tupungato / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

5. Dunkin’
> Former name: Dunkin’ Donuts

Breakfast chain Dunkin’ Donuts made a splash in 2018 when the company dropped the “Donuts” to simplify its name to “Dunkin’.”

Though it was not mentioned in the announcement, analysts believe that dropping “Donuts” could have been part of an effort to seem more health conscious. Along with the rebrand, Dunkin’ introduced plant-based Beyond Sausages to its breakfast sandwich lineup, as well as non-coffee drink options.

Source: SVG: DepthfieldLogo: Academi / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

6. Academi
> Former name: Blackwater

The private military contractor once known as Blackwater has changed its name twice in recent years to try to distance itself from scandal. In September 2007, Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, killing 14 non-combatants. Four guards were convicted of murder or manslaughter but later pardoned by President Donald Trump. In February 2009, likely in part as a public relations move, Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services. Just a few months later, two of its mercenaries fired on a vehicle and killed two Afghan civilians.

In December 2011, the company again changed its name, this time to Academi. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the company’s CEO, Ted Wright, explained the name change was an attempt to appear more “boring.”


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7. Monsanto
> Former name: Bayer

Agricultural giant Monsanto had built up a negative public image throughout the 20th century, notably for producing the weapon Agent Orange used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. The company also dealt with PR issues over its production of genetically modified organisms and settled a case related to hazardous herbicide for $86.7 million. Monsanto also settled suits filed against small farmers over intellectual property rights for seeds.

In 2018, Monsanto was acquired by German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which announced it would discontinue the Monsanto brand. Business Insider reported that Bayer representatives said on a conference call that Monsanto had considered rebranding itself “to try to improve the Monsanto brand” because of the negative image.

Source: krblokhin / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

8. Altria
> Former name: Philip Morris

Philip Morris, maker of brands like Marlboro, changed its name to Altria Group Inc. in 2003 on the same day that the company was cleared of responsibility in a wrongful death case. The move had been planned since 2001. Philip Morris claimed that the name change was intended to emphasize that the company sells a wide array of products, in addition to the famous tobacco brand. But the assumption for many is that the move was largely to disassociate the company from its controversial product.

An anti-tobacco group, Intact, called the plan “a PR maneuver meant to distance the corporation’s image from its deadly business practices.” The tobacco units, Philip Morris International and Philip Morris USA, kept their original names.

Source: Courtesy of Titan Sports

9. WWF
> Former name: WWE

The popular entertainment company once known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, had to change its name for a very different reason than many of the other companies on this list — a trademark violation. Few multimillion dollar companies come across such a problem.

But the World Wildlife Fund, a global conservation organization founded in 1961 that carries the initials WWF, sued the entertainment group and won on the grounds that it had broken a 1994 agreement that it would limit use of the WWF initials. The WWF in 2002 changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment, and finally just WWE.


Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News via Getty Images

10. Meta
> Former name: Facebook

Though subscribers will still be logging in to Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the company changed its corporate name to Meta Platforms, Inc. The company said it changed its name to Meta as it is expanding its virtual reality technology and digital commerce business, shifting its focus to the “metaverse.”

The major rebrand move comes after a wave of criticism following the release of thousands of internal documents claiming that Facebook knew its platforms harm teenage mental health but chose profit over safety, that the social media giant failed to act against human traffickers and drug cartels using the site, and failed to stop famous users who posted violent content or conspiracy theories.

Source: Prykhodov / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

11. Backrub
> Former name: Google

Before it became the world’s leading search engine, Google was a project at Stanford University. Initially, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin called the search engine “BackRub” because it worked by analyzing a website’s backlinks to determine its importance. Yet the founders wanted a new name, and a classmate suggested “googol” which is the digit 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The classmate misspelled it as “Google” and the rest is history.

The company Google also went through something of a rebrand recently. Google restructured in 2015, creating the Alphabet parent company, which owns the search engine and various other products as well.


Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News via Getty Images

12. Pearl Milling Company
> Former name: Aunt Jemima

For years, Aunt Jemima-brand maple syrup and pancake mix was a breakfast time staple for many Americans. Yet the name was changed to Pearl Milling Company in 2020.

The brand’s parent company, PepsiCo, decided to change the name amid the nationwide protests against racism and systemic inequality, which claimed the Aunt Jemima character used on the packaging was “based on a racial stereotype.” The character was based on an actual woman named Nancy Green, who had been enslaved in Kentucky.

Source: Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

13. WW
> Former name: Weight Watchers

After 55 years in business as Weight Watchers, a weight management services company, changed its name to WW in 2018. The change was part of a rebranding effort designed to keep the company competitive as cultural norms around weight loss began to change. Namely, dieting has become taboo in favor of personal wellness and body positivity. The rebranding appears to have been effective to some degree, as the company’s share price has climbed over 25% in the last year.

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14. Xfinity
> Former name: Comcast

Comcast has consistently been one of America’s least-liked well-known large companies, even being named the worst company in America by Consumerist in 2010. Just after, the company rebranded its cable service to Xfinity in 2010.

Consumers are consistently more dissatisfied with the products and services provided by cable companies like Comcast than they are with those from other industries, including airlines, cell phone companies, and health insurers.


Source: Mci logo / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

15. MCI
> Former name: Worldcom

Telephone and data company WorldCom swapped its name to MCI in 2003 after its image was shattered by a massive, multi-billion dollar accounting scandal.

WorldCom appeared to be thriving in the late 1990s, but much of that success had been a sham. Billions in WorldCom’s profits were improperly recorded for the wrong year, and billions in expenses were classified as investments, grossly inflating the company’s profits. All in all, WorldCom’s books were off by $11 billion

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News via Getty Images

16. KFC
> Former name: Kentucky Fried Chicken

In 1991, fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken made the decision to simplify its name to its initials, KFC.

KFC executives told Bloomberg that they wanted to “reduce dependence on the word ‘fried,'” to help the restaurant attract consumers who may be more health conscious. The restaurants began offering non-fried options like broiled chicken and chicken salad sandwiches.


Source: Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport via Getty Images

17. Livestrong Foundation
> Former name: Lance Armstrong Foundation

The Lance Armstrong Foundation began in 1997 — in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer diagnosis — as a charity to raise money for cancer research. However, after years of speculation and investigations, it became indisputable in August 2012 that the seven time Tour de France champion had been illegally using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his professional career.

In the fallout, Armstrong was stripped of his titles and banned from professional cycling. Armstrong’s charity foundation formally changed its name to the Livestrong Foundation in a rebranding effort.

Source: American Outdoor Brands, Inc / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

18. American Outdoor Brands Corporation
> Former name: Smith & Wesson

Smith & Wesson Holding, the parent company of the Smith & Wesson firearm brand, changed its name to American Outdoor Brands in 2017. The change was likely made primarily in response to the volatility of the firearms market.

Gun sales can fluctuate considerably in the United States due to current events, such as mass shootings, and political trends. By changing its name, the company aimed to expand its outdoor gear business to new markets that might have negative views of the firearm industry.

19. Ally Financial
> Former name: GMAC Bank

In 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis and the bailing out of a number of major financial institutions, the U.S. government bailed out the American auto industry to the tune of over $80 billion. As part of this lifeline, the government purchased billions of dollars in shares of GMAC, which began as the financing arm of General Motors and was partially owned by the automaker. It also injected money into GM directly.

In 2010, GMAC changed the name of its banking unit to Ally Financial. The decision appears to have been made to distance the company from both its own rescue and General Motors’ financial difficulties.


Source: AdrianHancu / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

20. Amazon
> Former name: Cadabra

Before it became an ecommerce behemoth, Amazon’s name was in flux, as Jeff Bezos tried to get his business off the ground. Bezos initially wanted to call his company Cadabra, like the end of the magician’s phrase “Abracadabra,” but his attorney thought the phrase might be too obscure of a reference, and that the name could easily be mistaken for “cadaver,” the medical term for a deаd body.

Bezos tried out other names like Relentless, Browse, Bookmall, and more. He eventually settled on Amazon, naming his company after the largest river in the world.

Source: Graeme Robertson / Getty Images News via Getty Images

21. BP
> Former name: British Petroleum

Following a merger with American oil company Amoco, British Petroleum decided it was time for a rebrand. The company opted to remove the word “petroleum” and go by its initials, BP. This was done to give the brand a more environmentally friendly tone, along with its “beyond petroleum” slogan.

However, this green image was short-lived, as the company received huge backlash following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.


Source: Joe Raedle / Getty Images News via Getty Images

22. Pepsi
> Former name: Brad’s Drink

Pepsi was invented in the late 1800s by a North Carolina pharmacist named Caleb Bradham. He operated a soda fountain, and his most popular beverage was his own concoction, which he called Brad’s Drink.

As the drink began to get more popular, Bradham wanted a better name for his product. He eventually settled on Pepsi-Cola, though sources differ on why. Some say it was because the beverage included the enzyme pepsin, though others maintain it was because Pepsi was supposed to aid with indigestion, an affliction which is formally known as “dyspepsia.”

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

23. Yahoo!
> Former name: Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web

Yahoo! was one of the largest internet companies from the dotcom boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But in its infancy, Yahoo! started as a list of websites organized and categorized by its founders Jerry Yang and David Filo as a grad school project at Stanford. The pair called this catalog “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.”

As the site grew in popularity, the pair decided they needed a new name and landed on Yahoo!. They joked that it is actually an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.”

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