It’s bold to ditch a household name

3rd August 2020

In any business sector, it can take decades to build a successful brand that’s recognised and respected by the public as a ‘household name’. The process starts with vision and then requires a winning combination of product quality, pricing, marketing, distribution and customer service. Having achieved all that, a brand can be a major element in the total value of the company itself. In general, it takes a very good reason to prompt abandonment of a popular brand, but it can happen.

An example of a major rebranding exercise in the financial services sector was undertaken early on in the new millennium by insurance and investment management titan Aviva. In 2008, it began to phase out one of the best-known names in the UK insurance industry, Norwich Union. With a pedigree going back more than two centuries, Norwich Union was a name too valuable to consign to history without an extremely compelling reason.

Impressive heritage

The origins of Norwich Union can be traced back to 1797, when a Norfolk merchant called Thomas Bignold established The Norwich Union Society for the Insurance of Houses, Stock and Merchandise from Fire. Later, in 1808, he founded another mutual, The Norwich Union Society for Insurances on Lives and Survivorships. His original fire insurer demutualised in 1821 and merged with another insurance firm.

Meanwhile, the wider life and general insurance operations thrived, expanding UK-wide and globally. The name Norwich Union Life Insurance Society was adopted in 1893. Further expansion followed throughout the twentieth century. The 1990s wave of privatisation and demutualisation saw Norwich Union float on the London Stock Exchange in the insurer’s bicentenary year of 1997. Thousands of policyholders became Norwich Union shareholders.

New name created

The flotation was a catalyst for major growth, notably involving a merger in 2000 with former rival CGU, the product of a 1998 amalgamation of Commercial Union and General Accident. At first named CGNU, the resultant group with world-wide insurance interests needed a sharper name to deliver global recognition. In 2002 the palindrome Aviva was conceived. The Norwich Union brand was initially retained in the UK but later a decision was made to start phasing it out during 2008.

Announcing completion of the UK name change on 1 June 2009, Aviva said: “A consistent, recognisable name and branding across its markets around the world is an important part of Aviva’s strategy to succeed in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace. For Norwich Union customers, becoming Aviva is not just about a name change, it is also about being part of a company which is transforming itself to meet the needs of its customers.”

Logo keeps Norwich link

Over a decade later, Aviva’s name is familiar and its Norwich Union heritage reflected in the stylised image of Norwich Cathedral still featured in the corporate logo. Public awareness of the new brand was assisted by an extended TV ad campaign featuring characters amusingly portrayed by comedian Paul Whitehouse.  At the same time, Aviva strengthened its relationship with the broker community, creating its dedicated Aviva Broker website.

Has Aviva’s decision to abandon the Norwich Union name been beneficial? The answer is complex, as the 2009 UK rebrand has been a single inextricable factor behind Aviva’s ongoing global performance. Commenting on half-year results in 2019, recently replaced CEO Maurice Tulloch concluded: “We delivered steady results while working to further strengthen our fundamentals and improve commercial rigour. I am confident that we will succeed in making Aviva a simpler, stronger, better business that becomes recognised as a leader in its markets and a source of attractive shareholder returns.”

Fully considered rationale

What that Aviva statement highlights is that every facet of the business – from its organisational structure to its marketing strategy – is under constant scrutiny and always liable to revision in an ever-changing marketplace. So, it’s fair to conclude that, with a new global name at the heart of corporate strategy in the early 2000s, Aviva’s decision to pension-off the established Norwich Union brand name was backed by a fully-considered, forward-looking rationale. Taking the Aviva brand into the 2020s is now the job of new CEO Amanda Blanc.

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