Merge ahead?

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Beyond causing despair among investors, anemic stock valuations set the stage for mergers and acquisitions. Now that the free fall among dot-com and Internet-centric companies appears to be leveling off, we'll inevitably begin to see stronger, better-financed survivors and traditional businesses acquire those left standing.

How should these buyers manage this maneuver? Specifically, how can they enhance the acquired brand?

"Don’t automatically change the name, and don’t create what I call a ‘squish’ name," said Elizabeth J. Goodgold, chief nuancer at The Nuancing Group, a brand identity consultancy in San Diego.

The habit among merged companies to concatenate their names is driven by ego—not a cool-headed inspection of the business and its goals or a realistic assessment of the stronger brand, Goodgold said. The recent combination of UBS AG and Paine Webber Group Inc., which in March began operating as UBS PaineWebber Inc., is a prime example of this mistake, she said.

"First, it’s a mistake because it starts with an acronym, and I still don’t know what UBS stands for. Second, it’s a hybrid name; and third, it’s a sound-alike, so I wonder if ‘UBS’ is ‘UPS,’ " she said.

Another branding expert, Daryl Travis of Brandtrust Inc., Chicago, draws similar conclusions.

"The fundamental flaw is to not look forward and do a little narrative on what they expect the business to look like three years out, five years out," Travis said. Moreover, Travis cautions that a sustainable brand requires awareness—the "yeah, I’ve heard of them" component—as well as an intellectual or emotional connection.

Chuck Donofrio, president-CEO of Carton Donofrio Partners Inc., Raleigh, N.C., said the instinct during a merger is to focus on internal issues, often starting with an assessment of how to cut staffing.

"But it’s still the wrong focus. It’s always the wrong focus," Donofrio said. "Instead of worrying about the people you have to fire, worry about the new customers you are acquiring that you have to satisfy."

The first step, he said, should be to increase communication with your customers. "You have to identify and communicate with the constituents," he said, adding, "It’s not enough to say how the balance sheet will be better off, but why these customers will be better off."

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