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What a difference a name makes. Do you have any doubt that Primerica, the financial services company, will do even better when it becomes Travelers? Or that new computer drawing software for children using the Crayola brand name will sell like hotcakes?

But does anyone really think AT&T's NCR computer division will be enhanced when it's renamed AT&T Global Information Solutions? And while we're on AT&T could somebody please tell me what the company's TrueUSA promotion is about?

A big reason for MCI's huge success in the consumer market is its ability to put names on new products that are both catchy and understandable. "Friends & Family" worked because people immediately grasped what it was all about. That's more than you can say for AT&T's "i" promotion, which was supposed to be its answer to "Friends & Family"; it was totally incomprehensible.

Sometimes the problem isn't an obscure name, it's a name that consumers believe stands for something else. Sterling Drug fired its ad agency because of slow sales of Bayer Select (a different version for a variety of ailments) but the fault for Select's flop doesn't lie with the agency. Bayer is aspirin, and aspirin is Bayer to most consumers. The problem is Bayer Select is not aspirin, it's acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen. But acetaminophen is the same stuff used in Tylenol. And if people with aches and pains want such an analgesic they'll buy Tylenol.

Sterling allowed itself to get so diverted by the Select launch that it allowed its core brand to erode to the point where the product is an also-ran. Better Sterling should have reallocated some of those millions it spent advertising Select to shoring up Bayer aspirin.

Remember that great slogan of a few years back: "The wonder drug that works wonders?" If I were Mr. Sterling I'd revive that campaign.

If Sterling was determined to get into the acetaminophen market it already had a good brand to couple with Select-Panadol, a successful European pain remedy using acetaminophen.

But it could be that the whole Select experience was too diverting for Sterling. That's what Business Week thinks is the problem with Pepsi-Cola these days. Pepsi and Diet Pepsi both lost share in supermarkets last year, and some bottlers think it's because the Pepsi brass was too busy implementing a multibrand strategy that included fruit juices, iced tea and sports drinks. Plus a clear cola called Crystal Pepsi.

The latter has been a major disappointment, and the company thinks it can solve its problem by calling it just plain Crystal, From the Makers of Pepsi. But as long as the Pepsi name is anywhere near, the Pepsi Generation knows that whatever that clear stuff is, it's not Pepsi. If they wanted a clear drink they would have ordered Perrier.

You can't force a brand to be something it's not, and that's what the brain trusts at Sterling and now Pepsi have insisted on doing. And they're both paying the price for their marketing sins.

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