What to do when your new company name is shared by a gang of criminal fraudsters

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Last month, a North Carolina marketing agency formerly called Textivia was all set to announce its rebrand to 3VE when partner David Christopher received an ominous email.

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“Goodbye 3ve,” read part of the subject line of an automated message from Google.

It wasn’t that the internet giant had anything against the 15-person agency. It was just that the name, which partner and COO Neal Maier says cost more than $150,000 to develop, including internal labor costs, turned out to also be a code name that FBI investigators and tech firms had used to refer to an alleged multimillion-dollar international fraud ring.

The code name was revealed by federal prosecutors and investigators at Google and security firm White Ops in November, and it first came on the marketing agency’s radar when the email arrived heralding Google’s role in taking down a massive automated botnet tied to the alleged fraud.

“Coincidentally, we were a couple of days away from notifying our clients that this [rebranding] announcement was going to come on January 3,” says Maier.

To make matters worse, the alleged crimes were themselves linked to online advertising: Prosecutors say eight people indicted last month were involved in creating bogus websites to run online ads and driving malware-infected computers to those sites, where they impersonated human viewers to collect payments from advertisers.

That meant online searches for 3VE, even with industry-specific keywords like “marketing” or “advertising,” would turn up coverage of the accused fraudsters. That could confuse potential clients and employees and make it hard to even find the agency’s online presence.

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“Pretty instantly we knew the brand was dead”

“Pretty instantly we knew the brand was dead, especially being that it was in our niche,” Maier says. “There’s just no clear path to overcome it.”

The marketing firm, which is now playfully calling itself The Agency Without A Name, had started on the rebranding last March. Partners felt the company had outgrown the name Textivia, which originated with a text-messaging trivia game built early in the firm’s lifetime, and which some potential customers found difficult to pronounce.

The company, which has grown into broader marketing and strategy consulting, had adopted a process it calls “solve, move, evolve,” Maier says. That, along with the fact that the firm is led by three partners, inspired the name. The 3VE name was set to officially launch on January 3, and the company had already designed a website, acquired the costly 3ve.com domain, and filed legal paperwork to register the new name.

Now, it’s asking the public to help come up with a new identity. The Agency Without a Name is hoping to shed that status over the next couple of months, running a contest to drum up ideas for another new moniker.

“What we’re looking for is a name that’s unique and also reflects not only who we are but also what we are,” he says.

While the crowdsourcing effort is likely to bring in some publicity, Maier says it will also be easier for the agency than coming up with another name in-house so soon after being burned.

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“When you’re heartbroken, it’s hard to paint another masterpiece,” he says.

Not the first to suffer from unfortunate coincidences: ISIS, Ayds, Osama

The agency isn’t the first organization to have to change its name after such an unfortunate coincidence: After the terrorist group ISIS began to draw headlines in the Middle East, many similarly named organizations and projects around the world changed their names. A weight loss supplement candy called Ayds saw sales plummet during the 1980s, after the similarly pronounced immune disease became prominent. And in 2009, a Chicago hair salon saw business grow after renaming from Ossama’s Hair Design to Obama’s Hair Design, honoring the newly elected president and removing associations with Osama bin Laden.

“The rule of thumb for this probably is: If the negative name association is too big for you to resist it and absorb the difficulties, consider changing names,” says Chris Silver Smith, president and strategist at Dallas online marketing company Argent Media, in an email. He’s previously written about other issues with unfortunate name overlaps.

“A small, new company facing a hugely visible negative news spike should move as quickly as possible to get out from under the cloud,” he suggests.

The Agency Without a Name is looking to collect some ideas by the end of this month, with the hopes of having a name and logo ready by late February, says Maier.

“We don’t play the victim in this–we shed a tear or two, but immediately you’ve got to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps,” Maier says.

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