Comcast's New Name: Rated X?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Top: Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa

Turns out that Comcast, the media conglomerate with more than 47.1 million cable, Internet and telephone customers, has more to fret about than integrating a struggling brand (NBC) into its fold. Now the company has to deal with all the jokes about the new name for its core products. Though the parent company will retain the Comcast name, next week its cable, telephone and Internet services will be rebranded Xfinity in 11 markets, and nationwide thereafter.

Xfinity? Huh? It's no surprise that the blogosphere had a field day with the name. Gizmodo called it the "worst, pseudo-pornographic, retrofuturistic marketing dollars can buy." Another well-trafficked blog, the Consumerist, also said Xfinity sounded like a porn company. "Sorry, it just does," the site wrote. In an unscientific poll, I asked a few people for their first thoughts when I mentioned the name. The responses: "Porn." "Porn." "Stupid." "An energy drink or a porn site." "Stupid name." "Not positive." "Extreme sports." "A satellite something." "A car." "Drugs and porn."

At least one brand guru is also shaking his head in disbelief. "It's a complete and total waste of time and resources," says Rob Frankel, who has consulted for companies like Disney, Burger King and Sony. "Nobody has a clue as to why they did this or what the name means. If you are going to rebrand, it should communicate a strategy. Now you'll just say, 'The old Comcast guys f_____ up my cable.' "

The name is a nod to a Comcast technology initiative called Project Infinity, which CEO Brian Roberts unveiled at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show. Under Project Infinity, the company's video-on-demand views have more than doubled, to 14 billion cumulative views, over the past two years. Internet speeds have tripled. Comcast's online movie and television-show choices jumped from 3,700 in the first quarter of 2008 to 19,100 by the end of 2009. The company is changing, so Comcast feels the name should change with it. "At its core, Xfinity is infinite potential," says David Watson, executive vice president of operations at Comcast Cable. "The pace of innovation put us in this moment. It's the right time to consider something like this."

So why not just name it, say, Infinity? Lame, yes. But at least that would eliminate the X's giving folks the giggles. "This is a long-term investment," says Watson. "We're going to come out with a strong advertising campaign in a week, and it will be something we're going to build on. Our job is to make sure that people get what this stands for: more choice, more control than anybody else in the marketplace. So we're going to build on this. And people who aren't there right away, we're going to try to win them over."

Good luck. Corporate-name changes have a mixed history. Some adjustments seem logical, like when a company wants to dissociate itself with a negative trait. For example, Philip Morris switched to Altria in 2003 (of course, by now most people know that Altria is associated with cigarettes). Accenture was fortunate. In 2001, the company changed its name from Andersen Consulting right before the word Andersen, as in Arthur Andersen, became synonymous with cooking the books. Now when you think Accenture, you think Tiger Woods scandal. (Guess they're not so lucky after all.)

Comcast doesn't seem to need a rebranding. Fueled by higher Internet and phone revenue and a onetime tax gain, company earnings more than doubled, to $955 million, in the fourth quarter. "Here's one thing we do know," says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "Comcast is going to spend a huge amount of money to get that brand to mean what it wants it to mean." Here's another thing we know. Shareholders should be asking, "Why?"