What the P&O Saga Tells us About Branding

blog brand name brand naming brand strategy branding sales differentiation Jul 08, 2022

There are so many nuances to names that people need to learn about if they’re creating brands.

I’ve been advising and supporting companies, founders, and branding professionals on aspects of naming for more than 20 years and developed a good understanding of what people don’t know they don’t know when it comes to naming.

Often when we do due diligence on a name and it transpires that the client can’t use their desired name and needs to find an alternative one, people ask why a similar name that’s not exactly the same as an existing registration is problematic. For example, if the existing registration doesn’t include a descriptor and theirs includes a descriptor like ‘Property’ or ‘Programme’, they wonder why it’s not possible for them to co-exist and use their desired name.

Well, the recent saga of P&O Ferries and P&O Cruises is a good way to understand why descriptors don’t distance a name from an existing trademark that is in use in your sector.

In 2000 P&O hived off its cruise business into a separate company called P&O Princess Cruises. This entity was focused on long haul luxury travel and the company was then eventually sold to another entity. The sale included the right for it to continue to use the P&O name for its high-end luxury cruises. P&O Ferries focused on shorter ferry transportation and was sold off separately to Dubai World.

When P&O Ferries recently suspended its operations and sacked its 800 staff via a Zoom call the brand suffered huge reputational damage. It didn’t help that things kept getting worse, with P&O Ferries abruptly cancelling sailings, and its replacement crews being found to be too inexperienced by maritime inspectors who then suspended several of its ships. Consequently, people soon had safety concerns about using P&O Ferries. I certainly would never use the company again if I ever had to cross the channel in a ferry.

P&O Ferries’ actions cut to the very core of its business. If it had been one isolated catastrophe in which it laid off its people and then moved on, then possibly everyone might have forgotten about it. But the company kept hurting itself, its passengers and the reputation of its innocent namesake P&O Cruises.

The damage is being done to P&O Cruises because although these two brands are in separate ownership, they share the same name. As such they are perceived as the same even though they have nothing to do with one another. The reputation of P&O Cruises suffers because of the negative associations that the P&O name now carries.

The foundation of any brand is the core name, in this case P&O. That is what captures its identity and reputation. The fact that it might have Ferries or Cruises at the end doesn’t alter the perception that it’s the same brand.

About 10 years ago a client came to me who had resolved his dispute with his former partner by splitting the business into two with each of the founders taking half the client list and agreeing to focus on different areas within their sector and area of expertise. They were both going to use the same name though, but just with different descriptors. I warned him against using the same name because they were potentially storing up problems for themselves for the future, but he ignored my advice. If I’d had the P&O Ferries saga to point to, I suspect he would have taken more notice of my misgivings.

If you want to confidently choose names you need to learn more about intellectual property and trademarks. IP is also the core discipline to understand to create distinctive brands. But you’d be wrong to assume that when I mention IP and trademarks I have “law” in mind. I am not referring to UK law or to any specific country’s laws.

IP principles are about understanding business and how creations of the mind are protected in the world. The principles are similar the world over. That’s why one of the best business schools in China, Tsinghua teaches IP as part of its MBA curriculum, and in parts of China such as Tianjin, IP is taught in primary and secondary schools. The IP that is being taught in these places is primarily IP principles that anyone involved in business and brands needs to know whichever country they’re located in. It’s not the minute details of Chinese law or any other country’s laws. These will differ in each country but the general principles of IP that underpin them will be the same. IP is really important to understand if you’re involved in business and brands.

Invest in yourself by joining the Brand Tuned Accreditation program and, among other things, learn the best practice approach to use from an IP perspective when creating new brands. You’ll also learn how to design distinctive brands taking account of IP.

Upgrading your skills will foster greater success for your clients, and equip you to better position your value, so you get paid more, and attract clients who will value your input. And if you’re a founder looking to create your brand or to rebrand your business, I guarantee you will get huge value from this course to design your business for success.

This is your last chance to sign up to the Brand Tuned Accreditation program for half the normal price. Go to this page to book your place before the price goes up on 15 July. (Note that the program will now start on 8th September instead of 1st September due to the school holidays in the UK). The price will never again be on offer at half price.

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