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Businesses with 'Isis' name fighting bad brand image

Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif., says it

Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif., says it has no plans to change its name despite the new notoriety of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, frequently called ISIS. This is from Sept. 29, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Lenny Ignelzi

Aeran Brent is tired of visitors asking about her store's name or snapping pictures of the sign outside.

Unfortunately, that's life for a small-business owner whose shop -- Isis Bridal and Formal -- shares a name with ISIS, the acronym of the notorious militant group that the United States is fighting in Iraq and Syria.

"I'm just like, 'Come on!' " she says. "I get what's going on, but can you see it's a store?"

Brent says she wants to rename her store, in southern California, to avoid any confusion with the group sometimes called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"Isis" is part of more than 270 product, service or business names among active federal trademarks, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But businesses are not required to register their names, so it is difficult to say how many companies use "Isis," which is also the name of an Egyptian and pagan goddess.

For those companies, the "Isis" name can be damaging. Branding experts say an unfortunate association with a name can scar a company's reputation even if the connection is coincidental.

Take Isis Collections Inc., a New Jersey company that makes weaves, wigs and hairpieces. CEO Phillip Shin says stores have told him customers will put his company's products back on the shelf after noticing the Isis label. In the United Kingdom, he's heard that competitors have joked at trade shows about his business being tied to terrorists.

Shin has started removing the Isis label from some packages. But he's reluctant to give up on a 20-year-old brand. He says he wishes the U.S. and European media would stop referring to the militant group as ISIS.

Isis Collections has had no sales problems in South Korea, where the media only refer to the group as the Islamic State.

Another company, technology startup Isis Wallet, announced last month it would change its name to Softcard. The joint venture involving AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless launched late last year with an app that allows people to use their smartphones while checking out at a store to get discounts and use credit or loyalty cards.

By June, company leaders were thinking about rebranding to avoid confusion with the militant group, which had taken over large swaths of Iraq and later filmed the beheadings of up to four Westerners, including two American journalists.

"However coincidental, we have no desire to share a name with this group, and our hearts go out to those affected by this violence," CEO Michael Abbott said in a Sept. 3 blog post announcing the new name.

While changing an established company name can be costly, Softcard's name change makes sense to Joseph Lewis, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Barnes & Thornburg who specializes in trademarks. He noted the company is new and still building its image.

More established brands that don't deal directly with consumers may not take as much of a hit. Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc. has no plans to change a brand it has built over 25 years. The California company develops drugs and then partners with other companies to sell them. It doesn't sell products directly to consumers, and its name doesn't appear on any of the products it helped develop.

So far, only a few investors have asked company officials about the name.

"We've been around for a while," says D. Wade Walke, vice president of corporate communications. "They can easily distinguish between us and a Middle Eastern terrorist group."

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