What’s In A Name?: 2014 was not a good year for your mobile payments service to be named “ISIS”


isis-gaza[Editor’s note: This is the first in a new Pando series called “What’s In A Name?” in which we look at the stories behind how some of tech’s biggest companies got their names. The series is sponsored by Braintree, so you’ll only see their ads around “What’s In A Name?” pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. Braintree had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

It’s 2010. AT&T, T Mobile and Verizon are launching a new mobile payment offering. The ISIS Wallet as it is called, has the stated intent to change how we shop, pay and save. Users download an app, purchase a special case for their phone, load up credit card details, and voila, no more actual wallet.

Trying to remake the way we pay for things (way before the iPhone 6) the name ISIS makes sense for a new enterprise (in 2010). It’s vague and a little bit bland, but still holds a certain sense of self-importance when you say it, befitting of the financial world. Like NASDAQ. Back then the only geopolitical consequence of the word ISIS was the fictional spy agency on the cartoon Archer.

The name wasn’t original, or a new combination of letters plucked out of the ether because of how they sounded. Taken back to the earliest roots of the word, Isis was an Ancient Egyptian Goddess, the patroness of nature and magic. Isis Magazine at Oxford University is a student run publication that has been in existence since 1892, publishing work by Graham Greene, Sylvia Plath and Evelyn Waugh. Isis is a satellite. Isis is a band. Isis is an Intel processing system. Isis fragrances are sold in Britain. Isis Pharmaceuticals has been in business since the late 1980s. The Ann Summers lingerie company has a line of bras called Isis. There’s a real estate company in Florida called ISIS Downtownwhats-in-a-name-405x650

You get the picture. ISIS could refer to a lot of things, but for anyone following the news today, it has only one bloodcurdling insinuation. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, becoming in time a group so brutal that even al-Qaeda cut ties with them in February. It’s made brutal surges into Syria and Iraq in 2014, believed today to maybe have over 30,000 members in the region.

As the situation with ISIS came to a head in Iraq this year, weeks after ISIS had overtaken Mosul – the second largest city in Iraq — and with the US Government mulling new military invention, the CEO of the other ISIS, Michael Abbot, announced on the company blog that it would rebrand.

“Recently we have observed with growing concern a militant group whose name, when translated into English, is Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – often referenced by the acronym ISIS,” Abbot wrote.

“However coincidental, we have no interest in sharing a name with a group whose name has become synonymous with violence and our hearts go out to those who are suffering. As a company, we have made the decision to rebrand.”

It would be two months before Abbot announced, just last week, that ISIS would become Softcard. During the wait, the horror coming out of the other ISIS had escalated markedly with the beheadings of America journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley.

The branding war had been lost. Isis Wallet still made the first page of a Google search, but only just. And it definitely looked like an odd fit among the burst of serious political analysis and violent news coverage.

Abbot had written in July, “Changing a brand is never easy, but we know this is the right decision – for our company, our partners and our customers.”

And he’s right. Much work lies ahead of the new/old Softcard. You don’t just click your fingers and wake up with a new name that everyone recognizes and accepts.

The timeliness of the story, the unfortunate quirk in seeing a humble payments app tied up in news story about a gruesome terrorist organization, helped to make sure that the Softcard rebrand made a lot of headlines. But people forget headlines.

A good domain name is a key part of re-establishing a company, but Softcard.com is taken by Softcard Solutions, a London-based payments company founded in 1997. This pushed has Softcard to register under gosoftcard.com. (Isis was always located at paywithisis.com, so this isn’t a new struggle for them.)

Company materials have to be scrubbed. The website is a mash of Softcard and Isis references, with the disclaimer, “You might still see our old name during this transition. Thanks for your patience,” running on most pages.

There’s physical infrastructure to think about. Sixty-two thousand vending machines nationwide had been enabled for Isis wallet technology, branded with “Pay with Isis” stickers. Those don’t re-label themselves. Some former Isis wallet users might follow along that the company has become Softcard, and some customers who come to the wallet as Softcard might know it was once Isis, but there’s going to be a lot of confusion in the crossover.

But it’s not all doom. The unveiling of Apple Pay using Near Field Communication, shone light on a technology that Isis/Softcard had been using for sometime and Softcard announced yesterday that it would be working with Apple Pay. Isis wasn’t an attention grabbing company before its naming snafu.

“So far, and despite its powerful allies, Isis hasn’t exactly taken the mobile wallet industry by storm,” the Verge wrote last week when it covered the name change.

Words can shift in meaning over time, as Isis learned the hard way. But a new name could do them a favor. Changing to Softcard gives them a second chance at a first impression.

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