Senior Services is much more than its name implied, but a re-branding is not so simple

By David Williams

Published by, the Commercial Appeal, February 25, 2007

Imagine changing your identity, while insisting to the world that it's still the same old you.

So it is for Senior Services, the 46-year-old Memphis-based nonprofit that provides home health and other services for all ages, not just seniors.

"When we go out and try to tell our story, and tell people what we do," said president Deborah H. Cotney, "the first thing they'll say is, 'Well, you need to change your name, because you're so much more than services to seniors.' We're serving the whole family."

Easily said -- carefully done.

After an 18-month rebranding process with local agency Tactical Magic, the nonprofit is ready to unveil its new identity -- a name that's all new, and a logo with roots in the old.

The name is Meritan, a coined word that comes from two others, merit and Samaritan, to evoke the organization's level of care and willingness to provide it.

"It was very hard for them to let go of the name," said Trace Hallowell, Tactical Magic's creative director, "because that name stood, for so many years, for the essence of the organization.

"In a lot of ways, the process needed to be slow, for everybody to sort of catch up with that. When you change the identity of an organization that means something to people, there needs to be a period of mourning."

The search for a new logo also ventured far afield but settled in the shade of the familiar tree of life image, but with a color change -- the red dots giving way, like a change of seasons, to green.

The logo, Hallowell says, helps the organization show its new face to world while saying, "We're still us."

The Commercial Appeal has followed the organization's rebranding for nearly a year, getting a glimpse into the creative process, the dynamics of corporate identity, and the art and science of change.

By any other name

Naming can be the heavy lifting of the rebranding process -- turning up every stone in search of a word both apt and available.

Has someone else trademarked it? Is it available as a Web address? Does it make sense? Do people like it?

"We tried before to come up with a word to describe everything we did," Cotney said of services that include health care for seniors, foster care for children and programs for the developmentally disabled. "That was our problem, because you can't. You're doing so many different things for folks.

"We really wanted it to be one word that was simple ... simple and something people could remember."

The creative process at Tactical Magic focused not on explaining everything the organization does, but rather what it's all about -- not its laundry list, but its essence.

"This aspect of being eager to find a way to serve the folks that everybody else is walking away from," Hallowell said, "is what I really fell in love with about the brand. I thought it was the core defining issue -- coupled with that very, very high level of professionalism and accountability."

Tactical Magic's team generated names upon names -- words, combinations of words, coined words. Long lists gave way to short lists to shorter lists.

"Generations" was a possibility. It explained that the organization served all ages, Hallowell said, but it didn't capture its Good Samaritan side.

And so, Meritan.

"I don't know if anybody saw it at first glance and said, 'That's the one.' ... It just quietly grew on us," said Hallowell, who called it a creation of "the team," which in such projects can mean both agency staff and outside writers.

Your face looks familiar

"Meritan.org," Hallowell said on the morning of April 6, 2006. "It's almost inconceivable that you could have a seven-letter name and have the URL for it, that someone isn't using it."

That morning, Cotney was visiting Tactical Magic's Madison Avenue offices, where in an upstairs back room a wall was papered with sketches of potential logos -- 33 would-be new faces to pair with that new name.

There were images of hearts, of trees. There was a stylized "M" that evoked a mountain. There was an umbrella, stair steps and one that Hallowell said represented angel wings.

"That reminds me of Harley Davidson," Cotney said.

Another called to mind a skeleton, reaching out of the grave -- not quite the helping hands image the artist apparently had in mind.

"Logos are a funny thing," Hallowell said. "I think the best logos are arrived at over time. They sort of sneak up on you. It's sort of like music.

"The first time I heard, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy,' I thought it was the coolest thing. Then by the fifth time, I never ever, ever, ever wanted to hear it again. Logos are kind of like that.

"Sometimes you see a design and think, 'Great, I love it.' But you sleep on it a little bit and it gets stale."

Cotney flagged seven that she liked that day, including three images of hearts and two of trees.

Two weeks later, Cotney was back with Senior Services staff and board members. Over pizza, they talked about issues of identity and change, and all those logo sketches still on the wall.

There was a flame shaped into a stylized "M" that sparked extended conversation. Other logos served, as if by happy accident, to lighten the mood of a serious process.

"I think you need to take down the ski-wear looking one," Elise Bone, the nonprofit's director for marketing and development, said of the mountain-evoking "M." "It looks like Ascent Outdoors. It looks like I would go in there and buy a ski jacket."

Said Hallowell at one point, "We may have the great logo up here, and it may take us another couple of weeks to realize it."

A favorite, though, was emerging: The tree logo, borrowing the colorful dots of the current design, was resonating. It would provide continuity, said one; a touch of familiarity, said another.

To go with something bold -- Meritan -- there would be something old, done up in a new style.

The unveiling

More than 10 months after that meeting, the identity change is complete and ready to be unveiled.

"We're very pleased," Cotney said. "We know that it will be a lot of work going forward to keep this in front of people and remind people. But we feel like it's the right thing to do and we're going to reap a lot of positive good will, and maybe make it easier to raise money."

In the coming days, the world will see the new face. There will be a new sign on the headquarters building at 4700 Poplar, a billboard nearby. There will be green balloons atop the building -- think: the green dots of the logo tree. There will be a new Web site.

All of it will serve as a reintroduction to a nonprofit that's made a bold move, but whose message is meant to comfort: We're still us.

David Williams: 529-2310

Meritan

The organization: a nonprofit whose services include home health care for all ages, foster care, assistance for the blind and visually impaired, and traumatic brain injury personal care.

President: Deborah H. Cotney.

Annual budget: $30 million.

Address: 4700 Poplar, suite 100.

Web site: meritan.org.

Phone number: 766-0600.

Alan Spearman, The Commercial Appeal

Trace Hallowell, creative director for Tactical Magic, communicates ideas about a new logo and a name for Senior Services to Deborah Cotney, president of Senior Services, as part of the rebranding process that brought about the Meritan identity.

"A house of brands is like a family, each needs a role and a relationship to others."
- Jeffrey Sinclair