What's in a name? In AIG's case, a lot of misery

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This weekend, AIG began a major rebranding initiative, changing the signs at some of its most prominent buildings and renaming some of its companies to distance them from its recent scandals.

When things are going well, a brand name is a good thing to have. For a well-respected company, it functions as a sort of promise, guaranteeing a certain level of performance and quality; in return, customers are often willing to pay a little more, if only to ensure that they get the best. On the other hand, when things are bad, a brand name can be a weakness. As any fugitive (and many celebrities) can attest, there are times when it pays to be anonymous, and a name change can be a great first step to putting the miseries of the past to sleep.

Last September, when AIG received its first bailout, New York Daily News reporter Michael Daly decided to pay a visit to the company's headquarters on Pine Street in lower Manhattan. The government's gift of $85 billion had given the country a 79.9 percent share in the company, and Daly assumed that, as a taxpayer, he would now have access to the building. As a part owner, he wanted to survey his new property and take advantage of the tower's commanding view of the financial district. Needless to say, he was turned away by a security guard.

Today, with the AIG bailout price tag at $180 billion and counting, Daly would have a much harder time finding the company. The sign in front of its Water Street building, which used to proudly proclaim "AIG," has been taken down, and will eventually be replaced by a smaller, more discreet marker indicating that this is the home of "AIU Holdings Ltd."

The Water Street building's nom de guerre is only the most prominent step in what is a major rebranding effort. As CEO Edward M. Liddy recently admitted to Congress, "I think the AIG name is so thoroughly wounded and disgraced that we're probably going to have to change it." Another AIG spokesman, commenting on the new sign, put it much more delicately, stating that the name changes will help "distinguish these well-capitalized businesses from AIG."

In related news, AIG recently warned its New York employees to avoid displaying company identification or branded articles of clothing when going to or from work. While protests around their Manhattan offices have been peaceful, the insurer was evidently worried that the new stockholders who are currently picketing the building might be inclined toward violence.

As AIG runs from its name, it is hurriedly rebranding some of its component parts. For example, its auto insurance unit, which used to be called "AIG Direct," is now going back to "21st Century," the name it had before it was bought out by the company in 2007. Even with completely non-related names, however, some of AIG's component companies are feeling the backlash from its highly-publicized struggles. For example, International Lease Finance, the company's huge airliner-leasing wing, remains profitable, but has been devalued because of its ties to AIG.

As the huge conglomerate looks to sell off some of its properties, it can't hurt to pick up a few aliases. After all, the ploy certainly worked for William Ayers and Josef Mengele.

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