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SyFy Lends Itself Not to Sci-Fi, But Syphilis Jokes

Perhaps you read yesterday in The New York Times that NBC Universal's SciFi Channel is renaming itself SyFy. But that's only the half of it. One day later, the tweeters have spoken, and it's clear more research should have been done before Sci Fi floated the new name. Welcome to the world of rebranding your media company in Web 2.0, and an object lesson on what it's like when you forget to listen to your core customer.

The first clue there was trouble afoot for SyFy came when I did a quick zeitgeist check last night over at search.twitter.com and discovered the hashtag #syfy was a "trending topic." When it comes to name changes, that can't be good news. A few select tweets:

"Not a good idea. Could be Stewpyd" "Sci-fi channel is rebranding itself as #SyFy? so obviously ludicrous it must have been formed by consensus." "Actually, I'm going to start calling Sci Fi Channel "siffy". As in "syphilis". As in "neurosyphilis" "Just conducted a quick experiment: It took 5 pages of search results to find a positive response to #SciFi -> #SyFy name change."
It's, of course, devastatingly easy to, um, take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile by posting an obnoxious tweet, but according to Waggener Edstrom's Twendz service, negative commentary on Twitter was last running at more than 65 percent, which actually seems a little low based on my own scans of the service. In fact, according to research done exclusively (!) for BNET Media by TNS Cymfony, syphilis jokes account for about four percent of all commentary about Syfy. Now isn't that a healthy (or unhealthy) percentage? Meanwhile, the SciFi wire blog post about the name change is closing in on 800 (mostly negative) comments and has 980 Diggs.

But the people at Sci Fi ... I mean, SyFy, told the Times that they had tested the name:

No discussion of change affecting consumers could ignore what [Sci-Fi presdent David] Howe called the "Tropicana debacle" -- the recent decision by a unit of PepsiCo to abandon a major package redesign for Tropicana orange juice after shoppers vociferously complained.

"The testing we've done has been incredibly positive," Mr. Howe said of the Syfy name, reading what he described as a comment from one participant: "If I were texting, this is how I would spell it."

A day later, you have to wonder who the hell Howe tested the idea with, and whether Sci Fi took a moment to realize that what people say in the free-for-all of Web 2.0 can be much more important than the controlled environment of a focus group. According to Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer at Cymfony, it's likely the people in the focus group weren't even the media property's core audience, since one of the reasons the name is changing is so the channel can go broader than sci-fi. Screw that niche thing, I guess. The new name "becomes a lightning rod for a lot of the dissatisfaction," he said. "Clearly what you're seeing here is the sci-fi passionastas coming out in force." Headlines about the name change, like TV Week's "Sci Fi Channel Aims to Shed Geeky Image With New Name" can't have helped, either. Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned.

The next shoe to drop is whether Sci Fi lets the controversy blow over and keeps the name, or beats a quick retreat, as Tropicana did with its little packaging adventure. Another reason Sci Fi wanted the change is because sci-fi is too generic a term to trademark. That's a better rationale than the ones for many corporate vanity projects, but, unfortunately, consumers don't give a shit about things like that.