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Sovran hopes it’s name-change gamble pays off

More than 30 years ago, as a plucky real estate investment company in Amherst was cobbling together a patchwork of self-storage facilities along the East Coast, the folks at Sovran Self Storage decided they needed a common name for all of those stores.

Until then, Sovran had been content to run its 30 or so stores by their individual names, but as the company grew, it made sense to have a single name, both for branding purposes and so the company’s advertising – mainly in the Yellow Pages – would be more cost effective. That’s how Uncle Bob’s Self Storage was born.

It was a welcoming, home-spun name, and it served Sovran well for decades – until last week, that is, when the company decided that Uncle Bob’s had run its course.

Now that Sovran is the fifth-biggest self-storage operator in the world, the Uncle Bob’s name seemed a little too small town. A little too hokey.

Especially as the company set its sights on some of the nation’s biggest markets, places like Chicago and Philadelphia and, most recently, Los Angeles.

“In the last few years, as we moved into bigger markets, the name just didn’t fit anymore,” said Diane Piegza, Sovran spokeswoman. “We felt like we just outgrew it.”

It was time, Sovran decided, to ditch the friendly-sounding name in favor of one that was a bit more formal, more corporate, and frankly, more befitting a company that now is one of the biggest self-storage companies in the world.

The company hired consultants to come up with a new name.

Sovran executives weren’t wowed by any of the ideas.

But when Sovran struck a deal earlier this year to buy Life Storage, a much smaller self-storage company, its executives decided there was more to like about the new business than its storage units.

They liked the Life Storage name, too.

So they’re keeping it, not just on the 84 self-storage units they’re acquiring, but on each of their 650 stores, scattered mostly across the eastern half of the country.

Uncle Bob’s is becoming Life Storage.

It’s a big decision for Sovran. Its customers already know the Uncle Bob’s name. It’s got longevity after being around for a quarter century.

“It isn’t a decision that most companies take lightly,” said Charles Lindsey, a University at Buffalo marketing professor. “You’re changing what people know you as, so that always entails a risk.”

“The potential upside is if, hopefully based on market research, that this is going to take you to the next level,” he said. “You’re going from a name that on the surface – Uncle Bob’s – doesn’t really speak to self storage to one – Life Storage – that more directly captures what they’re doing.”

To make everything consistent, Sovran is changing its corporate name to Life Storage, too – a decision that will result in the ticker symbol for its stock changing from the easy-to-remember SSS to LSI.

But it will also end Sovran’s split personality.

“It’s been a challenge over the years because we’ve suffered from this dual identity: Sovran on Wall Street and Uncle Bob’s on Main Street,” Piegza said.

Not that the Uncle Bob’s name didn’t work for Sovran.

It had a welcoming sound to it. It suggested a family business, not a corporate monolith. And back in 1990, as Sovran was casting about for a brand name, “Bob” had some cachet. Nissan was running a commercial featuring a guy named Bob who had his own lane at toll booths, signs for his own parking spaces and even was recognized by traffic cops – in a good way.

Bob was a good name, and Sovran decided to adopt it.

“People would call up, and they’d say ‘Who’s Uncle Bob?’ ” Piegza said. “It was a great ice breaker.”

The self-storage business has changed a lot since then, though. The internet has surpassed the Yellow Pages as the main way Sovran reaches its customers. When a potential customer makes a phone call to inquire about renting space, it goes not to their local store, but to Sovran’s call center in Amherst, where a computerized reservation system automatically adjusts rental rates based on how much space is available at the time.

“Uncle Bob’s does not really reflect the technology involved these days,” Piegza said.

Name changes happen all the time. The older folks among us can still feel nostalgic when we drive through Canada and see Esso stations, more than 40 years after they were all rebranded as Exxon in the United States.

Mergers, like Sovran’s acquisition of Life Storage, often are a catalyst. New York Telephone becomes Nynex, which becomes Bell Atlantic, which becomes Verizon. Name changes aren’t to be taken likely. For starters, they’re expensive. It will cost Sovran $22 million to put new signs on its stores and put the new name on its fleet of rental trucks by the time the conversion is completed next spring. That’s equal to about half of the company’s earnings during the entire first quarter.

Sovran also is swapping the value that it has built up in its Uncle Bob’s brand for its belief that the Life Storage brand will prove even more powerful.

But Sovran’s adoption of a brand name that already exists within its industry makes the move less risky that pulling an entirely new name out of the hat, as Philip Morris Co. did when it switched its name to Altria. The Life Storage name is established in some of Uncle Bob’s existing markets, including some of its biggest, from Houston and Dallas to Chicago.

For Sovran, that will make it easier to say good-bye to an old friend.


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