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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Rebranding failures: Windscale to Sellafield

Same identity, different name

At the risk of understating the case, nuclear energy has always had something of an image problem. When incidents happen at nuclear plants this ‘problem’ becomes a nightmare.

For instance, when massive amounts of radioactive material were releasedfrom the UK’s Windscale atomic works in 1957, following a serious fire, the consequences were disastrous. The local community in Cumbria were understandably terrified about the health implications of uncontained radiation.

Rather than close the plant down, the government believed the best way to put distance between the disaster and the nuclear plant as a whole was to change the name, from Windscale to Sellafield. However, everybody knew that the nuclear facility was essentially the same, and so all the negative associations were simply transferred to the new name. The name-change certainly didn’t stop the rise in health problems in the area as this 1999 article from a local Cumbria newspaper testifies:

While animals are still being irradiated in laboratories all over the country to ‘study’ the effects, Dr Martin Gardner and colleagues of the Medical Research Council in Southampton have learned that the children of fathers who worked at the Sellafield nuclear-reprocessing plant were six times more likely to be afflicted by leukaemia than neighbours whose fathers had not worked at the plant. Sellafield, formerly called Windscale, has experienced so many episodes of radioactive leakage that the government changed the name to disassociate the plant from its history. There is an unusually high incidence of childhood leukaemia in the area. Dr Gardner’s study seems to indicate that it is caused by damaged sperm, which leaves the father intact but visits the government’s sins upon unborn children.

The new epithet therefore failed to generate any increase in goodwill towards the plant. Julian Gorham, creative head of the Brand Naming Company, claims that name changes are pointless without meaningful organizational changes. ‘Windscale, Sellafield, it’s the same thing isn’t it? Nothing has changed.’

Lessons from Windscale/Sellafield

  • Change needs to be fundamental. A name change won’t fool anybody if the procedures remain unchanged.
  • You can’t hide your history. Everybody in Cumbria knew about the 1957 incident, regardless of the new name, as its consequences were still felt for many years.
  • Over the following pages are even more of the most notable rebranding misses.

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