Scott-based Pizza Outlet is suddenly Vocelli Pizza

Name-change surgery comes with plenty of risks

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Oh, great, another new name to learn.

Effective Monday, the Pizza Outlet chain is changing the label on its 73 Pittsburgh-area stores to Vocelli Pizza. In fact, the whole company will carry the new name.

John Heller/Post-GazetteThe Pizza Outlet chain is making a name change to Vocelli Pizza.

And you were still trying to remember to call the Civic Arena, Mellon Arena, or learning to say Lazarus-Macy's. Maybe you've never even figured out what to call the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

And how do they pronounce this new pizza place, anyway?

Name-changes like Pizza Outlet's are a common business maneuver and bring varying degrees of success. Remember New Coke? How about Woolworth which went to Venator Group before becoming Foot Locker Inc.? Bell Atlantic seems to have effectively made the leap to Verizon.

"I think the worst thing is if you change your name without giving people a reason," said Jim Calderone, president of Downtown ad agency Ten/United. "It's sort of fly-by-night."

Calderone embraces change when it's justified. He was on the team that helped Freight Liquidators Furniture change its name a couple of years ago to Roomful Express Furniture. His own agency, formerly known as Hallmark/Tassone, has been through the experience, too.

"You don't want to do this every three years," he said. "It's very expensive. It's very disturbing to your customers."

Pizza Outlet officials could have told you that. The whole project -- changing store signs, redesigning pizza boxes and delivery guy shirts, not to mention creating a marketing campaign to explain it -- will end up costing around one million dollars.

And, in Waynesburg, where the name change went into effect early, a few customers were so upset that they vowed not to buy pizza from this new place. The general manager is calling to try to explain.

So why put us through the agony of tossing out old refrigerator magnets?

That's kind of what Varol Ablak, president of the Scott pizza company, thought when someone first suggested it to him a few years ago. In fact, he was rather offended. As he remembers the conversation, he responded with something like, "What do you mean? You don't like our name?"

It seems Pizza Outlet, which is supposed to scream fresh, was saying something different to a lot of people. More like, discount pizza or even second-class pizza.

The company was founded by the Ablak family in Mt. Lebanon 1988, and, according to the online history, Ablak's brother Seckin reportedly came up with the name.

Pittsburghers didn't seem to mind much, but the chain had problems when it tried to expand. The Washington, D.C., area responded coolly. "Struggling" is the word Ablak used to describe stores there. That and dismal results of a phone survey that queried both Pittsburghers and Clevelanders convinced him.

Coming up with another name took a couple of years. Seckin Ablak proposed Vocelli (pronounced like 'vo-CHEL-lee'). It's not supposed to mean anything specific, just sound rich and Italian.

The pizza won't change, for the most part, though the company is tinkering with its pepperoni. Some menu items have been altered to seem more Italian, such as subs that have become panini subs. Stores are being remodeled or built from scratch with creamy tiles, green countertops and piped-in Italian music.

With Northern Virginians turning up their noses at Pizza Outlet, that seemed the best test market. In February 2002, the switch was made. The company claims sales rose 44 percent, mainly because the new name sounded classier.

Customers thanked the staff, said Jim Powers, marketing director. They'd say, "This is so much better a product," he recalled, though the pizza wasn't different.

Pittsburgh may be trickier since this is Pizza Outlet's main turf. Almost two-thirds of the company's 100-plus locations are here. A significant portion of the $50 million to $55 million in total sales projected this year come from southwestern Pennsylvania and about 1,400 of the total 2,200 employees are here.

Sales have been flat in this region for a couple of years. Ablak blamed the economy and the distractions of rebranding, as well as strategic moves such as setting up a call center near its headquarters in Scott. The call center employs 50 who can take pizza orders from stores in Florida and Washington, D.C., as well as Pittsburgh.

Franchisees own 60 percent of Pittsburgh-area stores with the company operating the rest, and Ablak concedes there was some resistance to the investment needed to change the name.

Now that the commitment's been made, expect an all-out media blitz -- TV ads, billboards. Signs have been changed on most stores although many are covered by Pizza Outlet awnings. Oakland stores changed early so that students could start the year with the concept. All deliveries are being accompanied by a letter explaining the change.

Still, this is a company that's spent a long time building up the old name. It may take years to retrain some customers. The gamble is that the chain will pick up more new customers than it loses.

"They've invested a lot in building brand equity around here," noted Jerry Thompson, director of Downtown public relations firm Ketchum. One reason people like brand names, he said, is they've got a sense of stability and security in that name. They know what to expect. The business will be there when people call.

"Anything that introduces a perception of change and uncertainty has potential to upset that," Thompson said.

The New Coke situation did that. People liked Coke, knew the brand for decades and were offended when marketers decided it was old hat.

After Freight Liquidators Furniture switched its name, some concerned customers called to be sure the company they'd bought couches from hadn't skipped town.

In a variation on the theme, when May Department Stores Co. merged the administration of its Boston and Pittsburgh divisions, customers were concerned Kaufmann's stores would soon become Filene's locations. The same company owns both and the stores generally carry the same lines.

Truth is, many people still are worried.

"So many of these names, they take on a reality and a personality," said Calderone.


Teresa Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.


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