Can a New Name Give the Boy Scouts a New Lease on Life?

Words by Lily Thaler
Date 2024-05-15

Last week, the Boy Scouts of America did something its community (and the country) never thought it would do: It rebranded without the eponymous “boys” in its name. Now known as Scouting America, the +100-year-old youth organization announced its new name as part of ongoing efforts to revitalize its brand.

For years, scrutiny and scandal have damaged the business, resulting in its 2020 bankruptcy filing. It reemerged in 2023, but only after proceeding with the largest sexual abuse settlement in U.S. history: $2.46 billion. It was time for the Boy Scouts to do something about its brand, but the name can’t be the only thing it changes.

Organizations rebrand all the time to keep up with what’s happening in the world, establish new shifts in focus and take control of their narrative. Refreshed market positionings, reimagined mission statements, catchy taglines and sparkly new logos are all par for the course. But a rename? It’s a much rarer occurrence.

Names tell a brand’s story in its shortest form, serving as its primary identifier, highest-interaction touch point, and tightest distillation of the meaning and value the brand has to offer. A name gives a brand something to be, something to live up to. And usually, names last a really long time, if not forever.

So when brands do rename, it tells their audience that something big is changing. Something so big that they need you, their customers, to help them manifest their new plans, hopes and dreams by calling them something different. While other kinds of rebrands signal the start of a new chapter, a new name demands a new story.

For the Boy Scouts, the story it’s leaving behind is one of a failed brand promise to prepare youth for life.

An all-American history

The first failure for the Boy Scouts of America was inclusivity. For decades, it faced intense criticism (and accompanying lawsuits) for controversial restrictions on membership and accusations of sexual abuse. It eventually gave into the public’s pleas, allowing gay members in 2013, gay adult leaders in 2015, transgender boys in 2017 and, finally, girls in 2019.

Even then, it still failed to convey the importance of scouting; membership plummeted over those same years, down from 2.6 million in 2006 to just over 1 million in 2020.

This story isn’t dissimilar from those of other all-American brands and icons that have faced a cultural reckoning in the last few years. It’s one we all know well: Their “classically American” histories and values stop being enough, people start asking more of them, they do all they can to resist the change for a while, and then eventually, to the outrage of a small but loud group of supporters, they meet their audiences in the modern era.

We saw it when Aunt Jemima changed its name to Pearl Milling Company. When the Dixie Chicks became just the Chicks. When the Cleveland Indians became the Cleveland Guardians. They knew their time was up.

For the Guardians, who changed their name in 2021, this change gave the baseball team a chance to lean into new meaning and purpose. Inspired by the massive stone Guardians of Traffic sculptures on Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge, “Guardians” signifies the protection, loyalty and resilience that define their city and community.

As is the case with rebrands like this, there will always be a group of people who refuse to get on board with a new name because it goes against tradition, it’s ruining the organization, it means they’re going soft, etc.

But this naysayer audience is often comprised of the very people the brand in question is OK with alienating. And as loyal as people may be to what a brand calls itself, what really makes people loyal to a brand is their promise, values and actions.

At first, the Cleveland community hesitated because it’d spent their whole lives with the previous name. But names are all about imbuing meaning over time, and that’s what the Guardians did: They rooted their new era in something meaningful, and followed the name change with an exciting new brand identity and uniforms to bring their refreshed story to life.

Different name, same promises?

By dropping the “Boy” from its name, Scouting America isn’t completely altering its story so much as it is expanding one part while deemphasizing another.

As stated in the announcement, president and CEO Roger Krone asserts, “Our mission remains unchanged: We are committed to teaching young people to be Prepared. For Life,” clarifying its intention to double down on the core of its programming—scouting—while creating space for more than just boys to take part.

It’s great that its promise is still clear, but the organization also must realize it’s this same promise, and the way it was executing it, that necessitated a new identity in the first place, and a new name with the same promise won’t get them much further. As it navigates the trials and tribulations of being a truly inclusive youth organization, it’s going to have to redefine scouting for its expanded audience and give it a compelling new role in the lives of the youth it seeks to impact.

And if it wants these kids and their parents to buy in and give them a second chance, Scouting America must completely overhaul the existing brand practices, beliefs and organizational design that created the exclusive (and at times dangerous) environment it’s trying to leave behind. Because if it were a boys-only organization all this time and still couldn’t do right by them, why would this next phase be any different?

This name serves as a one-time shot to start anew. Whether Scouting America will make the most of it remains to be seen, but the pressure is on to live up to the inclusivity it’s promised—through real actions, not just its brand. And it’s invited the world to watch.

First published in AdWeek.