HONG KONG — Less than two months after changing its name, the biggest and best-known unit of American International Group is preparing to change its name again, in the latest sign of damage to one of the world’s most famous brands.
A.I.G. changed the name of the worldwide holding company for its property and casualty unit to American International Underwriters in early March.
The renamed A.I.U. quickly began issuing new business cards to employees and printing promotional materials, particularly in Asia. But A.I.G. has now decided that the A.I.U. name does not represent enough of a change, and is in the final stages of choosing a new one, said Leslie J. Mouat, A.I.U.’s regional president for Southeast Asia.
“The advice we’ve received is A.I.U. may be a bit close to A.I.G. — we don’t want to appear as the same leopard with different spots,” Mr. Mouat said in an interview, adding that he was told only Saturday of the decision to change the name again, which has not been publicly announced.
A.I.U. has stayed profitable even as derivatives trading by a small A.I.G. unit in London has left A.I.G. struggling. A.I.G. has received a series of government bailouts and led to the United States government owning nearly 80 percent of the company.
A small committee of company executives has narrowed down a list of potential names to two or three, Mr. Mouat said. The committee is researching how those names will be received in the 130 countries and jurisdictions in which A.I.U. does business. It is trying to figure out the legal issues involved in a name change as well as how consumers might receive the new name.
Mr. Mouat added that he was not on the committee and did not know if the new name would even include “American.”
Big companies that change their names often choose new words, like the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, which decided in 1972 to become Exxon and replaced names like Esso, Humble and Enco.
The decision to abandon the A.I.U. name represents a setback for the company’s huge operation in Asia, which dominates the region’s property and casualty insurance market, and a victory for the company’s units elsewhere, particularly in the United States.
The offices outside Asia never agreed to use the A.I.U. name with consumers. They thought it sounded too much like A.I.G. But the Asian offices lobbied for A.I.U., partly because it was the original name for A.I.G. when it was founded in Shanghai in 1919.
The name had just been abandoned in mainland China in favor of the A.I.G. name when the company found itself enveloped by a series of crises last autumn. (The property and casualty business in Hong Kong and Indonesia never stopped using A.I.U.)
The repeated name changes come as A.I.U. defends the company’s once unassailable position as Asia’s leading insurer. Rivals have been seeking to lure away customers and employees.
Mr. Mouat said that 94 percent of customers in Southeast Asia were staying with the company. But mainly because of the global economic slowdown, net written premiums in Southeast Asia were down 4 percent in the first quarter compared with a year ago and are down 7 percent in the current quarter from a year ago.
A.I.G. is in the process of disentangling the call centers, offices and other intertwined operations of its two biggest business units — the property and casualty unit and the life insurance unit — with the goal of eventually conducting separate initial public offerings for each. The life insurance unit does business under many names around the world that do not sound much like A.I.G., and they are not likely to change their names, Mr. Mouat said.
A.I.G.’s struggle to come up with a new name also underlines the complexities that big companies face in rebranding a well-known product.
Tom Doctoroff, the Shanghai-based chief executive for North Asia at JWT, the advertising agency, said that A.I.U. would need to define clearly how it wants to change its image before introducing the new name. “There’s no magic solution for this,” he said. “This is a name in search of a strategy.”
Contemplating the marketing strategy of the rebranded company, Mr. Mouat, A.I.U.’s regional president for Southeast Asia, said, “I suspect it’ll be something like, ‘a brand new insurance company is coming to Asia, it’s one you’ve known for the past 90 years.’ ”
When Standard Oil of New Jersey became Exxon, it reintroduced the Esso tiger in its advertising as the Exxon tiger, and used the slogan, “We’re changing our name but not our stripes.”
Standard Oil wanted to do business under a single name, but lacked nationwide rights to the Standard Oil name.
Fully introducing a new name for A.I.G. around the world could take a year. The company is still paying to use the old A.I.G. name on the jerseys of the Manchester United football team, and is unlikely to have a new name ready for the jerseys in time for the next season even though this means that marketing dollars will go to waste promoting a brand that is disappearing, Mr. Mouat said."