Is the time-honoured name of the Thames at Oxford now tainted by its use for the extreme jihadist group?

Isis: a name with a problem

By Helen Massy-Beresford

Originally the name of an ancient Egyptian goddess, in Oxford Isis has long signified the stretch of the Thames north of Iffley Lock. The name also belongs to the university rowing crew’s reserve blue boat, a student magazine published since 1892, and the university’s research and technology company – not to mention numerous other businesses and organisations wanting to highlight their Oxford links.

But now, the alarming rise in prominence of the militant group known by some as as ISIS (for ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’), and the terrible acts it is carrying out in the Middle East, mean those using the name are asking themselves whether the positive associations of the word outweigh its newfound negative connotations. One Oxford estate agent has gone so far as to change its name.

Among those using the Isis brand at the University, however, the value of a very old name seems to outweigh fears that it may have become tainted.

Jon Roycroft, the University’s director of sport, said the matter could be discussed at this term’s Council of Oxford University Rowing committee but any decision would be for Oxford University Boat Club.

‘However, I would seriously doubt that changing the name of the reserve boat would be considered,’ he said. ‘The history of the name goes back an extremely long way and I would hope that the lifespan of the boat and all it represents is longer than the lifespan of this reprehensible organisation.’

Isis Innovation, which manages technology transfer for the university, is also unlikely to change its name.

Among independent businesses in Oxford, feelings are more mixed.

Rowan Waller, founder of Wallers of Oxford Estate Agent, said he had changed the name of the business from Isis Estate Agent shortly after its launch in September. It cost around £2,000 to £3,000 to cover expenses that included reprinting marketing material and paying for new advertising under its new name.

Mr Waller had written to national newspapers calling on them to stop using the name ISIS for the militant group, arguing that it was a poor translation of the Arabic name the group uses anyway. But he decided that as the business was new it would be less risky to change the name straightaway.

"When ISIS really hit the headlines in August I didn't know if it would disappear or not. We only launched in September so it was easier for me than it would be for the Oxford boat crew."

Waller said one fear was that, in a competitive industry, rivals could point out the unfortunate association to customers. "I can see it as an easy put-down. This business is very public facing and involves highly visible brand marketing. I had to ask myself, would someone thinking about selling their property feel comfortable displaying a board in their front garden with 'Isis' written across it when everywhere else the word is associated with beheadings? I decided that the answer would be ‘no’ for enough people to make this an easy business decision."

However, others using the Isis name intend to carry on doing so.

Dominic Marlow, Senior Broker at Isis Business Brokers said: "We're not planning to change our name as a result." The company is part of the Sunbelt Business Brokers network and although it has been trading for nine years, only started using the Isis name more in the past three to four months. Mr Marlow said: ‘I don't think the associations between the name Isis and Islamic State are that strong. The media are tending to call it Islamic State or IS more and more.’

Keith Slater, director of the Oxfordshire Town Chambers Network, said changing the name of an established business can be a major operation. ‘Businesses would have to go through rebranding of all their marketing material, paperwork and, depending on the business, possibly signs or trucks, as well as changing websites and setting up new domain names. It would be a very significant cost.’

Long-running businesses would also lose the customer goodwill built up under their previous name, he added.

“From an Oxford point of view Isis is a very strong brand name and I think very few people would be put off by the recent associations,” Mr Slater said.

‘Some businesses have been associated with the name Isis for hundreds of years – that's a strong thing to have. You would have to be seriously worried about the effect on your business to change it.’

There seems vanishingly little prospect of Isis going down the route of the swastika, which had been a universally positive symbol of well-being until its adoption by the Nazi Party in 1920s Germany. Oxford aside, if there is another good indicator of the continuing health and vitality of Isis as a name, it must be Downton Abbey. If it’s good enough for Lord Grantham’s entirely wholesome pooch, surely the most visible golden labrador on the planet….

All images © Oxford University Images / Chris Andrews Publications, with permission.