Though industry observers say they fully expect SBC to bolt the AT&T name onto the combined business services unit, it is the rest of the operation -- namely its patchwork of residential and small business territories -- that seems to be struggling for a clearer identity.
In fact, one person familiar with some of the internal discussions at SBC says the company has even considered reviving retired names like Ameritech and PacBell to recapture its local roots in a few markets.
The debate highlights the state of brand limbo that the regional Bell operating company, or RBOC, faces as its ambitions go national and even global. Suddenly, the AT&T deal makes SBC's generic name -- which harks to its days as Southwestern Bell Co. -- seem like a poor fit with the company's outsized aspirations.
"Digging out the old names and putting them back in service seems counterintuitive, given everything they've done toward forging the SBC brand," says Forrester Research analyst Lisa Pierce. "But let's face it, SBC is just a bunch of letters."
SBC executives said repeatedly this week that they value the AT&T name but have not made any decisions about the use of the brand when and if the merger closes. And as for the old names, a company representative said there are no plans to go back to Ameritech or PacBell.
SBC started out as the smallest of the original Bells in 1984's breakup of Ma Bell, but with the AT&T deal pending it has become the most acquisitive. In the two years following the deregulatory push of the 1996 Telecom Act, the San Antonio, Texas-based phone shop added Pacific Telesis, or PacBell, Southern New England Telecommunications, or SNET, and Ameritech to the fold.
But outside its various regions, SBC lacks recognition, say industry observers.
"SBC has to be one of the weakest brands in the country," says RHK analyst John Ryan. For example, says Ryan, the company sells its digital subscriber line, or DSL, service jointly with
and sells its mobile service as Cingular.
"There are a couple ways to resolve that," says Ryan. "SBC can go back to the old names or use AT&T as the brand name for everything.
"But this wouldn't be possible until the deal closes," adds Ryan. Closing on the SBC-AT&T merger isn't expected until 2006.
Industry watchers call this a classic case of identity crisis but point out that often in these situations a lot of fuss is made for no good reason.
"It would help if people could separate the egos from the issues," says Yankee Group analyst Brian Adamik. "AT&T is a much more widely known brand than SBC. But they've spent millions building the SBC name, so it's a tough pill to swallow."
Adamik says he understands the reason for the debate, but doesn't see why the company should feel forced to make a decision.
"Let me be a little blasphemous here and suggest they could keep both brands," says Adamik. "In all likelihood, SBC would remain the name of the local residential business and AT&T would be used for the unit that sells services to big business."
But Adamik is a bit skeptical about SBC going retro with a reintroduction of PacBell and its cousins.
"If there's any thought about the brand it's about going forward not about going backward," says Adamik. "Ameritech just reeks of RBOC."