Fullers is a familiar name on the waters round Auckland and Northland.

But last month's ferry stranding on rocks in the Bay of Islands and the rescue of 62 passengers and crew highlighted confusion in the minds of the public and the media as to the company behind the vessels.

Initial media reports made no distinction between the two large ferry operators that carry the same name - Fullers Bay of Islands, which owned the stricken Tiger III ferry, and Fullers Group - when they reported the incident as the second that year for "Fullers", after a fire in August on a Fullers Group ferry with 317 people aboard.

A few weeks later, the two were confused again when Fullers Bay of Islands chief executive Kit Nixon was mistakenly phoned for comment after a collision on January 4 between a Fullers Group Quickcat and a chartered boat on the Hauraki Gulf.

Although once part of the same company, the two ferry operators have been separate entities since Fullers Corporation was split in 1989 and sold to two different parties.

Fullers Bay of Islands is now owned by Tourism Holdings. Fullers Group, which runs a fleet of boats on the Hauraki Gulf, is owned by Stagecoach New Zealand.

Both ferry operators are keenly aware of the confusion created by continuing with the same names, and of the potential such incidents have to tarnish the reputation of the other operator and make out-of-the-ordinary incidents seem more frequent.

But there is no talk of either dropping the brand-name.

Nixon said Fullers had been associated with the Bay of Islands for more than a century, and it would not be smart to change the name.

The original Fullers "cream trip", which delivered milk and mail to various outposts on the islands, still runs and is a popular day out for tourists.

The Fullers name created some confusion but it probably did not affect a lot of people, Nixon said.

"It does bother us when we get misreported or there's unnecessary explaining to be done."

His view is echoed by Fullers Group chief executive Michael Fitchett, who said a name change was definitely not in the equation.

"We would never consider changing. It's a very valuable brand to us.

"Geographically we are separated. We don't think the confusion hinders us at all.

"They [Fullers Bay of Islands] are impressive operators so there are probably more positives about having it than negatives."

The work Fullers Bay of Islands did to promote its tours overseas probably heightened brand awareness for the Auckland company, he said.

Fitchett did not think the grounding at Cape Brett last month caused any significant damage to the company's reputation locally.

"Any bad publicity they got at Cape Brett negated the bad publicity we had with our fire in August."

Marketing strategist Howard Russell, of Strategic Insight, said issues arose when, instead of identifying and distinguishing a product or service, brand-names created confusion in consumers' minds.

The problem even plagued the advertising industry.

When the flamboyant Saatchi brothers, Maurice and Charles, left the agency they founded in the 1970s to start rival agency M&C Saatchi in 1994, their exit sparked confusion that still lingers today.

"When the Saatchi brothers were tipped out of Saatchi & Saatchi they did the smart thing and decided to keep the name," said Russell.

"I'm sure they've benefited from it. You could say equally they've created confusion. This is right in the middle of brand-naming territory."

There was also confusion as to how the agencies referred to themselves internally, and round the traps.

"If we say, shall we send that to Saatchis, what do we mean? Does a supplier to the ad industry call one M&C and one Saatchis?

"If it's a company you deal with regularly, you get around all those sorts of things. But if it's a now-and-again dealing with a ferry, for example, and you're spending five minutes in the phone book or wherever, it's just another impediment to a good customer experience."

The Fullers mix-up over the Cape Brett grounding was understandable, said Russell.

A downside for Fullers in Auckland was a possible safety question-mark over its service.

Russell said branding clashes extended to other communication equities such as logos and colour schemes.

"It's not just the naming. It's all those elements that can easily be misunderstood, and the brand leader can be disadvantaged by somebody else coming quite close to them." 

That was more of a problem for items such as juice or shampoos, where there were many brands.

"Because we're all rushing round and we've got hundreds of categories of brands in our minds, it's very easy to get an 'almost' when running round in the supermarket."

Russell said the law of physics held with branding - two objects could not occupy the same space at the same time.

"If you're the smaller one you will almost always lose out because you will be wrongly associated with the more familiar in people's minds. Your distinctiveness is really important."

It was difficult to market confidently with a same or similar brand attribute to a competitor, he said.

"Unless you can piggyback somebody, you end up always being mistaken. Ultimately you need to be recognised and understood as quickly as possible."

Russell said the two Fullers companies benefited from the distinction of operating on separate patches.

But they faced the challenge of dropping the name if they wanted to differentiate further in the future.

"A brand is only as strong as it is in somebody's mind. If you keep changing things, it's really hard for people to hold that strong image of it.

"It causes lack of confidence and uncertainty. Constancy is the key, really."