EY, aye ya-yi

It was either Al Ries or Jack Trout who first propounded the law of three syllables.

It goes something like this: if a name has more than three syllables it will be abbreviated or reduced to initials in popular usage.

It explains why New York (two syllables) is always New York while Los Angeles (four syllables) is more popularly known as ‘LA’. Likewise, Detroit is always Detroit but Philadelphia is Philly; and Wells Fargo gets its full name while Bank of America is referred to as BofA.

Beverages & More! was shortened to ‘BevMo!’ and Federal Express became ‘Fedex’. Most people knew Network Appliance as ‘NetApp’ and the Federal National Mortgage Association became ‘Fannie May’ via its initials, FNMA, and so on.

When there’s no handy short form available there’s always initials to fall back on – so PricewaterhouseCoopers becomes PwC, National Public Radio becomes NPR and National Cash Register becomes NCR.

There’s an important clause to the three syllable naming rule: only after a name has been has been appropriated and blessed in the public domain with common usage can it be yours to adopt and used with credibility. As my friend Ray likes to say – you can’t give yourself a nickname.

Thus, when National Cash Register formally changed its name to NCR in 1974 it had long since moved beyond the cash register business and NCR was how people referred to the company.

The Federal National Mortgage Association became, officially, Fannie May in 1997. In 2000, FDX Corporation, the parent company of Fedex, changed its name to Fedex Corporation. Beverages & More! became BevMo! in 2001. Network Appliance adopted NetApp as its name in 2008, and in 2010 National Public Radio changed its name to just NPR. PricewaterhouseCoopers finally bowed to the inevitable and joined the rest of the world when it decided to call itself PwC in 2010.

EY

All of which brings us to Ernst & Young, or EY as it now wishes to be known.

One of the big four audit firms along with KPMG, Deloitte and PwC, Ernst & Young was created out of the merger of Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young in 1989.

For years Ernst & Young and Deloitte retained the professional high ground with their proper names. Deloitte smartly recognized the value of its name and has built a world-class brand around it. Ernst & Young had the same opportunity. The name is only three syllables long, easily pronounced and rich in history.

In succumbing to the use of initials in an attempt to reinvent itself, EY joins KPMG and PwC in the fog of corporate initialisms, leaving Deloitte to rejoice in its good fortune.

The problem for EY is that it has never been referred to as EY. Falling within the three-syllable rule, people have not had any need to abbreviate the name. In syllabic terms, Ernst & Young is just as long as IBM. In the industry it is occasionally referred to as ‘Ernst’ or  ‘E&Y’ (still three syllables long) or just Ernst & Young, but never EY as far as I know (although there was an interlocked E and Y in the previous logo).

Ernst-and-Young-logo

EY feels forced as a result.  It doesn’t help either to have two letters with soft sounds that together look like an exclamation  – EY!

EY has something of the ‘CA’ problem (CA’s initial naming mistake). When Computer Associates changed its name to CA it never took. Four years later the company changed its name again, adding ‘Technologies’ to CA “to ensure that we tell a consistent story in the market that reflects the full breadth and depth of what we offer.”

Still, the new EY comes snappily outfitted in gray and yellow and that might be enough to convince people that the company has a convincing new story to tell about who it is and where it’s going.

But just as we were off and running with a new idea there’s that awkward tagline to hurdle: Building a better working world.

True, it does have some nice alliterative qualities – BBWW – but, again, it feels forced (maybe for the sake of alliterative symmetry). Is it correct to say “better working”? I want to take out my editor’s pen and make it either “Building a better, working world” or “Building a world that works better”.

Building a better working world? EY!

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4 thoughts on “EY, aye ya-yi

  1. John Diefenbach

    Hi Allan,

    This is really first rate stuff. I like your voice and I like the humor. It’s thoughtful, well-written and professional.

    I’ll be calling you in the next few days.

    Best,
    John

  2. Kristy Gulsvig

    I’ve glanced at several of their “brand launch” ads and never even realized that EY = Ernst & Young – probably a bad sign. I wonder if this name will stick!

  3. You’re pointing to Deloitte as retaining the high ground with their professional name, but they’re actually Deloitte & Touche (in fact, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited). They adopted a two-syllable shorthand brand.

    I’m employed by EY (disclosure) so I can’t claim to be objective, but the company has actually been known colloquially as EY for years. OK, “E and Y” has been fairly common too. But still, feels like a natural route and an improvement.

    I’d never heard of the Ries/Trout law, but it’s a good one. The only exception I can think of is Microsoft, where MS never quite took hold.

    1. Interesting insights about EY Brendan, thank you. Good to hear the new brand has acceptance internally. I understand the various complexities of Deloitte’s structure. In spite of it Deloitte has managed to rise above legal/structural issues and focus on a single brand name globally, and they have done it well. As for MS/Microsoft – as Microsoft is only three syllables long it has no real need of abbreviation (following the Ries/Trout law) so MS was redundant.

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