Get over it – initials can be names, too

PricewaterhouseCoopers has finally bowed to the inevitable. Twelve years after this verbal procession of a name was created out the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand, the accounting firm has decided it’s OK to be PwC.

And the organization that was National Public Radio says it now wants to be known just as plain NPR. It has changed its name accordingly and told its staff and some 900 affiliated stations to use only the initials on the air or online because NPR is more than radio and public is, well, just not understood.

So NPR does not stand for anything anymore. It is not an abbreviation. NPR is NPR. Just as PwC is PwC. OK?

Well, no. Not according to branding consultants.

Now, there’s not many things branding consultants agree on. They can’t agree on what branding is for pity’s sake. But when it comes to initials masquerading as names they will stamp their feet in exasperated and petulant unison…ooh, a unanimous and forceful No!

They will tell you initials are devoid of meaning; they are cold and impersonal; there are lots of other companies with meaningless initials out there and you’ll get lost in the alphabet soupiness of obscurity; and, here’s their clincher, you will never get the URL.


Names, not initials.

Don’t even try to point out that IBM, AT&T, and GE seem to have managed with initials, they speak as one on this. They will tell you they were famous as International Business Machines, American Telephone and Telegraph, and General Electric long before they became initialized. And what’s more, they spent millions of dollars over decades building the awareness they enjoy today.

But hold on a minute. Isn’t that what all brands have to do? Don’t marketers spend millions of dollars building awareness of brands with weird names, such as Nike, Lexus, Samsung, Huawei, Xerox and Sony?

Why then is it OK for, say, Santander and not OK for HSBC? Why is it OK for Verizon and not HTC? And why is it OK for Lexus, and not for BMW? (and, unless you live in Munich, don’t try to tell me that Bayerische Motoren Werke was a household name before BMW became a luxury car brand).

What IBM, AT&T and GE have spent millions of dollars on is escaping the legacy meaning of their names. AT&T has tried mightily to shake-off its bureaucratic, regulated, stodgy monopoly perception of American Telephone & Telegraph. There’s not much demand for telegraphers these days and wireless has just about killed the  long-distance business. AT&T’s problem is that it doesn’t quite know what it is as a business and hasn’t known for a long time.

ITT has made a better job of it. The conglomerate that used to be International Telephone & Telegraph is long dead. It was broken up years ago. ITT today is a very successful global manufacturer of pumps and valves. Very few people outside the company know where those initials came from. They just know it as ITT.

And how about NCR? It started life as National Cash Register in 1884 making those wonderfully ornate mechanical cash registers that every store used to have. If you know it at all you will know NCR today as the name of a successful global technology company leading how the world connects, interacts and transacts with business (at least, that’s how it describes itself).

Both NCR and ITT are very successful global companies. They have stayed successful because they have evolved and changed, and so has the meaning of their names. No customer of NCR thinks he is doing business with National Cash Register. He does business with NCR. It doesn’t have to stand for anything other than what it is – the name of a company that contains the letters n, c, and r. And the fact that most people have never heard of it is perfectly OK.

Not all company names are meant to be household names. But in the branding presentations up go the slides with names of companies you’ve never heard of in order to make a tritely tendentious point.

But not all companies want to be famous, Laura

Who’s heard of AES, CHS, HCA, CCIM…No one? So there, ipso facto, initials don’t work because no one knows what these companies do.

Well, how about a slide with names such as Oneok, Synnex, Becton Dickinson, Henry Schein, Weyerhaeuser, Tutor Perini, Mylan, Lubrizol, and Centene. These are not obscure Mom and Pops put there to bias a point, they are all Fortune 500 companies. Does it prove anything at all that most people cannot tell you who they are or what they do?

What it does prove is that name recognition is all about context. The names on both lists are known to the people who need to know them. AES may not be on everyone’s lips down at the bingo hall, but in the world of energy generation it’s known the world over.  Likewise, HCA is a $30 billion owner and operator of hospitals and surgical facilities, coming in at 77 on the Fortune 500 above American Express and DuPont. Who knows HCA? Healthcare professionals do.

Whatever definition of branding you prefer, it is not about making a name “famous” – that’s an advertising mentality.

Acronyms are no different. They just pretend to be words. IKEA, IHOP, GEICO and AFLAC are acronyms. Does it help me to know IKEA is a composite of the first letters in the Swedish founder Ingvar Kamprad’s name in addition to the first letters of the names of the property and the village in which he grew up – Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd? Or is it enough for me to know IKEA as the name of a furniture store? I think so. Just as it’s enough for me to know ESPN is the name of a sports network, DHL is an international express mail service and HTC makes very cool smart phones.

The quietly brilliant story of HTC

HTC? Well, OK, way back it started life as High Tech Computer before it became HTC but, really, who knows and who cares? HTC is the name of the fastest growing manufacturer of smart phones today. The Taiwanese company is outpacing “proper name” incumbents Nokia and Motorola with its sexy, Android-powered products. And it is intent on building a consumer-facing brand around a positioning of “Quietly Brilliant.” In the world of smart phone gadgets and texting, HTC will become the perfect synonym for cool.

Too much is made of sniffy inherent meaning when it comes to names. Who cares that Nike was the Greek goddess of victory? Nike is Nike. What is the meaning of Nokia and Motorola? What is the meaning of Elvis?

As Susan Brind Morrow wrote: “A name is a mirror to catch the soul of a thing.”

[NB: As with all naming strategies, you have to know when initials work and when they don’t. See how Computer Associates got it wrong here.]

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What word comes to mind when you think of Volvo?

Swedish? Chinese? Boring? Anything?

It is a widely accepted axiom among brand consultants that leading brands can be identified by a single word or concept. BMW, for example, owns “driving” and Mercedes-Benz owns “prestige”.

Volvo supposedly owns “safety”.

The single word theory was first propounded by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their classic 1981 book ‘Positioning: The Battle for your Mind’. Their hugely successful theory (in book-sale terms, at least) has since been handed down from father to daughter, generation to generation, and has thus passed into blogosphere folklore where it is regurgitated wholesale as an immutable tenet of brand strategy.

It gets a bit squirly in the retelling. I have seen confident assertions that the Disney brand variously owns ‘magic’, ‘fun’, ‘happiness’ or ‘family entertainment’ without an ounce of substantiation. Well, which is it?

Can a brand really be associated with a single, dominant trait or concept? More importantly, should it be?

It has to be remembered, of course, that Messrs. Ries and Trout are former admen whose simplistic brand-building notions were formulated in those far off days of the pre-Internet era when the world was a much simpler place and a single media buy could reach a majority of America’s TV audience.

But would Tony Stark drive one?

For Volvo, a rugged car built to withstand the rigors of Sweden’s weather and roads, safety was a reasonable advertising campaign “positioning” back then when safety standards were much less stringent and activist Ralph Nader was taking on the entire American automotive industry. Nader’s book, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, revealed that many American automobiles were shockingly unsafe.

Enter Volvo. Built like a tank, drives like a tank. But it’s safe.

When all your competition is proven to be unsafe, that’s quite a differentiator.

Buick Lacrosse: Safer than a Volvo.

Since then the world has turned several times. Technology has leveled the manufacturing playing field and vehicle safety standards are much more rigorous. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the safest cars for 2010 are the Buick LaCrosse (large cars), Audi A3 (midsize cars), and Honda Civic 4-door model (small cars).

Where’s Volvo? Nowhere.

Perhaps in perverse vindication of the Ries/Trout theory, and much to its disadvantage, Volvo cannot get beyond the lead weight of that word safety.

Design, styling, performance, quality and brand heritage are the essential ingredients of brand building in the automotive industry today, all of which are attuned to micro-segments of the market. Safe just isn’t sexy. It’s expected. What else have you got to offer?

It’s a problem Ford tried in vain to find an answer to for more than a decade, without success. After Ford purchased the Volvo in 1999 various attempts were made to spice up the brand in the US and pitch it to a younger audience. The kids were too busy driving their Scions to notice and the brand languished, unloved and ignored, except by a declining number of die-hard aficionados.

What the Volvo brand is and what it can be is no doubt preoccupying the collective minds its new owners, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Geely successfully marketed “the world’s cheapest car” to an emerging middle class in the country’s inland cities. Volvo represents an altogether different challenge.

Volvo’s brand heritage offers little inspiration. The name (it means “I roll” in Latin) was registered in 1911 by SKF, a Swedish manufacturer of ball bearings, for a new product line. The plan was shelved and the name was later resurrected for the construction of a vehicle for the Swedish market.

Volvo’s priapic logo, a circle with an arrow pointing diagonally upwards to the right, is an uneasy amalgam of symbolic references that includes the Swedish iron industry, Mars, the Roman God of War, and the male gender. Add a word that means ‘I roll’ and you have all the qualities you would want to avoid in a modern, luxury vehicle.

Geely has a dilemma. Safety in the Chinese market is not a compelling product attribute. For the rest of the world – a Chinese-owned brand positioned on safety? A hard sell.

The speculation is that Geely plans to sell Chinese-manufactured Volvos to rich Chinese and government and army officials, a ‘showcase’ segment currently dominated by Audi. Owned by Volkswagen, Audi is by far the No. 1 luxury vehicle brand in China. It sold 157,188 units last year, surpassing Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.

Volkswagen was the first foreign automaker to set up a joint venture in China in 1984, long before others. Today, Audi is viewed as a made-in-China luxury brand among government officials.

Can Volvo unseat Audi, the vehicle of choice for Ironman Tony Stark, the epitome of technological cool? We should not underestimate the far-sighted Chinese and their almost endearing belief in the fungibility of brands.

After Nanjing Automobile Group acquired MG, the legendary British roadster brand, it decided to change the meaning of the famous initials to help promote the brand in its new home.

The letters MG are derived from ‘Morris Garages‘, the original 1923 manufacturing home of the MG in Britain. Nanjing has proclaimed it “wants Chinese consumers to know this brand as ‘Modern Gentleman’, to see that this brand represents grace and style.”

Modern Gentleman? Even Ries and Trout could not come up with that one. Maybe there’s hope still for Volvo.

Modern Gentleman, circa 1930
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