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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Ernst & Young Rebranding Draws Comparisons To ‘Sexy Boys’ Publication EY! Megateen

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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