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Naming: The descriptor as brand ballast, the acronym as license

Drew Letendre

Once upon a time, there was Apple Computer and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dominoes Pizza and Verizon Wireless and—going further back in time—International Business Machines and General Electric. Now, they are all half gone. In their place you’ll now simply find Apple and KFC, Dominoes and Verizon, IBM and GE.

What happened? Where did all the words go?

Each of these businesses—these brands—neatly sidestepped the Product Trap—the early (premature) identification of a business with its first, flagship product, or its industry-of-origin.

For some, the metamorphosis was at least simple: Apple, Dominoes and Verizon just discarded the qualifiers that had become redundant with time -- Computers, Pizza, and Wireless (or that their customers, in the economy of speech had already stopped using). It’s not that these businesses stopped selling computers, pizza, or wireless products, respectively. They didn’t (and haven’t). But the amputation of the descriptors was, in each case, a permission to expand into other categories and markets. The subtraction broke the exclusive identification of a business with one, original product. Being synonymous with one big idea or one big product category can ultimately hem you in. It doesn’t so much hinder growth, as obscure the fact of it.

Apple (computers) entered and transformed—among other things—the music industry with the iPod and iTunes. Dominoes expanded its menu beyond pizza and changed its business model to include pick-up stores. Verizon added business services to its consumer offer. GE rocketed beyond light bulbs and home appliances into aviation, medical imaging, capital services, and entertainment, and IBM transitioned out of hardware into software and then later, into consulting. Name tweaks became pretexts for telling these stories.

There seems to be an almost immutable, inverse law when it comes to branding business: brand namescontract (and become less descriptive) as the businesses behind them expand.

By making tweaks at the brand level, these businesses found a simple way to publically telegraph the fact that they were transcending their origins, branching out into other fields, acquiring businesses, creating or integrating new technologies, and entering new markets. It may be at least half-ironic that acronyms have come to be known in the branding world—derisively—as license plates (and not of the vanity sort). For while they appear to be meaningless codes, they are indeed licenses that entail permissions to expand, grow, and evolve before our eyes.

And while on the subject of alphanumeric codes in branding, it should be pointed out that there is a considerable difference between initials, on the one hand, and acronyms, on the other. Initials remain faithful to the underlying words, so to speak. Each letter stands for the first letter of each word in the name. It’s merely a kind of monogram, whereas acronyms proper are—or become—names (and, ultimately, brands) in their own right.

GE and IBM have both managed a neat trick -- they’ve become a proxy for big ideas, e.g., Imagination at Work, and—again—to operate in more (and increasingly varied) markets, e.g., Aviation, Medical Imaging, Financial Services, and Entertainment, in the case of GE.* While these transitions are less name changes than name evolutions, they do, nonetheless, telegraph momentous business shifts.

And it brings us back to the very beginning and the heart of this short meditation—that name change, renaming or name simplification (whatever one wants to call it), however subtle it may seem on one level, is the surface reflection of tectonic business activity. And, because they are tectonic, they require an enormous amount of reframing—as one sees with the recent series of dramatic/humorous Dominoes TV ads, which feature the partial demolition of the store fascias with the word “Pizza” on them, followed by a short story about all that is new at Dominoes.

Name change per se, especially of so subtle a form as that under discussion, would be insufficient to communicate such new realities. But small changes are a big first step.


* American trademark law has given support to such moves in the form of Dilution Statutes, which protect famous brands from resemblance or replication by junior marks—even where consumer confusion is ruled out. This allows big brands, like Virgin for example to move into numerous and varied categories under the protection of laws that generously enable their growth.