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The Law of Three (syllables that is)

Alan Brew

It was either Al Ries or Jack Trout who first propounded the law of three syllables. It goes something like this: if a name is more than three syllables long, it will be abbreviated or reduced to initials in popular usage. This explains why New York (two syllables) always gets its full name while Los Angeles (four syllables) is more popularly known as ‘LA’. Likewise, Detroit is always Detroit but Philadelphia is ‘Philly’. It’s also why 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.

When there’s no handy short form available there are always initials to fall back on so PricewaterhouseCoopers becomes PwC, National Public Radio become 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. Thus, when National Cash Register formally changed its name to NCR in 1974 it had long since moved beyond cash register business and NCR was how people referred to the company. The Federal National Mortgage Association officially became 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 NPR. PricewaterhouseCoopers finally bowed to the inevitable and joined the rest of the world when it decided to call itself PwC in 2010.

Examples and the case of Ernst & Young
Logo Examples
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 never had any need to abbreviate the name. 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). EY feels forced as a result. As my friend Ray says, you can’t give yourself a nickname. And it doesn’t help to have two letters with soft sounds that together look like an exclamation — EY! EY has something of the ‘CA’ problem. 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. And there’s also a tagline hurdle to clear: Building a better working world. It has some nice alliterative qualities — BBWW — but, again, it feels forced. 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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