The Law of Three Syllables (And a short history of naming)

By Alan Brew

Among the snake pits and landmines that bedevil naming in the corporate world, there is one trap that always snares the unwary.

It concerns long names. People don’t like them. They prefer short, pithy, memorable names. And if your name is more than three syllables long it will be shortened. It will happen and it is beyond your control, so be warned.

There is an unwritten Law of Three Syllables that explains why New York (two syllables) gets its full name while Los Angeles (four syllables) is more popularly referred to as ‘LA.’ Likewise, Detroit is always Detroit, but Philadelphia is ‘Philly.’ In the corporate world, Federal Express bowed to the inevitable when it changed its name to Fedex, thereby following popular usage. Likewise, Beverages & More became Bevmo and the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) is commonly known as Fannie Mae – a homonym of FNMA.

When there’s no handy short form available, there are always plain old initials to fall back on. National Public Radio was known for years as NPR before it formally adopted the initials as its name. The national television networks all have long names, and they are all known by their initials – ABC, NBC, CBS, likewise the cable companies – CNN, MSNBC and ESPN.

Initial naming anonymity

In the world of accounting and auditing, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the audit firm, finally bowed to the inevitable and joined the rest of the world when it decided to call itself PwC in 2010, following KPMG (a combination of Peat, Marwick and Klynveld Main Goerdeler) into corporate anonymity.

Ernst & Young and Deloitte resisted the trend for years, retaining 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 but, sadly, it succumbed in 2013 when it announced it wished to be known as EY, leaving Deloitte to rejoice in its good fortune.

Initials do have their uses. They can help a business escape the gravitational pull of a limiting geographic or product origin. For example, Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s ambitions to grow globally beyond its origins in Asia were enabled by the use of initials – HSBC – which masked the bank’s unlikely origins. United Parcel Service became UPS as the company evolved beyond parcel delivery into global supply chain management.

When National Cash Register formally changed its name to NCR, it had long since moved beyond the cash register business. IBM is no longer International Business Machines for much the same reason. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC in its quest to grow beyond fried chicken. A more creative solution to both a lengthy product and geographically limiting name was achieved by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing when it became 3M. It’s a fair bet that particular invention was used in popular parlance long before the company bit the bullet and changed its name.

Business lessons to be learned

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it is a dual one: While a long descriptive name will inevitably be shortened for reasons beyond your control, a product or geographically specific name will eventually become a problem to be dealt with.

As they grew beyond their product origins, Starbucks Coffee and Apple Computer found a simpler solution by dropping the product from their name – it’s just Starbucks and Apple today. Dunkin’ Donuts is trying the same trick by dropping Donuts from its name to become just Dunkin’ to reflect its increasing emphasis on coffee and other drinks as well as sandwiches (not sure about that one).

In summary, when thinking about a new name for your business name, think like Google and avoid product specificity in the name. And calculate the likelihood of abbreviation beforehand. Just ask the people at IHOP.

It was inevitable that International House of Pancakes (nine syllables) became known as IHOP (two syllables), but in most peoples’ minds IHOP is still synonymous with pancakes, although it sells other items such as burgers. Last summer, IHOP launched a teaser campaign saying it would change its name to IHOb to announce a new line of burgers.

According to IHOP, sales of burgers increased fourfold after the campaign. Over the long term, this effect is likely to be marginal – IHOP is still pancakes.

The need for such an expensive campaign, while it might have achieved a short-term sales spike, is almost an admission that the company has a deep-rooted naming problem that advertising can’t fix.