Shame about the name

Right now, I’m going through the naming process for a new business. An enterprise in which I have two partners. We’ve worked out our reason for being; we have written our brand promise. We have agreed our target audience; we know how we want to deliver the service. In fact, we have done everything by the book so far. As three practitioners, we are trying very hard to practice what we preach to our clients.My WU (1)

Now we’re reviewing naming options and creative designs to bring them to life. It’s an enjoyable process but the pressure is on. Even between three friends it takes an effort to achieve genuine consensus. We must ensure our personal preferences are properly expressed but also be prepared to surrender to what makes the most sense. To the target audience, not to us.

One thing we agree. The brand name must be simple and distinctive. Ideally one word, possibly two. We all feel that the longer the name, the harder it is for people to grasp it. Especially if it is composed of a multiplicity of nouns like ‘Computer System Innovations’. (My own company name The Brand Inside seems to work because it is almost a clause that fits easily into a normal sentence. Nobody has ever tried to turn it into the acronym TBI, not to my face anyway.)

When your brand name becomes an acronym, your marketing has to work harder. Not to create awareness, because it is obviously easier to remember ABC than Aggregated Building and Construction. But to convey meaning. Your sales people need to unpack the company’s purpose when they make their introductions to prospects. Your advertising strapline needs to be more explanatory: ‘ABC. Building stronger infrastructure.’ A little later, your people begin to forget the original purpose of the business and the values that created it. Your business culture may become less distinctive. And all because you got bored with having to use the company name in full.

Last week I was surprised to see a very well-known brand take a leap into the acronym abyss.

Western Union is a long- established business. Founded in Rochester, New York in 1851 it was an industrialised monopoly that dominated the telegraph industry in the late 19th century. It built the first communications empire and set a pattern for American-style communications businesses as they are known today.

Western Union now has several divisions, with products such as person-to-person money transfer, business payments and commercial services. cIts company name is known the world over. It is understood to be American and it feels robust.

But someone has now taken the decision to abbreviate Western Union to WU. They’ve clearly thought it through. Go to their website and their purpose is clearly defined. What they do is move money around efficiently. Why they do it is rooted in a belief that moving money around makes the world better. How they do it is not so clear. I mean in terms of their culture and brand personality. But in terms of channels it is well articulated.

Now I don’t know, but I suspect that the WU decision was based on the urge to modernise a traditional brand. Bring it into the contemporary world of apps and cool names that you need to know to run with the ‘in’ crowd. They have a meme that reads: ‘My world, my WU.’

But here’s the rub. All over the world they have billboards that say “This is WU, moving money for better.’

Frankly it makes them sound Chinese. I don’t know how many WU’s there are in the world, but their point of origin is definitely East of New York. And when you couple WU to their carefully crafted strapline -moving money for better – it all sounds a bit Chinglish.

In branding, it’s not what you say. It’s what people see and hear.


Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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