Why switching to a shorter name, or even to initials, is sometimes right, sometimes wrong—and factors to consider as you decide.
Often, their names are abbreviations, as in IBM, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and many others—abbreviations that have stood the test of time and are meaningful in their own right today even if what the initials stand or stood for is long forgotten.
Take IBM. As many know, though I’m not sure about millennials, IBM once stood for International Business Machines. It has become such an iconic name that it matters no longer what it once stood for. In fact, the company, I’m sure, would rather not have the quaint term “business machines” be widely known, especially as the company is more into software and services these days.
The same with AARP and its original moniker, the American Association of Retired Persons. Years ago and saddled with a too-long-to-say name, association leaders adopted AARP and now rarely spell it out. Another push for abbreviation use only comes from the perhaps once-logical but now-dated term “retired.” For a 33-million-member organization that promotes active senior lifestyles, “retired” just doesn’t compute.
As with AARP, there are other companies and associations whose initialized names hide dated or legacy terms, often with good reason. One “trifecta” example is the Association of National Advertisers, generally known as the ANA. In its case, all three names send the wrong signal. Some day soon, this group will have to modernize its full name, as “Advertising” is less and less what its members do, “National” doesn’t work any more for obvious reasons and “Association” is a bit too 20th century.
Sometimes I think companies with longer names abbreviate them too soon. Or maybe could cut out one word in their names. Take Chicago-based shopping center giant General Growth Properties, founded in 1954. Well, the company has been around 63 years, and its name is pretty boring and non-specific. It might be a household name in the shopping center industry, but I bet practically everyone inside and outside the company calls it General Growth, which does slide off the tongue pretty smoothly and alliteratively. Yet company leadership saw fit a while back to change the name to GGP. They went too far, in my opinion, and should have shortened to "General Growth."
Another commercial real estate industry giant, Jones Lang LaSalle, did the same thing a couple of years ago—accepting the reality of what many short-handers called the company instead and adopting JLL. The company fought reality for quite some time, but were smart to give in. Except. Yes, except. Many also called it Jones Lang, which also flows off the tongue pretty well. It might have been the prospect of losing the “L” in LaSalle that forced the issue. What is lost a bit, I think, is the heritage of at least some of the original names.
Staying in the commercial real estate industry, which is really heavy into abbreviations, you have the number-one player, CBRE, previously known as CB Richard Ellis, a partial abbreviation in its own right and still often referred to that way. I have to ask: Isn’t it just about as hard (or easy) to say CB Richard Ellis as it is to say CBRE?
Still sticking with real estate for a while longer, the one non-follower is Cushman & Wakefield, now the number-two commercial real estate company, thanks to its acquisition a short while back of an initialed rival called DTZ. While Cushman & Wakefield, which is often just called Cushman, would appear to have no plans to simplify to just Cushman or CW, it has shortened its online domain name to “cushwake.”
Then there are companies that, in contrast, perhaps wait too long to abbreviate or initialize their names. A great example is UL, which stands for Underwriters Laboratories. Hardly anyone knows what an underwriter is, and even fewer think of them as being associated with laboratories. But when people think of UL, probably the most common logo or mark in their homes (mostly on electrical cords and the backs of appliances), they think immediately of “safety,” or, “this is safe to us.” Finally realizing and accepting this reality probably later than they now wish, UL leadership bit the bullet a few years ago, changing the company name to the much simpler and easy to say and understand UL.
I think there are just a couple of basic rules to follow when contemplating the abbreviation of your company name.
Is it a mouthful, and are employees and customers shortening it from three or more words to just two or one? Or are they going even further, as with JLL, and mouthing just initials? This takes some research. In the end, it’s probably best to go with what people are calling you most of the time.
If people are shortening your name to one or two words, but not all the way to initials, think twice, as it would appear General Growth Properties did not, in creating an initialized name when you rarely if ever are known by those initials. People were using JLL quite frequently, but they weren’t using GGP to the same degree.
Be sure you really stand for something before you abbreviate. By the time people started called General Electric GE, the initialization took like a duck to water. But many such switches don’t. We have seen ad agencies using the names of three principals abbreviate to three initials and suddenly seem very generic.
Firms with three to five names—most notably law firms—rarely abbreviate, but these days they inevitably promote themselves via just the first or first two names. For example: Mayer Brown, Jones Day. In the PR world, though, Golin Harris—a pretty easy to say and pronounce name—recently went a step further and abbreviated to just Golin. Too bad, Tom.
For my part, in our early days, we often had three names, just like law firms. In fact, one prospect coming through years ago thought we were a law firm. Even then everyone called us Slack, and we accepted reality a decade ago. These days, though, with self-styled email-killer “slack” coming on strong, maybe I should abbreviate ... but to what? Nah!