This article provides 5 situations when a firm’s acronym name (a string of letters) provides a problem, 5 situations when it does not, and 4 situations when you might want to do something about it.
Over the last few years something interesting has happened when you look down our client roster — it’s turned into alphabet soup! On some level it goes with the territory when you work with a lot of professional services firms. These aren’t consumer brands. Historically, much of the business has been built on personal relationships. And, things like names were a bit of an afterthought. (In fact, 5 years ago we found that over 90% of firms use either founders’ name or a generic descriptor for their practice).
The acronyms are usually just a by-product of a couple of founders putting their names on the door and eventually looking for something easier to say on the phone. But, to be honest, at times even we have a hard time keeping things straight. And, we’re working closely with these firms on a weekly basis.
Now, these are great clients. They’re highly successful. They’re growing. Some are acquiring other firms. And, most of them have been successful for quite some time — 30 years, 50 years, 70 years. Despite that, building a memorable brand around a string of letters is really difficult. And, it shows when we talk to clients about the issue. To quote some from a recent client brand study we did:
- “There are a lot of architecture firms here and it drives me nuts keeping them straight.”
- “Engineers are good with numbers and letters. That’s why they do it. But it’s hard to distinguish one from another.”
When we take an “acronym” client through our marketing review process, the naming issue virtually always comes up. And, our answer is virtually always the same — change the name. But, to be honest, it’s sort of a flippant response. As an agency that’s been through a name change it’s easy for me to see how much better off we are with a real word name than we ever were with an egocentric one. But, it’s easy to say that in hindsight. And, it’s really hard to quantify the value in the change. Would our agency have been more or less successful under the old name? I have no idea. Can I prove ROI in the investment? Not, really. So, this post was designed to offer a little more concrete advice on the name issue.
Your Acronym Is NOT a Problem If
- You already have strong recognition within a category or geography AND you’re not looking to expand from that base.
- You’re looking to enter a new category or geography where clients’ have few available options (though, can you think of a category you’d want to be in where there aren’t many other firms to compete with?)
- You’re solely relying on rainmakers to drive new business. Essentially, you’re building your business by a group of people who are working their networks to make connections and create referral streams. If this is the case, the people in those networks that refer potential clients are likely to advise clients to talk to specific individuals in the practice rather than the firm itself — they say “talk to Frank,” not “talk to ABC.” (And, they’re likely going to stop referring when those people leave).
- You truly believe deep down that the name on the door doesn’t matter. We’ve ran into firms where the leaders truly don’t see that the firm itself has much role in building the business. They say bluntly, “this is a people business; and the name of the company is irrelevant.” In firms like these, the company is little more than a legal construct for the people within to go out there and generate project work.
- You’re IBM, KPMG, PWC, AECOM or CH2M. Though, I would argue that I can paint a much clearer picture in my mind of Accenture than IBM and Deloitte than KPMG or PWC. And, honestly, I’m giving AECOM and CH2M a bit of a free pass because I don’t really believe any AEC firm has built a strong enough brand to transcend the sector. But, if any acronyms can stand up in the industry it’s probably those two.
Your Acronym IS a Problem If
- You’re actively trying to enter new markets (industries, geographies, services).
- You’re looking to drive new business to the firm not the individuals within it through thought leadership, digital marketing or other means beyond the networks of the key people in the practice.
- Other firms in the same category share the same acronym. Even if you’re a regional firm, the Internet has made every firm a global firm. So, anytime a potential (or existing) client types your name into Google there is the opportunity for them to end up in the wrong place. This is especially problematic if those other firms have poor reputations or do different type of work than you do.
- The acronym is not ownable from a search perspective. This happens when a larger, more notable company from another sector uses the same acronym. The larger company will inevitably “own” the branded search and there’s really nothing you can do about it.
- If you have a broad and diverse practice that you’re trying to bind together through a single, unifying brand.
A Few Firms That Made the Leap
Allied Employer Resources -> Sequent
While this HR firm never really went by AER, I’m sure it probably happened now and again. I find it hard to imagine some of the firm’s large retail clients taking them seriously under the original name.
HOK Sport -> Populous
The firm’s Director of Marketing, Gina Stingley, gave a pretty solid case for the downside of marketing 3 letters and the upside of marketing a coined word when I interviewed her about it a few years ago.
When Should You Deal With Your Acronym Problem?
Just because it’s a problem, doesn’t mean you have to deal with it right away. In fact, I can honestly say I knew we had a naming problem the moment I entered the agency, but chose not to do anything about it for quite some time. That said, these are the 4 situations when it makes sense to make a clean break and go in a new direction:
- Legal reasons force you to do so. This often happens as a result of an ownership change via a spin-off or a management buy-out. After all, that’s why Andersen Consulting became Accenture in the first place.
- When you’re pursuing major changes in the strategic direction of the firm (new or different offerings/practice areas, new or different markets)
- You’re in acquisition mode. The biggest challenge of integrating acquired companies is generally the cultural transition. It tends to be much easier to build a distinct culture around a strong, unifying brand name than it is around a string of letters.
- If you’re rebranding and have some of the problem characteristics described above. This is really an economic reason to make the change. A major rebrand tends to be a costly venture. The cost of changing the name of the firm at this moment in time tends to be fairly nominal relative to the broader branding initiative.