What’s In A (Brand) Nickname?

Al Ries’ recent column in AdAge, “When It Comes To Names, Corporations Just Aren’t People” got me thinking about the PR of brand nicknames. Corporations may not be people, but their brands can get pretty darn close. That’s why “pet” names for products and companies can be powerful, from the classic shorthanders like Coke and AmEx to the more creative “Tar-zhay.”

Truly organic brand nicknames are rare. They speak to a bond between brand and customer that usually takes years to develop. Or they can be the sign of an insider, like how journalists and PR people will say “WaPo” or “the FT.”

To have staying power, the brand name has to feel authentic and grow out of consumer usage.  That’s why RadioShack’s nom de cool, “The Shack” didn’t gain traction. It just wasn’t how anyone thinks or talks about the stores. And though most consumers would recognize “Citi” as Citibank, few would use the nickname with affection. I’m still not sure about “Brown” for UPS. That’s trying to nickname a nickname, and it never felt quite natural.

In Ries’ view, J.C. Penney is also vying, – wrongly, he says,  for nickname status with its new ad campaign and redesigned logo that features only its initials. I disagree. Penney’s (now, that’s it’s true nickname) does sport a new look to announce its “Fair and Square” pricing strategy. The red, white, and blue brand evokes patriotism, and the initials inside the square suggest…well, fair and square. Makes sense.

It may be following Target’s pricing and marketing strategy here, but I disagree that it’s going for a cutesy nickname. It’s all about a friendlier, more helpful brand image and a move back to sensible pricing, nicely underscored by Ellen Degeneres in the only ads I stop my DVR fast-forward to watch.

There are better and more natural candidates for perpetual nickname-dom. One that’s nearly there is Dunkin Donuts. It’s been using “Dunkin'” in its tag lines, though not exclusively, and it feels right. Another is Trader Joe’s, which, since its incursion into Manhattan has not only threatened my loyalty to Whole Foods, but had me shortening its moniker to “TJ’s” in no time.

A brand nickname is, above all, a gift. As 99% of marketers know, it’s never a good idea to fight a name born of affection or even nostalgia. General Motors found out in a hurry that it shouldn’t mess with Chevy after its effort to legislate the use of “Chevrolet” crashed and burned a couple of years back. You can’t force it if it’s not happening; but when it does, by all means, don’t get in the way.

What Nicknames Say About Brands: Chevy, Meet The Y

A brand nickname is a little like a viral video. No matter how badly you want it, planning alone won’t make it happen. It has to come about naturally.

I’m not talking about mere abbreviations, like AmEx or P&G. I mean real nicknames…those insider-y monikers that make us feel cool because we drive a Beamer or, these days, shop at Tar-zhay. A nickname speaks of a personal relationship with a brand. (Notice how President Obama keeps calling BP “British Petroleum” in public remarks about the Gulf oil spill? It may be an attempt to mobilize U.S. nationalism, but to me it seems like a distancing tactic, like a stern father using your full name to signal you’re in big trouble.)

Brands should embrace a consumer-given street name

How a brand responds to its handle says something about its marketing savvy. When General Motors tried to dump “Chevy” in favor of “Chevrolet,” it ran straight into a brick wall of resistance. GM quickly shifted gears and blamed the brouhaha on a “poorly worded memo.” It was a clear PR blunder, though probably the most excitement that Chevy’s enjoyed since Don McLean. But how could Detroit’s marketing minds think that a once-great brand could ever outgrow the iconic nickname that’s a slice of American Pie?

Don’t they know that when a brand tag is bestowed by the public – instead of the marketer – it’s nearly always a good thing? On the other hand, I never quite understood the UPS “Brown” campaign, or RadioShack’s adoption of “the Shack.”  Because those names weren’t consumer-generated, they felt a little like trying too hard to be cool.

Marketers lucky enough to actually earn a nickname should not only accept it; they should embrace it. Federal Express may have started the trend when it officially shortened its name to FedEx a decade ago. Coca-Cola has never been shy about using Coke in its marketing. And Harley-Davidson tried to claim its classic “Hog” moniker, although the nickname was ruled too generic to be trademarked.

That’s why the YMCA was right to slim its brand this week to the “Y.” The name may have started as an abbreviation, but after 166 years, I think it’s gained full nickname status. The Y’s press release explains it as a by-product of the trend toward shorter brand names, made necessary by our 140-character culture. The most entertaining part of the story, though, may be where the Village People got into the act. Still belting out “Y-M-C-A” on tour after all these years, they put out a statement saying they won’t change the 1970’s anthem that memorialized the YMCA name in a way that the Y surely never intended.

But, for me, the Y nickname isn’t about Twitter, or IM-speak, or even breaking with the past. It’s about a brand claiming its own street name, like Bud or Mickey D’s. It epitomizes our experience and relationship with its brand. A nickname, after all, is a term of endearment. It is the Y to most of us. So, why not?