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.)
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?