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When Brand Nicknames Are Bad PR

Coke. Mickey D’s. Tar-zhay. Brand nicknames are usually a marketer’s dream. Impossible to impose (just ask RadioShack), they have enormous power when they happen organically. And they’re nearly always a sign of familiarity, engagement, or even affection. That’s what General Motors learned – the hard way – after its ill-fated attempt to legislate use of the formal name for Chevrolet and ban “Chevy.”

But occasionally nicknames are painful. Case in point: Ground Zero. Yes, the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers were national brands – drawing business and tourist traffic to New York City since their inauspicious debut in the 1970s. But post-9/11, the site of the fallen towers was a bleak, devastating location and a political black eye for the city. It instantly became known as Ground Zero.

Now, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would like us to start referring to the newly opened downtown memorial by its proper name, The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.

That’s a mouthful, but I can understand Bloomberg’s concern. After a decade of embarrassing wrangling, the ugly scar on the downtown landscape has been replaced by a fitting memorial, and the construction of One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower; now, that’s another rebranding story) has real momentum. “Ground Zero,’ with its evocation of the site in the early days after the attacks, is not a name that suggests dignified remembrance.

So, I’m going to do my best to use the proper name for the site, though it will probably end up as “the 9/11 Memorial.” “Ground Zero” might persist among hardcore New Yorkers, much as Avenue of the Americas is still called “6th Avenue” by us Manhattanites – 66 years after its name was officially changed. But that’s an insider thing.

I hope this nickname fades. I’m looking forward to visiting the 9/11 Memorial just as soon as I can get tickets, and to the opportunity to erase my memories of Ground Zero.

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