Owner-Originated “Nicknames” Replacing Brand Names?

Is this a trend: replacing or supplementing time-honored brand names with short, clever nicknames? Seems several high-profile companies are doing it, and I’m not sure why.

Do they think a nickname will make them more “folksy”, more informal, more “with-it”? Or is it a deliberate attempt to rebrand?

Whatever the case, I don’t believe it’s working for the several reasons I cite below.

Now companies have been given nicknames for quite some time, usually names are truncated because they were too long in the first place. These names – International Business Machines, Radio Corporation of America, American International Group, et. al. – were shortened by the expedient method of adapting their initials.

Some companies also acquired unsanctioned nicknames bestowed by customers, competitors or the media – like “Big Blue” for IBM. But I don’t ever recall any IBM ad referring to the company as Big Blue.
But it appears to me that Federal Express began the “sanctioned” nickname trend when they became FedEx to the whole world. It works for FedEx. I think it was a sound branding practice.

But not to be outdone, United Parcel Servive, aka UPS, introduced yet another moniker for the company. They began calling themselves “Brown”, as in “What can Brown do for You?”

I never understood that. The connotations and associations for brown just aren’t that appealing. Yet, there they are, now with three ways to designate the same company. I don’t understand, and I’m sure a lot of others don’t as well.

The latest to come under my radar is Washington Mutual. They began a clever and point-making series of commercials where the young, tieless banker proposed that their “panel of experts” from the traditional banking industry advise Washington Mutual on certain practices, and when the panels poo-pooed an idea, Washington Mutual would adopt them. Very clever and refreshing. But then, along the way, Bill, the young banker, began referring to the institution as “Wa Mu”.

Wa Mu? Do you want to bank at Wa Mu? I want all the nice banking practices – free ATM’s, no penalty over drafts, etc., but I don’t want to bank at Wa Mu. That’s taking “friendly banking” one step too far in my estimation.

So, if nicknames are beginning to replace brand names, I would advise that those nicknames be better at labeling the business and not just be a cute attention-getter.

I believe the name should be the rallying flag for the brand. That it should represent over the long haul the true core of the business. And to take a name, particularly one with some heritage and equity, and dilute its meaning is bordering on irresponsibility.

Martin Jelsema

One thought on “Owner-Originated “Nicknames” Replacing Brand Names?

  1. Martin,

    Excellent comments on branding. As a trademark lawyer, I believe I can offer some insight as to why UPS is calling itself “Brown” — it is so they can corner the market on delivering packages in brown trucks or uniforms.

    Color has been enforceable as a trademark since the “Qualitex” Supreme Court case in 1995. Owens Corning claims trademark rights to pink insulation (and licensed the Pink Panther character to drive that association home).

    To garner trademark rights in a color (and thus legally prevent any competitor from using that color), the color must not be the “natural” color of a product, it cannot bestow any functional benefit, and the company must show that the color has acquired “secondary meaning.” That means that a significant portion of the public associates the color exclusively with the seller. One way to show secondary meaning is to show advertising that not only touts the color, but encourages the public to use the color to identify the source of the goods — that is, color as a brand, not just as the color.

    In UPS’s case, if you see a delivery van and its brown, you know it’s a UPS van. You don’t even have to be close enough to read the logo off the side. If a person is entering an office building wearing a brown uniform and carrying packages, he or she works for UPS. How many brands require that little information to connote the source? Trademarking a color is a VERY powerful brand — so much so that UPS is sinking millions into advertising itself as “Brown.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.