The Curse of the Three Initial Company Name

a rose by any other url would smell.

Naming a company should never be left to its owners; their lack of objectivity often leads to the dreaded Three Initial Company Name, a mis-branding mistake that puts them at a permanent disadvantage.

If that sounds harsh, it’s based on decades of watching firms make the same company naming errors, based on the same bad assumptions, ignoring the imperatives of branding. Sometimes, a few years later, our agency gets to correct this wrong-footed start by re-branding the enterprise, assuming it has survived. Selfish considerations aside, we much prefer to help companies begin with names that help deliver the three crucial branding essentials: visibility, differentiation, relevance.

company name

What do they do? Your answer, sadly, depends on your age and memory.

Let’s draw a distinction here between a company name and  a product or service name. It doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn what you name a holding company, if the products and services are going to be the star of the show. Procter & Gamble can go on being P&G forever; Charmin and Crest and Cover Girl will carry the water. But for many companies, particularly service companies and retailers, company name = brand name, so it must bear the burden.

It’s a burden not to be taken lightly. Dreary worst-case example: A fledgling firm might be, say, three guys who are all Microsoft certified who decide to form a consultancy. (We’ve met with ten of them in the past 5 years.) Or three Merrill Lynch guys who split off to open an estate-planning office. (Ditto.) As talented as these folk may be at CRM software, or portfolio balancing, they’re not naming/branding experts, and so gravitate toward the Three Initial Mistake: they become CLM Consultants, one initial each from partners Curly, Larry and Moe.

What’s so wrong with that? For starters, the CLM name is now guaranteed to mean nothing, to be hard to remember … even hard to hear. (E.g., B’s, D’s, T’s, P’s and C’s are hard to pick out if not precisely enunciated. We prefer a company name that can be spoken over the phone, once, then accurately spelled and remembered. How’s yours?)

Next, the Three Initial Mistake probably guarantees that you will not have it for a web address. Check it out; all three-letter and four-letter url’s are gone. Totally. Why does this matter? (If you have to ask this question, you really shouldn’t be naming a company.) It is crucial that your name and url coincide in some fashion, because your web address is your front lobby. It’s where prospects will come to validate you and measure you and decide whether to do business with you. It’s your most cost-effective salesperson: hunter/gatherer advertising is costly, versus prospects finding you.

Finally, an opaque name is (transparently) all about you, not about your customer. It’s not about what they need or want, has no implied benefit, takes no position, fails to differentiate, and conveys bupkes to prospects who want to be persuaded. A three-letter puzzle name is an inside joke, with the customer left out.

But aha! you say, there are successful Three Letter companies: IBM, ABC, PPG, CDW, and so on. True enough, but all of those examples were famous companies with meaningful names before changing to initials. They were, and remain, household names because of that momentum. Contrast that with these companies, who are also among the largest 500 companies in America. What do they do, and how memorable are they: PPL, CNF, CMS, BB&T, TJX? If you’re an investor, you might have a better shot at these, since they may coincide with the stock ticker symbol … but you do see the point, don’t you? Why doom yourself to a forgettable name from the start?

(By the way, CDW’s change to initials was a serious mistake. Many (older) customers will still say to themselves “CDW? Oh, yeah, Computer Discount Warehouse,” but many more either never knew, or forgot, or will soon forget. A new generation is always coming along who never knew the mnemonic predecessor name. It’s a false step CDW will have to correct by renaming once they realize it, maybe 5 years from now. Set your watch; we can wait.)

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Time out to discuss China.

The Chinese, frankly, don’t yet understand branding. They are, temporarily, content to be the world’s manufacturer, and are only beginning to see that the $6 item purchased in the US delivers to them far less (about $1) than it delivers to the brand holders. But they will learn, and the impact on Chinese profits and their GNP will be profound.

Yes, Lenovo is a solid and growing Chinese brand, but it’s the exception. Consider three large manufacturers who hope to gain a foothold in American markets: TCL, ZTE, and BYD. (Notice a pattern?) If I were to ask you what they make, more than likely you’d draw a blank. If I told you they make televisions, cell phones, and hybrid cars, respectively – and then asked you again tomorrow – you’d probably go blank again.

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Combine a Three Initial Mistake with a hackneyed logo to be sure nobody will ever remember or even notice it. For the Microsoft consultants, an orbiting swoosh mark*; for the financial planners, three initials in a “dignified, traditional” font, reversed out of a rectangle. Add to this muddle a web address that in desperation uses a .net or .biz or .us suffix to confuse prospects, and the company name is sinking in soft cement.

*FYI: Orbiting swoosh logos now outnumber bloody mary recipes, Brad Pitt Fan Clubs, and stars in the sky. Combined.

For examples of how to do it right, check out our client list, with links to case histories and samples. There are some notable company naming successes to chew on. For a consultation on branding or re-branding, call us at 312 836 0050. If you’re a Chinese firm, we don’t speak Mandarin. Yet.