Initialitus strikes again.

March 1, 2012

When Ron Johnson took over as chief executive of J.C. Penney, he was shocked at what he found.

Last year, the chain ran 590 separate sales. And nearly three-quarters of the company’s products sold at discounts of 50 percent or more.

You have to admire what he did next. Out with no

nstop promotions and in with everyday low prices.

That goes against conventional wisdom. Almost every mainstream department store (Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Sears) operates on the basis on continuous sales. They have educated the consumer to never buy anything until the store has a sal


With his track record, I was surprised to see what Ron Johnson has done with the chain’s logotype. Red borders around a white square with the letters “JCP” in a blue square in the upper left-hand quadrant.

JCP? How many consumers call the store JCP? Nobody I know refers to Penney’s as “JCP.”

Nor has the media. In a recent Associated Press story about J.C. Penney’s new CEO, the writer referred to the company three different ways.

“J.C. Penney” . . . . . . 3 times.

“Penney’s” . . . . . . . . 3 times.

“Penney” . . . . . . . . .  9 times.

“JCP” . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 times.

If the consumer “owns” the brand, then the consumer also owns the brand’s nickname. And it seems likely that consumers prefer “Penney” or “Penney’s” to “JCP” about 12 to nothing.

Then why would the company even consider using JCP as its logotype?

Insiders versus outsiders.

Having worked with a number of big companies, I’ve noticed that big-company employees often use pet nicknames. I wouldn’t be surprised that many J.C. Penney people routinely use “JCP” in their emails, letters, reports and other internal documents.

Why not? JCP, three letters, is a lot shorter than J.C. Penney, eight letters, two periods and a space.

After years of typing JCP, I’m sure many company executives think they work for JCP and not J.C. Penney.

Consumers are different. What companies write about, consumers talk about. “Let’s get some stuff at Penney’s.”

Why not? Penney’s, two syllables, is a lot shorter than J.C. Penney.

With consumers, it’s the verbal length that matters, not the visual length. Consumers will never use “JCP,” three syllables, instead of “Penney’s,” two syllables.

Years ago, one of our accounts was Western Union. Early in our relationship, I was mildly surprised to see internal memos mentioning “WUCo.”

It took awhile, but I finally figured out that WUCo was “Western Union Corporation.”

As it happened, Western Union was a good candidate for a name change because its reputation was suffering from its connection with the telegram. As Time magazine once reported, “It was on time and there were no typographic errors, so we knew it was a fake telegram.”

Our recommendation: Change the name to Westar Corporation.

After spending a lot of time and money on presentations and prototype ads, we got nowhere with management. So we finally threw in the towel.

Big mistake. We should have recommended the corporation change its name to “WUCo.” That was the name insiders knew and loved.

Visual versus verbal.

It probably wouldn’t have occurred to Western Union executives that “WUCo” wasn’t exactly a good-sounding name. They didn’t use the name verbally; they just used it visually.

And that’s probably true at J.C. Penney, too. They probably don’t use “JCP” verbally; they just use it visually.

That’s why many name decisions go wrong. Why in the world would you call the largest-selling citrus brand with an 80 percent market share, “Mtn Dew?”

“Mtn” is visually shorter than “Mountain,” but not verbally shorter. “Mtn,” three syllables, is actually longer than “Mountain,” two syllables.

And Miracle Whip is using a two-sided label with “MW” on one side and the full name on the other.

But nobody is going to call the product “MW,” because it’s four syllables and “Miracle Whip” is also four syllables.

Consumers almost never use a nickname unless it’s verbally shorter than the full name of the product or service.

Marketing is a weak force.

In the total scheme of things, marketing is a very weak force. Of the tens of thousands of words the average person hears or reads in a day, a small percentage of these words will be devoted to brands.

So it’s highly unlikely a marketing campaign will change the way a consumer refers to a brand.

• How many consumers refer to Dunkin’ Donuts as “DD?”

• How many consumers refer to as “”

• How many consumers refer to Daily Queen as “DQ?”

• How many consumers refer to Gatorade as “G?”

• How many consumers refer to Radio Shack as “The Shack?”

The consumer “owns” the nickname. If a company wants to use a nickname, or a shorter version of its brand name, then it needs to wait for consumers to do it first. Not try to force feed a new nickname.

Coca-Cola didn’t get consumers to use “Coke” as a nickname. Consumers were already using the nickname before the company put “Coke” on its cans.

Walking away from the past.

Many companies use initials in order to distance themselves from the past. Why did the American Association of Retired Persons change its name to AARP?

Since many members and prospects are not retired, AARP obviously didn’t want a name that restricted the organization to retired people only. And yet, that’s what the initials AARP do.

When people see initials, their initial thought is, “What do those initials stand for?”

• IRS stands for Internal Revenue Service.

• FBI stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

• A BLT sandwich stands for a “bacon, lettuce & tomato” sandwich. If you see an XYT sandwich on the menu, you’re more than likely to ask the wait staff, What does XYT stand for?

Initials that don’t stand for anything are difficult to remember. For most people, AARP still stands for retired people.

The media isn’t too helpful either. A recent article in The New York Times referred to AARP as “Formerly American Association for Retired Persons,” and that was 13 years after the name change.

(We once suggested AARP change its name to American Association for Revitalizing People. And then call its magazine, “Act Two,” with the subhead “Help for the second half of your life.”)

Back to JCP.

Another downside to initials is that they lack tangible meanings. That tends to undermine the ability to lock a brand’s verbal strategy to its name.

There’s no question that shorter names are better, but not shorter names that lack meaning. Instead of “JCP,” the chain could have called itself “Penney’s,” a name that is not only meaningful, but also connects to the past.

And then to take advantage of its new everyday low-price position, it could have run a marketing program with the general theme, “Save dollars at Penney’s every day of the week.”