Exposing Two-Face Brands

By Steve Baird and Susan Perera

I'm not talking about brands that say one thing and do another. I'm not talking about brands that don't live up to their promise. I'm literally talking about brands with two faces. One face may be confident, complicated, technical, professional and/or formal. Let's call him Stephen. The other face might be friendly, simple, approachable, engaging and/or informal-perhaps identified by a nickname or some other form of truncation. Meet Steve.

In the last few months, there's been a clear trend toward truncation and informality in branding (e.g., Coca-Cola and Coke, Gatorade and G, Bubblicious and B, Stride and S, Federal Express and Fedex, Radio Shack and The Shack, Pizza Hut and The Hut, Vanderbilt and Vandy, Villanova and Nova), with at least one exception being General Motors-ahem, GM and its apparent interest in bucking that trend by moving away from the less formal two-syllable Chevy name and brand in favor of the more formal three-syllable Chevrolet.

Similarly, McDonald's current billboard ad campaign confirms that the fast food giant prefers formality, i.e., Joseph over Joe, at least when it comes to selling its premium roast coffee in competition with the likes of Starbucks and Caribou Coffee:

Meanwhile, Charles Schwab is now a.k.a Chuck.

So what is the reasoning behind this naming trend? And if you're a brand owner, do you see a value in creating more than one face for your brand?

The Decision to Truncate
From time to time there are brands that need a facelift. This is when the whispers of rebranding often begin to circulate. Rebranding name changes are frequently made in an attempt to distance a brand from the negative connotations and consumer perceptions of a brand's previous image. There are many examples of brands taking on completely new names (e.g. Andersen Consulting and Accenture, Brinks and Broadview, Comcast and Xfinity).

Unlike a completely new mark, name truncation doesn't wholly separate a brand from its previous image. We all still associate BP with British Petroleum, G with Gatorade, and Nova with Villanova. Thus truncation is clearly more of a brand revitalization technique rather than a full-blown rebranding.

The adoption of a second, truncated mark, may be a favorable method to help restart a stalling brand. One reason this type of revitalization may be popular is that it introduces a new face to a brand without walking away from the long-term commitment that a company has made to a specific mark. Additionally, for those averse to risk, the decision of how to truncate can reduce the overall amount of risk a brand takes. For example, truncations that abbreviate a mark in a way that is consistent with speech patterns (FedEx from Federal Express) may be much less risky than abbreviating to a more diluted or crowded mark (such as S for Stride, or The Shack for Radio Shack).

The UpShot
The current naming trend has moved away from arbitrary names and back toward brand names with an honest, straightforward and even humble quality. The addition of a less formal face of a brand seems to create an opportunity for generating a stronger emotional connection with consumers. Additionally, when a product is reformulated or a service is revamped the addition of a second fresh face can act as a further indicator that the brand is newly improved.

The Risks
Although the addition of a fresh face may be appealing there are some potential risks with using a truncated mark. A truncated name, especially if it is only one or two letters, is much less specific to your particular brand. If you own an inherently distinctive and famous mark and are considering truncating to one letter, considerable thought should be given to the other identical one letter marks in the marketplace.

I wonder if Gatorade considered this when it adopted "G." There are currently more than 700 G marks listed on the USPTO database. While they are certainly not all famous, a famous brand must consider if it wants to be one of many rather than continuing with its distinctive trademark. Arguably the more formal Gatorade mark conjures up much more in the mind of the consumer than just the letter G. These images and associations should also be considered before abandoning a well-known mark. Additionally, brand owners may want to consider the possibility that other brands may start using the identical truncation.

Thus, will the owners of Pizza Hut be concerned if Sunglass Hut also begins using "The Hut"? And what about other restaurants already using "The Hut" or similar variants?

Brand owners also should consider that using a one- or two-letter mark could create an easy target for criticism. An abbreviated mark invites others to speculate on what the letter(s) stand for. Case in point: BP. After the Gulf oil disaster critics speculated that the BP mark stood for a variety of things including "Broken Pipe," "Big Polluter" and "Bad Petroleum."

Finally, another consideration for one-letter marks is consumer acceptance. Is the current trend to one- and two-letter marks a fad that consumers are unlikely to adopt? If so, is such a mark an investment worth making? Although some truncated marks have caught on, I have yet to have anyone offer me a bottle of G or a stick of S.

Legal Implications
Finally, the decision to adopt a new trademark is not just a marketing one; it also has legal and financial implications. A branding decision to adopt a truncated mark may infringe the already established mark of a third party. Thus, such a use should be predicated on a comprehensive trademark search to determine if a third party is using the same or a similar mark that would likely cause confusion. If the truncated mark is cleared, a brand owner should seek trademark protection for the new truncated mark. This will include not only the costs of registering the mark but also the long-term costs associated with policing and enforcing the new mark.

Another decision a brand owner must consider is whether they will continue to use the old brand name and the new truncation together, or if they will phase out the old name. For example 3M no longer uses its original name (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.) yet Charles Schwab uses its more formal name along with its newer "Chuck" abbreviation. The decision to carry on with two trademarks will carry with it the associated fees of protecting and enforcing two marks.

In the end, brands, like people, may exhibit either or both faces, formal and informal, depending on their surroundings and the circumstances they encounter at any given point in time. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive faces, as evidenced by the fact that nearly all of the branding truncation examples above did not completely replace the more formal brand name; they simply introduced a fresh new second face of the brand.