Dangers of Abbreviations

I don’t usually get into political stuff on this blog because it generally just makes people angry for no good reason nowadays. However, I was interested by a certain business related aspect of the BP Gulf oil spill that I think deserves some commentary. Apparently, some Brits are concerned that American political rhetoric against BP is also directed at the UK as a whole. The reason? Many in the US government and press have referred to BP as “British Petroleum” even though the company officially changed its legal name to simply BP in 1998 to reflect its more international and clean energy focus. Whether you buy any of that is up to you. Let’s look at the debate from a marketing and branding perspective.

In the 90s and early 2000s, there seemed to be a trend to rebrand everything with abbreviations. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC. General Motors is GM. Electronic Arts, EA. It seemed like shortening your brand into an acronym somehow made it modern, relevant, and cool. There’s only one slight problem. When you rebrand something by simply abbreviating it, it’s going to be hard for people not to associate your new abbreviation with the old name it was derived from, especially if the old name was already established. The name BP came from abbreviating British Petroleum. Most people who are in government and the media right now grew up and lived knowing the company as “British Petroleum.”  More importantly, while abbreviations are widely used in popular culture, formal speech and writing conventions still encourage you to spell out the full name. So don’t be surprised if consumers mistakenly refer to your new abbreviated brand by the long form brand which it was derived from because…that’s how you came up with it in the first place right? I mean, people can be stupid, but not that stupid.

So all you branding experts and marketers out there, if you really want to break from your past, how about doing something a little less obvious than abbreviating your name? This is your job, at least put some effort into it.