As a brand evolves, what’s in a name?

NASA is one of many organizations that have made a shorthand version of their name the official name.
NASA is one of many organizations that have made a shorthand version of their name the official name.

If you were to take a person-on-the-street poll in the USA about NASA, I’m guessing that a majority of respondents would have heard of the organization. Most of them could also probably identify NASA as “America’s space agency” or words to that effect.

But would they be able to tell you what the abbreviation NASA* stands for? And does it really matter?

NASA is one of many organizations that has made the decision to be known by an abbreviation, acronym or portmanteau of its official name. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but NASA is pretty easy to remember.

What about American Telephone and Telegraph Company? That’s the brand we know today as AT&T.

Ever heard of Alcoa? It was once known as the Aluminum Company of America. IEEE (pronounced Eye-triple-E) was once known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Examples abound of brands turning shortened versions of their names into the official versions.

Maybe the letters don’t matter anymore

Even in the staid and conservative world of higher education, where brand names are slower to evolve, there are a few examples. Consider Texas A&M University. When’s the last time you’ve heard of someone referring to that university as Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University? That’s what the “A&M” stood for originally, but according to the university’s FAQ page, “today the letters no longer explicitly stand for anything.” The letters became part of the official name “in deference to the institution’s history and rich traditions.”

Does it matter what A&M stood for originally? To historians, absolutely. To prospective students, maybe not so much. To the university itself? A&M refers to itself as “a research-intensive flagship university dedicated to sending Aggie leaders out into the world prepared to take on the challenges of tomorrow.”

(Throughout the A&M website, you’ll find many references to students as “Aggies.” At S&T, we’re “Miners.” But I’ll save discussion of that comparison for a future blog post.)

A year ago, the university where I work officially announced that we had refreshed our brand identity. As part of that process (and with help from Ologie), we took a step toward evolving in the same manner as NASA, AT&T and Texas A&M.

While we continue to spell out our full name — Missouri University of Science and Technology — in some formal communications, we stick to the shorter Missouri S&T for most other communications. We’ve removed the full name from business cards, stationery, the website, alumni magazine and elsewhere. The full name is no longer as prominent on marketing materials as it once was. We got rid of a confusing logo, opting to use versions that carry the “Missouri S&T” name only.

As with any organizational change, no matter how incremental or planned out, there are internal concerns. Our university’s newest name — the third since our founding in 1870 — just turned 9 this month, and research conducted a couple of years ago (partnering with SimpsonScarborough) shows lower awareness of our name among certain audiences, even while other audiences have strong awareness. Some of these concerns date back to our 2008 name change, when we switched from the University of Missouri-Rolla to Missouri S&T.

Some express concerns that our brand might be evolving too fast. Then again, it depends on whom you ask. Others feel we’ve been taking too long to fully embrace the new name.

Evolution must happen — with brands as much as with anything else. Managing brand evolution, though, can be tricky. The concern about what might be lost in the transition always looms.

It makes me wonder if our ancestors, the ancient homo sapiens, were introspective enough to worry about losing their tails.

A good name — and brand associations

One thing our university has in common with some of the brands that have embraced the shorter version of their official name is this: The official name is unwieldy. The name might be descriptive — or perhaps once was, as in back in the days when AT&T was focused solely on telephones and the telegraph — but it doesn’t convey the breadth of the modern brand, or it is confusing (which was IEEE’s problem) or doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (e.g., National Aeronautics and Space Administration or Missouri University of Science and Technology).

As Al Ries and Laura Ries wrote over a decade ago in their book The Origin of Brands, “The heart of a good marketing program is a great name.”

Amen. A strong name is important. But even more important are the brand associations with that name.

What does a prospective student think of when that student things about Texas A&M? If it’s only about agriculture and mechanical engineering, then that university has missed the mark.

Or what about AT&T? There are a lot of associations — good and bad — that go along with that brand. But I doubt many of us are thinking about telegraphs.

Or NASA? We’re thinking about space exploration more than the agency’s “first A,” aeronautics.

As for Missouri S&T, market research has shown that innovation is strongly associated with our brand. It’s our hope that our shortened name, and all of the tactics surrounding our brand strategy, will build on and strengthen that association in the minds of our customers.

What’s interesting about our situation, and Texas A&M’s, is our deliberate efforts to stay connected to our past. This takes form in their references to “Aggies” and ours to “Miners” — both associations to the background of our institutions but also to brand personalities that have, um, evolved over time. For us, it’s also apparent in our brand strategy, which emphasizes our “heritage of discovery, creativity and innovation.”

Even with all this deliberative, planned brand evolution, there are days when I feel as though we are pulling ourselves out of the primordial ooze, attempting to shed our gills for lungs and our fins for legs. Evolution ain’t easy.

* NASA is an abbreviation for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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