What does it stand for?

By Burt Alper

January 22, 2008

I enjoyed Douglas Quenqua’s piece in Thursday’s NYT on the UNCF “name change”. Very interesting dilemma. (For those of you who don’t want to read the article, the United Negro College Fund just announced it was changing its name, at Landor’s suggestion, to UNCF.)

Of course, as a guy who runs a naming company I was particularly intrigued by the solution they chose. While I completely understand *why* they made the name change, I have to question their final decision. I liken it to the recent name change made by AARP (they also tried to avoid an awkward reference by reverting to their familiar initials).

I see two problems with this tactic. First, as is the case with AARP and “retired persons”, everybody knows what the “N” stands for. Just because they use the initials doesn’t mean they escape the reference. Landor’s last attempt at this ploy was to “rename” Kentucky Fried Chicken KFC. No one was fooled, and the company has recently gone back to the longer, less healthy sounding version of the name. It is amazing to me that people continue to pay Landor huge dollars to recommend such inane solutions.

Second, by switching to the initials, UNCF joins the litany of companies swimming in alphabet soup (NCR, ATT, WWE, etc.). While I don’t think a concocted “naming company name” like Accenture or Agilent would have been appropriate (also the work of Landor), I do think they could have found a name that has more warmth and distinction, while communicating some message of relevance (e.g., equality, support, guidance, etc.). Adopting the initials is a cop out, and may hamper UNCF’s ability to raise funds. They certainly have missed an opportunity to excite their audience. I understand they want to keep their heritage, but that heritage can be bridged to a new name (ask the folks at Altria). Now they sound just like any other big, corporate, enterprise with a cumbersome name. They’ve wasted a wonderful opportunity to instill new life, and new messages into their organization. To borrow their phrase, a name is a terrible thing to waste.

The article also references the struggle faced by the NAACP (maybe they can hire Landor to tell them that they should use their initials too). As a namer, all this name changing is a very poignant reminder not to tie a name to any current buzzword, technology, or (in the case of UNCF and NAACP), politically-correct reference. Names must be able to stand the test of time. What is politically correct today may not be tomorrow.

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