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Initial Success: Expressing Your Nonprofit Brand through Initials

"AARP is dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age. We lead positive social change. Using our collective will, influence and good intentions, we make things better not just for ourselves but for everyone."

Whereas I'm personally not ready to join their ranks (although the milestone is not that far off!), AARP's mission statement is intriguing and someday soon will be relevant in my life. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is the spelled-out name of the organization. So ... what is AARP? Is it the Adopt A Road Program? Is it the Association Against Rational Policy? Could the initials stand for Appletalk Address Resolution Protocol? Of course not.

As most readers are aware, AARP is none other than the American Association for Retired Persons. And as most alert readers know, in January 2000, AARP officially changed its name to just those initials. In another generation, it's likely that few people will remember that AARP used to have the word "Retired" in its moniker.

"AARP has been the name most of us have already been using," says AARP executive director Horace B. Deets. He notes that the association's board of directors acted to make the change official. The new name is important. Deets adds, "More than a third of our 33 million members are in the work force."

AARP was faced with an issue many organizations—at some point in their history—have to confront. They must remain relevant to their core and prospective markets while not loosing valuable brand equity in a name that may be well established.

An Energy Example

When British Petroleum acquired Amoco, the ubiquitous green and yellow gas station signs quickly populated the American landscape. Just as quickly, the energy supplier adopted the simple "BP" autograph to grace its pumps and fuel signs.

Instead of confusing Americans with the Anglican name, BP used the switch to initials to express its refined brand essence. "Beyond Petroleum" became the tagline, the advertising signoff, and the new way for the marketplace to think about BP. Although the company was not suggesting an actual name change (making the initials legally stand for something new), it's natural to think of the Beyond Petroleum positioning statement whenever we see the stylized BP sunflower logo.

This new positioning aligns perfectly with BP's mission as expressed in this statement to its customers and stockholders: "As a major supplier of energy, we believe we have a responsibility to be a leader in finding and implementing solutions to climate change. BP was the first major energy company to publicly acknowledge the need to take steps against climate change and to commit to reduce its own emissions. In 2004, we launched a five-year $350-million emission reduction program with a goal of avoiding an additional one million tons each year. We are one of the world's biggest investors in lower carbon fuels and technologies."

This isn't just talk; it's backed up by actions:

  • In 1998, BP set itself the target of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, which was achieved in 2001, nine years earlier than expected.
  • BP put over $87.7 million into community investment programs around the world during 2004.
  • BP Solar is one of the world's largest solar electric companies.

Financial Services, Too

I was watching golf on TV one Sunday and saw ads for RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland), Wachovia, Fidelity, and Barclays. None of them said anything that provided a point of differentiation. They all seemed to blur together into a faceless, unmemorable rabble.

Then a spot came on for UBS. The animated logo at the commercial's close morphed the words "You and Us" into UBS. The commercial conveyed how UBS worked with the customer—one-on-one—to achieve tailored solutions to specific financial issues. The world's largest wealth manager bills itself as "a global financial firm with the heart and soul of a two-person organization." The voiceover said, "You and us ... UBS." It's a nice memory device and, at the time, made me forget to ask what the initials UBS really stand for. (It used to mean Union Bank of Switzerland).

Like BP, UBS used its initials to leverage its brand essence—and as a bonus, drive those initials deep into our memory banks.

Got initials? Do your supporters refer to your organization in the shorthand? In their minds, what do your initials really stand for? If your name has an alternate meaning, make sure it's relevant and believable. Then, use those initials to express your brand essence.

Michael DiFrisco, BrandXcellence
© 2006, BrandXcellence

Michael DiFrisco is president of BrandXcellence, offering self-guided and facilitated brand strategy workshops and brand-driven marketing services to improve the accountability and ROI of your nonprofit's marketing and communications.
Topics: Communications