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17 SEP. 2010

Y.M.C.A. changes its name to “the Y”

One of the world’s most iconic brands, a symbol of pop culture made famous by the 70’s song “YMCA” is now to be called “the Y”. The non profit founded 166 years ago in England as the Young Men’s Christian Association is officially adopting the nickname used by its customer base, thus following a trend set by companies such as KFC, BP or AARP who have all changed their original brand names to abbreviations.

Over time a brand name can prove to be restrictive for some companies, limiting their area of business to certain products and markets. By shortening their brand names, companies can break free of this straitjacket without confusing their customers. Examples of such moves include KFC who ditched its original name (Kentucky Fried Chicken) when in wanted to broaden its product range to include pork and roasted chicken. BP (formerly British Petroleum) also shortened its name after a series of acquisitions that led the firm into new markets.

By changing its name, YMCA can express different aspects of its activity without loosing its credibility. Indeed, the Y’s new name coincides with its efforts to emphasize the impact its programs have on youth, healthy living, and communities. “We’re trying to simplify how we tell the story of what we do, and the name represents that” says Neil Nicoll, president and chief executive of the organization.

Brand name changes can also be driven by customers themselves. No company can have absolute control over its brand image and customers often come up with new names of their own invention to refer to companies and products. “Officially adopting the name by which customers refer to the brand can bring the company closer to its customer base ad strengthen the ties between a brand and its followers. The Y is a way of being warmer, more genuine, more welcoming, when you call yourself what everyone else calls you” said Kate Coleman, the organization’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Shortening a brand name also brings with it certain risks. The first and most obvious one has to do with the story behind the brand name. The challenge is to continue to make consumers and donors aware of the history, tradition and meaning behind the letters. “It’s particularly a danger in the nonprofit space, where the story and awareness of the history and mission is critical when trying to raise money” explains Jonah Disend, chief executive of a brand strategy company in New York.

Another risk has to do with the public’s reluctance to adopt and use the new name. “Some names die hard”, recognizes Michelle Alvarez, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons. In 1999, her organization formally changed its name to AARP after noticing that about half of its members were not retired. Today, reporters still refer to the organization as “the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Person”. This example reflects the media’s well-known reluctance to use new brand names. This can significantly undermine companies’ efforts to change their brand name, and thereby their brand image.

Companies sometimes enable such bad habits by half-heartedly changing their names and still using the old name. The Y has declared that while affiliates are henceforth to use the new name, a specific branch would keep the old name and be referred to as the YMCA of Greater Seattle. 

And of course, the world famous song will keep the original name alive for years to come.

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