The house lights, lowered.
The crowd, dressed to the nines.
The music, pounding.
The stage, brightly lit.
The stomachs, full.
This was the setting at the annual Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) Marketing Communications Awards, held in conjunction with Build Business.
The program featured some incredible marketing achievements in a whole host of categories, from digital to print to events and beyond. If you want to know what the best of the best are doing when it comes to promoting AEC firms, you have to check out the MCAs.
It was perhaps halfway through the program when my table caught a case of the giggles. Not everyone at the table, mind you, just those that picked up on a peculiar trend: abbreviations. That is, company names that seemed to be just random letters thrown together as if in a bowl of alphabet soup.
So there we were in suits, dresses, and even tuxedos, cracking up as finalists were announced in the various categories. I’m sure we annoyed everyone around us, so I won’t mention the names of my co-conspirators to protect the – um – innocent?
But let’s leave the SMPS MCA program for now, and venture to the pages of ENR – Engineering News-Record. Every year the venerable magazine publishes lists of the largest firms in design and construction. Being on their list is very prestigious and ENR is an excellent publication and website. (Disclaimer: I write the Marketropolis blog for ENR.com).
Here are the Top 10 Design Firms:
- Fluor Corp
- Tetra Tech
- Burns & McDonnell
That’s three abbreviations and an acronym (an abbreviation that can be pronounced as a word). Not too bad.
Now let’s look at the Fortune500, the iconic list of the largest (in revenues) companies in the United States. Here’s the current Top 10:
- Berkshire Hathaway
- UnitedHealth Group
- CVS Health
There’s one abbreviation: AT&T, which those of us of a certain age know was originally the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.
Within the Fortune500 list, the next abbreviation doesn’t appear until 38: IBM, once known as International Business Machines. In between there’s companies like Chevron, Ford, Alphabet, Walgreens, Verizon, Kroger, Microsoft, Home Depot, and other household names – many of them unique or at least memorable.
So why is it that in the AEC industry there is such a propensity to use letters and abbreviations as corporate names?
Look, we’re in an industry where everyone seems to have letters behind their names, like PE, AIA, RA, CCS, LEED, CPSM, PLS, CCM, and so many more.
And we follow codes and standards like IBC, IEBC, IRC, ADA, OSHA, IFC, IPC, IECC, ASHRAE, and others.
And we work for clients like DOT, DGS, GSA, and USACE.
And we participate in industry organizations including AIA, ABC, ACEC, AGC, ASCE, ASHE, ASHRAE, BOMA, CMAA, COAA, CSI, DBIA, IEEE, IFMA, NCSEA, NSPE, SAME, SDA, USGBC, and the list goes on….
So why in the name of all that is good in this world would we want our company name to be a few seemingly random letters thrown together? (Sure, they are often the first letters of names or words, but do our clients care?)
I spent much of my career with JDB Engineering – the “JDB” represents the founder’s initials. In full transparency, I’m “SDB” and I call “JDB” by another name: Dad! The original company name was J. Donald Butcher, PE, and I get why my father didn’t go the “Butcher Engineering” route, which could potentially have a negative connotation (at least he wasn’t a neurosurgeon, Dr. Butcher)! After he founded JDB in 1981, he went a more creative route with his next company, NuTec. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of “NuTec” companies launched since then – Nutek, Nutech, Nu-Tech, so that firm no longer holds a distinctive name in the marketplace.
Within the SMPS Marketing Communications Awards program, roughly half of the finalists were company names with letters. Half!
Think about that.
The current ENR500 Design Firms include:
- PSI (actually Intertek-PSI)
…and that’s just within the Top 100!
I’m not trying to pick on or call out any firm – there are some crazy successful, incredible brands within this list.
And yet … how boring. Sometimes acronyms can be fun, but abbreviations rarely are.
If you’ve been the AEC industry for any period of time, you undoubtedly realize that our clients have trouble telling us apart. We look the same, sound the same, submit the same proposals, have the same websites (just change logos!), and more. Sure, we preach differentiation, but we don’t follow our own admonishments to “be different.”
Sophisticated design and construction buyers mayknow the difference between HOK, HDR, HGA, HKS, HBK, H2M, HLW, HBG, HVJ, and HNTB.
Or WSP, WSB, WATG, WGI, and WDG.
Or RS&H, RK&K, RMF, RMA, RDG, and RRMM.
Maybe. Do you?
These are all 2019 ENR500 design firms. See for yourself.
What if your company isn’t one of these firms? And your name is HxyDesign or WxyConstruction? Is your name really memorable? How many ABC firms does this industry have room for?
But Scott, you say, some of these companies have words after them like Architecture, Design, Engineering, or Planning. So do tens of thousands of other firms. In what world does a seemingly random collection of letters followed by a generic word create differentiation?
Now look at the world’s strongest brands, as of this writing.
No abbreviations or acronyms here. Heck, “Google” has even become its own verb just as yesterday’s powerful brands like Xerox and Kleenex became generic terms because of widespread usage! (I still ask for a Kleenex when I sneeze, but can’t tell you the last time I requested a Xerox copy.)
Do you remember when Amazon was a river and a rainforest? Now it delivers us cool stuff, usually within a day or two. Once upon a time, we ate apples. Now we put them in our pocket and make calls with them. Apple represent technology and innovation, and I’m writing this post on the Apple sitting on my desk.
Well, I’m actually writing this post on a Macbook, but I also have an iPhone, iWatch, and iPad, which are all very strong brands under the umbrella of Apple.
However, in the AEC industry, we really don’t have “brands” like iPhone or Diet Coke or Highlander – very popular sub-brands (products) within the Top 10 global brands (companies). We don’t typically brand our service lines, so our company names need to be strong and memorable.
I’ve read many books about branding over the years, and have known many branding consultants. Some totally get it. (I’m happy to refer you – two of the best in the AEC industry are mentioned below!) Others, not so much.
When it comes to branding books, I absolutely love The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build a Product or Service Into a World-Class Brandby the father-daughter team of Al Ries and Laura Ries. (BTW, if you want to go in-depth with developing a logo and slogan – “tag lines” are for TV anchors! – check out the solo writings of Laura Ries).
One of their laws is “The Law of the Name,” which tells us that “In the long run a brand is nothing more than a name.” Team Ries notes that, “In the short term, a brand needs a unique idea or concept to survive.” However, over the long term, “All that is left is the difference between your brand name and the brand names of your competition.”
Another one of the Ries & Ries laws is “The Law of the Generic,” which warns that “One of the fastest routes to failure is giving a brand a generic name.”
Hmm… initials seem pretty generic to me. When people are writing about a generic company, they often use names like ABC Engineering or XYZ Construction. You can’t get much more generic than that!
Since the AEC industry seems to prefer three letter names the most, you’ll be comforted to know that there are 17,576 possible 3-letter combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet. And apparently our industry is bound and determined to use them all!
Why Should You Care?
In the professional services and AEC industries, your company name is often your brand. Sure, your brand encompasses many things, but the name association is usually with your company. So you should have a memorable company name. You should have a name that’s different from your competitors. You should seek to be unique and distinct. That’s what branding is. Consider “The Law of the Name” and “The Law of the Generic.”
Two of my favorite branding gurus on the planet are BRANDiac Strategies and Substance151. You won’t find the term “brandiac” in any dictionary. It’s made-up – but very memorable, like a branding maniac! And Substance151 sounds so mysterious, like Red Dye No. 2 or Love Potion Number 9 or even Strawberry Letter #23!
BRANDiac Strategies and Substance151 are striking company names. And guess what? When you Google them (see how I used that as a verb?), their companies are the first hits to come up.
JDB Engineering is not that memorable. In fact, I just Googled “JDB,” and the first thing that came up was “Java DeBugger. And the second thing. And third thing…
Marketers throw around terms like brand equity and brand promise. Equity is essentially the value of the brand. A new brand – or company – does not have a lot of brand equity simply because it is not well known. Promise is the expectation a client or prospect has of the experience of working with your firm (brand).
If we need our brand names – our company names – to be memorable in order to build equity and promise, exactly how can XYZ Engineering accomplish this? We may as well call our firm Generic Engineering.
This doesn’t mean that you need to change your company name. This doesn’t mean that your branding strategy is doomed to failure. But it does mean that if you have an “alphabet soup” kind of name, you need to go the extra mile to stand out. If you’re lucky enough to be an ENR500 firm, you probably have a pretty strong brand already. But there are thousands of “alphabet soup” company names in the AEC industry, and those without large budgets are going to struggle to differentiate.
How can you make your company name memorable to your clients and prospects?
BMW is a great brand. BMW is the Ultimate Driving Machine. No one can argue about the power of the BMW brand, which is the thirteenth top global brand. Of course, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG has spent millions upon millions of dollars in advertising to establish that brand. Most likely, your budget is a wee bit smaller.
In fairness, brand confusion happens with non-letter names, too. A few years ago, the firm I was with was designing a large project. The client was looking to interview major contractors, and assumed that The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company and Turner Construction Company were one in the same (Whiting-Turner vs. Turner). I’m sure neither firm will be happy to read this, and yet their employees are probably nodding in acknowledgement, thinking, “Not the first time…” And these are two of the largest construction firms in the country!
Your brand is your differentiator. Your brand is your culture. Your brand is your future. Your brand is the experience and promise that you offer your clients and potential clients. Treat it like your most important asset, and strive to be unique and different from the competition.
So if you’re ready to launch a new firm, think twice before you create a name with initials. Likewise, don’t just shorten your long company name to initials to make life “easier.” Perhaps abbreviations are best left to industry organizations, building codes, text messages, TV networks, and radio stations.
And remember that just because your company owners may be named White, Thomas, and Fuller doesn’t mean that WTF Construction is the best option for a company name!
Need help thinking strategically about your brand (or corporate name)? Check out aecumen’s services and reach out to Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717.891.1393 or email@example.com.
Great post, Scott! Of course, we can all empathize with these firms over all of the challenges that come with changing or shortening these legacy firm names. Back when that first new partner signed on, you added his name to the door, and then the next, and the next. It’s only sustainable for so long. So the only practical thing to do was shorten it to an acronym. Many firms have state licenses with those old, longer, full names, so it’s not exactly a simple process, but especially for firms who aren’t already on those ENR lists, now may be the best time to consider a new name. Kudos!
Totally agree, Josh! Ironically, some of those firms with 3-4 initials in their name still have the lengthy corporate names on their letterhead and government forms, and just adopted the initials for marketing. And then of course you have the last names that no one can pronounce so the initials seemed to make a lot of sense. Thanks for your comments.