Positioning and brand expert Al Ries has written a superb Ad Age column that beautifully captures the kind of top down, inside-out thinking that still pervades most of Corporate America's C-suite.
In the column, Ries mocks J.C. Penney's rebranding of itself as JCP. Having been involved in countless name changes over the decades, Ries knows what he's talking about. He says Penney CEO Ron Johnson and his team chose JCP because that's how THEY refer to the company in their internal e-mails and casual office conversations. But, as Ries points out, the rest of the world still calls the organization J.C. Penney, Penney's or Penny. And, he cites studies showing that the JCP abbreviation is being completely ignored.
Ries says consumers should be the ones who decide if a corporation should change its name. He cites Coke as a prime example. Coca-Cola didn't begin putting the abbreviation on soda cans until the four-letter C-word had entered the popular lexicon.
That's smart, outside-in thinking. Federal Express did the same thing, waiting until everyone in the world was using the FedEx abbreviation before formalizing the change.
Emily Yellin, our strategic partner in Peppercom's Audience Experience offering, made the same point in her book, 'Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us.' She constantly reminds marketers that consumers don't think of themselves as consumers. They're shoppers. And, shoppers don't think of J.C. Penney as a brand. They think of it as a discount store.
The best thinkers in marketing are the ones who've figured out the audience is now in charge. The days of re-branding your company as JCP and expecting the mindless, advertising-dependent masses of the past to automatically start using the ersatz initials are gone with the wind.
The game has changed and, before making a name change, listen to your audience first. If you listen hard enough, they may tell you to stick with what you've got.
I can promise you one thing. Just because we refer to our firm as P'com doesn't mean I'd ever re-brand us that way or expect you to suddenly calling us P'commers.
Oh, one more plug for Ries. Just to pour salt in the JCP wound, he says he would have advised Penney to stay with their name and use the tagline: 'Save dollars at Penney's.' Brilliant in its simplicity, isn't it?