That Thing You’re Called

 -  5 min read

In the 1996 movie “That Thing You Do,” our heroes, the band The Oneders, are quickly gaining popularity after getting radio play for their first single. Then, a clever record exec recognizes a barrier to future growth: the band’s name. People are too often calling the group ‘The Oh-NEE-ders,’ not ‘The Won-ders’ as intended.

The exec proposes a simple solution: change the spelling to ‘Wonders.’ Problem solved.

What got us thinking back to that movie recently was the ‘name change’ undertaken by vacation-home-rental site Vrbo. Originally founded in 1995 as Vacation Rentals by Owner (a full year before The Wonders hit the big screen), the company later shortened that name to VRBO—you’d just say each letter out loud. Late last year, though, they killed even more syllables, doing away with the acronym and in effect making a word out of Vrbo. Now, you say it “verb-oh.” Time is money, we guess.

What spurred this change, says the company and The Wall Street Journal, is that they found that the majority of people were already referring to the company as the two-syllable ‘Vrbo.’ According to the WSJ, “Vrbo executives said they had been hearing the alternative pronunciation for a long time. Recent tests showed that it was more memorable and easier to say in more languages.”

That quote taps into two opposing things we value around here: anecdotal evidence and testing. Sometimes (especially with acronyms), people start calling something how they see it. Examples abound: Italian carmaker Fiat began as Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino; Geico was once Government Employees Insurance Company; and so on. The shorthand becomes the name itself. “Investing in the old acronym was just ‘fighting the tide,'” Vrbo President John Kim told the WSJ.

Kim illustrates an important lesson: that it is often best to bend to the will of members/customers/consumers, depending on your organization. Another, surer way to arrive at the information you need, though, is validation testing. Compare names, and see what gets the highest marks and, crucially, why. When you roll out a new name or brand to your base, you can then point to results from the testing itself. People will be much less apt to take issue with your decision should you come armed with quantitative and qualitative ammunition.

No matter your brand or field, a name change is one of the most anxiety-inducing things you can do. It should never be done apropos of nothing; a shift in your offering, your customer or member makeup, or wholesale changes in your industry are among a few of many valid reasons for a renaming. Sometimes, it’s simply to catch up to the times. If the public is saying your name one way, go with it&#8212especially if you’re using an acronym.

Even if you don’t immediately become a household name like The Wonders did (going from playing talent shows in Erie, PA to performing on syndicated television shows broadcast from L.A. in about three weeks flat), you’ll at least have a name that matches the literal way people are talking about you. Your name is your most important asset—once you get beyond the fear of changing it, you’ll see all the potential that lies in doing so.