THINKING BEHIND HSBC, AARP MISSED COMMUNICATION ABCS

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Today is a big day; no, a momentous day; no, a landmark day. It's the day Marine Midland bank changes its name-drumroll, please-to HSBC.

The bank has been taking out page newspaper ads to tell interested parties about its new name. Why it's making this move the ad doesn't say, other than to proclaim "this is a big deal for us."

The name change, the ad explains, "signifies new opportunities to serve you better, to evolve to meet your changing needs. Plus an opportunity to refine what a bank can be."

All this from substituting a few initials? The problem is companies tend to assume people know more about them than they really do. They merge with another company and expect everybody to understand why they're suddenly using a combination of initials (strange ones, at that) to describe the new entity.

I was blissfully unaware of the corporate lineage of Marine Midland. I didn't know Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp. bought complete control of Marine Midland in 1987, and I didn't know the holding company became HSBC Americas in 1995

Even so, all 364 Marine Midland branches in New York state and the two in Pennsylvania had continued to be called Marine Midland-until this very day. Now Hong-kong & Shanghai is adopting a global branding strategy, and local bank names around the world have got to go. I have further been informed customers of Marine Midland have been the subject of an integrated marketing campaign with lots of messages and correspondence giving them all the particulars of the name change.

All this, I'm sure, makes sense from a global perspective, but the whole thing breaks down on the local level, causing a lot of blank stares and even bewilderment. What in the heck is an HSBC? Is it the initials of the owner and his wife? Some obscure entity of the Small Business Administration? A new home shopping channel?

Maybe the folks at Hongkong & Shanghai want to soft pedal the fact it is a monolithic foreign banking power with assets of $484 billion and more than 130,000 employees in 81 countries and territories-one centered in what is now a communist territory even though it's incorporated in London.

For whatever reason, the name change from something very familiar to something totally incomprehensible won't be an easy sell. In all fairness, an earlier ad back in December did link the HSBC names with a myriad collection of banks around the world ("One family. Now one name"), but it still skirted over exactly who these guys are. And, apparently, the name change announcement got more attention upstate than downstate, which is why the whole thing was news to me.

I also missed word that the American Association of Retired Persons is changing its name to AARP (no periods between letters). It seems it wants to bury, so to speak, the "retired" part of its moniker because it's come to its attention most people don't retire at 50, the age when it sends out solicitations to join.

The A.A.R.P.'s challenge is the opposite of HSBC's. Not many people know what HSBC is, but everyone knows what AARP stands for and will remember what that "R" represents-and it ain't Rance. It can't make it go away by using initials, and it will do more harm than good to try. Prospective members will think it is trying to pull a fast one, and current members will think it is disowning its charter. And they are both right.

The organization was called by its initials, A-A-R-P. But by calling itself AARP, no periods, it forces people to bark like a wounded seal. Arrp! Arrp!

Why doesn't AARP come up with a new name (there's a rival group that's sprung up called NABB, the National Association of Baby Boomers)? May I suggest, if it wants to keep its initials, the American Association of Revitalized Persons. Or even Rejuvenated. Maybe not Rehabbed or Reinvented, but something upbeat-

Relaxed, Renewed-and not end of the line sounding (Rickety).

Or AARP could always borrow the letters from Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp. and call itself Healthy, Smart & Beautiful Companions.

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