Jul
29

An abbreviation is not a brand, & all acronyms are bad! (NOMO part 2)

(Part 2 of a series about abbreviated brand names.) Yesterday, I ranted about the use of nomonyms (unhelpful abbreviations) in government. But of course, as you’ll read in this and subsequent posts, the problem of bad abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms goes far beyond government. But the two biggest problems of all are right in the headline…

Just a few of the exciting things you can expect from SMC - a TLA extraordinaire.

Just a few of the exciting things you can expect from SMC - a TLA extraordinaire.

Whoops. I lied. Twice.

Okay, a confession. In the headline, I lied a little – sort of. And what’s more, I kind of lied twice. But they’re well-meaning white lies, so if you can forgive me, I’ll explain why I lied. Today, I’ll deal with lie number one, on abbreviations. Tomorrow we’ll deal with lie number 2 and the problems with actual acronyms.

Lie number 1 (sort of): an abbreviation is not a brand.

What I’m talking about here are a specific kind of abbreviation: initialisms. These are names where you take the first letters of a longer name or set of names, and create a “monogram” for the company – like “IBM”.

So I hear some readers screaming “But IBM is a brand – and a really, really valuable brand!” Yup. It sure is. Actually it’s the second most valuable brand in the world. As I said before, I lied.

And here are a few more names that make me look like a really big fat liar: H&M, AIG, SMC, HP, HSBC, ING. All giants in the branding world. So yeah, my pants are seriously on fire. An abbreviation actually can be a brand – and it can even be a very powerful brand, maybe even second best in the world.

So is naming your product or company with an initialism a smart idea? Absolutely not!

That’s because, while it turns out an abbreviated name can become a brand (shame on me), an initialism is not inherently a brand, and strategically, not the right choice for 99% of products. It the names of all these things are exerting a negative drag on their “brandness” (communication value).
Just think about the names again. Chances are you recognize most of those abbreviations. But look again.

I lied again: SMC is a fake.

The many faces of SMC.

A google search showing the many potential brands of SMC.

Or rather, SMC is a real name, but not one you’ve ever heard of unless you’re into SMC pneumatic automation products (and who isn’t really?). Or maybe you went to SMC (Santa Monica College), use the SMC (State Machine Compiler), climb with the SMC (Scottish Mountaineering Club), belong to the SMC (Small to Medium Company business councils), or are active in a SMC (Social Media Club – which is where I first heard the term and got stumped).

Or maybe you’re a marketing executive at the Irvine California high tech hardware company called SMC Networks . If so, best of luck with that. They’ve been around since 1971, own the dot-com, and still can’t hit #1 on Google.

Be like IBM at your peril

The big brands I mentioned above – including IBM – are successful in spite of the limitations imposed by their current names, not because the names themselves are strong. And note that most of them became major brands under whatever name their current moniker is short for. International Business Machines is a dull, descriptive clunker, but that name was the company for most of its history, and still exists as a hidden secondary brand. That’s because a TLA can’t exist in a vacuum; when people encounter one, they do what you just did. They try to figure out what the heck T-L-A stands for (Three Letter Abbreviation – see?).

A TLA is an empty vessel, which people will try to fill with meaning. Now you can invest decades of time, or gajillions of dollars helping them FILL that container with your preferred meanings, but just remember SMC. If that’s your strategy, you’d darn well better be ready to outspend the Scottish Mountaineering Club – and all the other SMCs. Which is another problem: you can never really own a TLA – or a FLUA (Four Letter Unintelligible Acronym), or other random assembly of letters.

IBM does. Because they’re IBM.

So giving your startup company a TLA “because it works for IBM” is kind of like an ambitious but poor college grad buying a $100,000 car because that’s what rich people do…

So if I have a TLA, how can it become a brand?

Basically, if you want to build a brand around a TLA it has to meet my three basic criteria for a brand:

  1. People (other than you and your inner circle) have to notice it and understand that the name equals the company, product, or concept you’re trying to promote;
  2. People (other than you) have to remember it (or at least have a fighting chance of doing so if they try); and
  3. People (other than you) have to use it as a tool to speak about you to others with the reasonable assumption that others will understand and be able to go back to #1).

And with a TLA, all of these thing sbecome much harder.

So if you are SMC, RPQ, or XYZ, and you can’t change for the moment, then you have my sympathy. Now get to work. Your customers need you.

If you are considering becoming TLA Inc. or launching your new product TLA, and if your boss is telling you it’s a good idea, please slow down. There are lots of ways to find a much better name.

  • Tomorrow: all acronyms are bad (which is also a lie, but we’ll discuss why).
  • Friday: the worst acronyms ever. (not a lie. these are really bad).

The whole NOMO series:

Comments

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] If you’ve ever flown through London’s Heathrow Airport, or Glasgow, or Stansted you’d be forgiven for not knowing that you were actually in the hands of an entity called BAA – which once stood for British Airports Authority, but more recently became “BAA”, which stands for, well, not much at all. Because it was just another TLA (see previous rant here). [...]

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