NOMO lie number 2: all acronyms are bad

(Part 3 of a 4-part NOMO series about abbreviated brand names) Right, more about so this week we’ve dealt with nomonyms, order our term for any unhelpful abbreviated names, tadalafil initialisms like IBM, and whether they can be a brand at all. And later we’ll deal with the 25 worst acronyms of all time. But first: acronyms. And here’s my lie about them: all acronyms are bad.

The happy couple in the merger of Russia's Gazprom and Nigeria's NNPC: the awkward new name "NIGAZ" (pronounced "NIGH-gaz" - no really)

So yeah. It was a lie: not all acronyms are bad.M

But just as initialisms are not a good choice for the vast majority of products and companies, acronyms are very difficult to do well, and are fraught with hidden perils – as the well-meaning folks in the picture above thought when they chose their acronym – based name, or the example we commented on last month: the SciFi channel, who thought Syfy would make a spiffy (not “siffy”) name for their channel rebrand.

What is a (real) acronym?

But lets be clear what an acronym actually is. The word is used as a blanket term for all abbreviations – as in this Wikipedia post, which starts off making the distinction between acronym and initialism, but then ends up lumping them together. A true acronym has to meet three tests :

  • a. It must be the abbreviation of a series of words, which
  • b. creates an actual word that people can realistically use in everyday conversation, and
  • c. the new word must stick — that is it must actually be used by people as a proxy for the longer phrase.

Meeting criteria a. is really, really easy. Anyone can take a bunch of letters and throw them together into a sequence. But if the combination is “YTJNE” it’s not an acronym, it’s an initialism.

Which brings us to criteria b. This one seems easy, but is actually devilishly difficult in practice. And criteria c. is the hardest of all, since this involves actually convincing people to use the name you create – and preferably without rolling their eyes or laughing aloud.

Why it’s so hard

It’s like trying to give yourself a nickname. In my early brand-geek days (when I was 8), I tried to get my friends to call me “Tater” (don’t ask). But of course it didn’t work. Why? because it was my idea of what would be cool, not other people’s idea of what FIT me.

Because essentially that’s what an acronym is – a nickname.  Think about how we call Coca-Cola “Coke”. We know the “official” version, but saying “Coke” feels more familar, more friendly. A good nickname is a proxy; a good acronym is a short, catchy version of a longer name that people are aware of, but if the right handle comes along, they’ll use it.

The secret to good acronyms

So here’s the key: a successful acronym has to be so simple, so elegant, so natural, that it feels like it was you customer’s idea all along. Essentially, it has to be a useful tool to help people notice, remember, and refer to you. Oh, wait, that’s our definition for a brand!

  • Successful acronyms like “laser”,”NASA”, “Benelux”, and “UNICEF” are easy to say, easy to remember, and natural to use. When this is the case, the acronym actually supercedes the full name in the customer’s mind. I was an adult before I learned that UNICEF was anything but a strong stand-alone brand name. Quick: what does “scuba” stand for? Most people don’t even realize that it’s an acronym for “self contained underwater breathing apparatus”. That’s how natural a good acronym should be.
  • Unsuccessful acronyms are either unwieldy (UNRWA – pronounced “un-rah”), unpleasant to say (GATT), or just too long (PUMCODOXPURSACOMLOPOLAR – Pulse Modulated Coherent Doppler-Effect X-Band Pulse-Repetition Synthetic-Array Pulse Compression Side Lobe Planar Array).
  • Really awful acronyms: At their worst, acronyms are so laughably bad they make news on their own – ususally because the combination of letters forms a word that is just too much of a stretch. But we’re reserving those for another post.

The whole NOMO series:

3 thoughts on “NOMO lie number 2: all acronyms are bad”

  1. You missed “underwater” in your explanation of SCUBA.

    Asides from that, I really enjoy this series of articles.

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