Today, we are surrounded by acronyms and meaningless letters. Every business and industry has its acronyms and initials. We all need a decoder ring to make sense of all the abbreviations and acronyms. Actually, there is a website Acronym Finder dedicated to decoding acronyms and abbreviations with more than 4 million definitions. We don’t even notice how many initials and acronyms we use in a day like, 24/7, WWW, LOL, TBD, ASAP, FYI, ROI, FAQ, SAP, SOL, KPI, ETA, SEO, SWOT and OMG, to name a few.
After Y2K, the DotCom bubble and 9/11, there have been an explosion of companies moving towards acronyms and initials to reinvent themselves, such as: The Hudson Bay Company to HBC, The Royal Bank of Canada to RBC, Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, British Petroleum to BP, Lucky Goldstar to LG, YMCA to The Y and Bank of Montreal to BMO.
LOL – WTF
Wisconsin Tourism Federation changed its name to The Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, retiring its unfortunate WTF (also known as What The F&*K) logo in favor of the innocent TFW. While Wisconsin Tourism changed its name to stop the humiliation, many companies are doing this to expand into new non English markets or to remove words that made the company too regional and old.
There have also been brands that have had a long life as initials such as: GE, IBM, HP, BMW, UPS, SAP, AT&T, H&M, MSN and VW. Most people today couldn’t tell you the words that these initials originally represent.
So Much Meaning In So Few Letters
As it gets more and more difficult to come up with unique brand names that can be trademarked (see Building a Brand Identity Isn’t Getting Easier) developing distinctive acronyms is another solution. IKEA is an interesting acronym that was made up from the founder’s initials “I.K.” (Ingvar Kamprad). The “E” came from the farm where he grew up (Elmtaryd), and the “A” from his home county (Agunnaryd in Sweden). The world’s #2 search engine and web directory Yahoo was derived from the acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”.
Simplicity Or Survival
The charm of initials and acronyms are their simplicity. There is no need to memorize several words, especially if they are long and difficult to pronounce (like German companies such as Bayerische Motoren Werke, BMW or Systeme, Anwendungen und Produkte in der Datenverarbeitung, SAP). Acronyms and initials can easily be communicated in many languages, cultures and countries. Graphically, they can create a strong design mark that can also convey emotional dynamics and more importantly can be legally protected.
The main problem is acronyms mean nothing upfront. Remember your first day in a new company – all those nonsensical abbreviations – all just a scramble of letters. Over time, you had to load each with meaning and build a mind library of what each letter represented if you couldn’t actually remember the literal words. Acronyms and initials are inherently not descriptive of the business and possess no imagery or benefit-oriented language in and of themselves. Ideally you want a brand name that communicates something about the category, or a benefit, or both.
Name = Benefit
In the car insurance industry, GEICO competes with companies like Nationwide, SafeAuto, and Esurance. Right away, the three GEICO competitors’ names all tell you something about who they are:
- Nationwide – extensive network of service and coverage.
- SafeAuto – keeps you and your car safe.
- Esurance – provides access to insurance online.
What does GEICO tell you? The first thing that comes to mind is the little green gecko. GEICO built their brand recognition by extensive advertising. In 2013, GEICO spent $935 million on advertising, almost three times the average spent by the rest of the 10 biggest insurance companies. No surprise their brand is well recognized.
Small and medium size companies can’t afford the time and money to build a brand from initials and acronyms, unless the initial or acronym is very exclusive and memorable.
However, there is a way to cheat by using the initials/acronym as a design mark with the full words that represent the initials. Consulting firms like law, advertising, architectural, where the people are the differentiating factor tend to use the founders and partners names as the brand. To be customer friendly, they must abbreviate the brand name to simple letters or acronyms to help the customer. Just make sure the final initials/acronym does not spell words you couldn’t say in front of your mother like WTF. However, there are still those companies who try to push the limit like the popular FCUK which stands for “French Connection UK” a trendy clothing store.
The Internet, texting, tweeting and social media have forced everyone into new abbreviated, shorthand to fit, save time and work with a mini keyboard of two-inch by two-inch. Many companies have also abbreviated their company names to have more memorable URL addresses.
Acronyms and initials are here to stay and will continue to become more prolific as more brands become more global and more digital. But there are other trends that could influence the evolution of brand names becoming acronym such as smart home devices (Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, Google Home) and the increasing use of audio dictation and Apple’s Siri. Artificial intelligence (AI), digital assistants and logarithms are changing how we communicate every day. How this will effect abbreviating brand names is still unknown. The most important brand goal is to ensure its customers remember their name – acronym, initials or not.