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When It Comes to Business Names, Acronyms Are FUBAR

Maybe you'll read the following sentence as it was intended, but I sure didn't. It was the lead sentence in an article in my local business journal:

"CA is a fundamentally different company than it was when I arrived two years ago."

To me, "CA" means California, and that's how I read it. But when I reached the end of that sentence, that obviously did not make sense. Then I thought, "Must be a misprint - they left a letter out - but what?" Only in the fourth paragraph of the article did my bafflement clear up. "We simplified 'Computer Associates' to 'CA' and brought the 'C' and 'A' on our brand mark closer together."

"Oh my gosh, 'CA' is a company name?!" Too bad you couldn't see the expression on my face.

This illustrates one of the problems in creating a company name out of letters. With just about any combination of letters you choose, the acronym is probably already in use somewhere. Indeed, CA is also in use for Cocaine Anonymous, as well as an abbreviation for Canada. On the web, a new company name consisting of an acronym will be impossible for the average person to get useful results for from a search engine.

According to the Web Directory All Acronyms, the letters NSA stand for more than 100 different entities, including No Such Agency. Incorporating an acronym as part of a longer name doesn't resolve the issue of multiple meanings. For example, if you named your company SME Services, thinking of "Small and Medium-sized Enterprises," SME could still call up more than 60 other meanings in common usage, including Subject Matter Expertise and Solid Metal Embrittlement.

Second, because acronyms have no self-evident meaning, they require a very heavy investment of resources to become recognizable and memorable as a company name. True, the now-global fast-food company KFC has done well with its initials by trading on its previous incarnation as Kentucky Fried Chicken. But unless you're also serving more than a billion customers a year with a marketing budget to match, that shouldn't encourage you to follow their example.

And third, acronyms invite ridicule. There are scores of jokes purporting to explain what the letters in IBM really mean:

* I've Been Moved (because of the company's relocation policy)
* I've Been Misled
* It's a Broken Machine
* Immoral Brand and Management
* I Blame Mathematics
* Idiots Became Managers
* Imbecilic Bad Micros
* Invented By Murphy
* and on and on.

Perhaps because we dislike how we tend to be treated by governmental and technical acronym-named organizations, many of us find acronyms geeky and off-putting rather than cuddly and comforting. "Acronyms tend to keep non-experts at arm's length," wrote language critic Amy Gahran in 2003. For example, "the original full name for RSS [which most people believe stands for Really Simple Syndication] is 'RDF Site Summary' - a nested acronym that requires two levels of decoding, and it gets geekier at the second level," Gahran noted.

Most of the time, keeping people at arm's length is not a desirable state of affairs or a goal for a new company name. So ditch the acronyms.

By the way, in case you're wondering what "FUBAR" means, since before World War Two it's been an American military expression for the more vulgar version of "Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition."

Marcia Yudkin is Head Stork of Named At Last, a company that brainstorms creative business names, product names and tag lines for clients. For a systematic process of coming up with an appealing and effective name or tag line, download a free copy of "19 Steps to the Perfect Company Name, Product Name or Tag Line" at www.namedatlast.com/19steps.htm

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