August 1, 2006
Company Naming: Acronyms and Initialisms
Not many of us realize that an acronym is not just a collection of initials: it has to be something pronounced as a word. The name of Food Service distributor SYSCO is an acronym for Systems and Services Company. IBM, on the other hand, is an initialism, because every letter is sounded out when spoken. Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded itself with the initialism KFC.
I have found that the problem with acronyms and initialisms is that they rarely provide cues as to what the company, product, or organization is or does. Generations of existing customers have used the abbreviation “KFC,” but the letters alone don’t tell prospective new customers what the restaurant is famous for. Only the fact that the restaurant is well-known makes the company name change feasible.
Nevertheless, I consider acronyms and initialisms can be a better choice than the long form names they represent. “S.A.D.” tells us exactly the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. “SYSCO” is catchier than “Systems and Services Company.” “SAAB” is unquestionably easier for English speakers to remember, never mind pronounce, than “Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget.”
In fact, when expanding globally, abbreviating your company name often beats translating it. The abbreviation might not mean much in the new country, but accurate translation is a difficult art, and inaccurate translation can make your company look bad. Not translating the long form of the name may well leave overseas customers struggling to pronounce it.
Unless you’re already well-known at home and going global, beware of using initials for a company name. There are so many acronyms and initialisms out there already that you’re likely to add to the confusion rather than branding your company.
There are many examples of company names formed by acronyms and initialisms. Matthew Phiong wrote about the interesting story behind several company names. The Re-Imagineering blog explains the history of Walt Disney Imagineering, which was originally WED Enterprises, (the initials of Walt’s full name, Walter Elias Disney.)
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