Stop the insanity! How acronyms undermine communications and connection.

Every industry uses acronyms, but if I had a magic marketing wand I would use it to ban them from marketing communications and naming all together. The goal of audience-centered communications is to connect but acronyms do the opposite. Sound dramatic? So is the effect of bad naming conventions!

Acronyms create insiders and outsiders

The NHS (National Health Services) Confederation says their goal is “high standards of care for patients and best value for taxpayers.” But their impenetrable acronyms undermine their efforts. A cursory glimpse at their website’s “acronym buster” suggests the reader should understand the following:

  • CAT means “crisis assessment and treatment”
  • CBT means “cognitive behavioral therapy”
  • CDH means “coronary heart disease”
  • DTS means “diagnosis and treatment center”
  • HaN means “Hospital at Night services”

That’s a lot to ask of customers—and that’s just the beginning. An acronym buster is a big red flag.

Acronyms require us to learn a new language

Many people don’t read at length or very closely. The logic of shortening key concepts into acronyms doesn’t resolve that issue—it makes it worse. It’s all in the mechanics. The reader must learn a new language, then translate that back into meaningful words. It’s a backwards process.

If you do use acronyms, make them meaningful And be consistent.

Is the Department of Health DH or DOH? If you must use them, use them the same way every time. But be aware that acronyms can be confusing precisely because they have many meanings and associations for readers. For example, DEP stands for the Disability Equality Partnership but also the Deaf Empowerment Program, the Defense Enterprise Program, the Document Enterprise Program, the Disability Education Program, and the Development Education Program. That’s a lot of DEPs to compete with!

Even worse, sometimes an acronym sends the wrong message entirely. Statewide Housing Action Coalition forms the unfortunate acronym SHAC; this acronym is not reflective of the group’s values or efforts at all.

Acronyms in organization naming conventions

For a top-notch logo, the name of the brand should be short and the logo should function as an effective recall mechanism.

logo name discriptor

I’ve found that clients with long, acronym-clunky names are forcing a round peg in a square hole. The descriptor should do the heavy lifting regarding what the organization actually does. The name should be simple and concise to allow a designer to create a strong logo.

So what do you do if your name is already an established acronym?

If your acronym can be read phonetically and that’s what people call you, just use it as a word. This might require a new logo and a more meaningful descriptor line, but you can transition your name in a step-by-step process.

When Orange Square worked with New England Research Institutes on their rebrand, this was the three-step transition of their logo and descriptor line:

neri logo transition

If you are focused on creating audience-centered communication (both internal and external) and value connection in your communications, spell out the acronyms every time.

Or better yet, don’t go down the acronym road at all—it’s one that really should be less traveled.