When shoemaker Reebok set out to woo the coolest of the cool in sports and hip-hop, it created a brand specifically designed for young urbanites -- RBK.
Coincidentally, that's also the publicly traded company's ticker symbol, but that's not why designers did it. They just thought it sounded good.
Letters are in, you see. Once the purview of government bureaucracies (FBI, IRS, CIA), initials and acronyms are all over pop culture now.
Boy band 'N SYNC derives its moniker from the last letters of each of its members' first names. Everybody knows that J.Lo is Jennifer Lopez. Then there's her ex, Sean "Puffy" Combs, who recently morphed into P. Diddy.
Music charts were nearly incomprehensible in the '90s. Remember R.E.M., N.W.A. and S.W.V.?
Nolan Church has had enough. The self-described philosopher, musician and Web-page designer rails against the trend on his Web site, www.soundstore.com/nolan /ass.html.
Church created the Web site as a joke. He invites readers to join the Acronym Sense Society (ASS), a fictional group created to oppose WOA -- "widespread overuse of acronyms."
"In each specialized area, people understand their own acronyms, but in the melting pot of global cultural stew, we are cooking up nothing but alphabet soup," says Church, 48, who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Church knows he's fighting a losing battle.
"Acronyms are so popular that you can't get away from them," he said. ". . . The technical stuff I read, especially, just throws those things out there and assumes everybody knows what they're talking about."
The Internet has spawned a whole culture of abbreviations born of the need to type faster in chat rooms. Shortcuts online include IMHO ("in my humble opinion"), BTW ("by the way"), LOL ("laughing out loud") and FWIW ("for what it's worth").
If all those letters make your head spin, not to worry. Many Web sites offer a glossary. You may also find clues in the FAQ (frequently asked questions).
Offline, there's always the dictionary. Some acronyms become words unto themselves, said Kathleen Doherty, associate editor at Merriam-Webster.
That happens when they're widely used, they're used in both singular and plural, they develop tenses and hardly anyone remembers what the letters stand for, Doherty said.
Scuba and radar once were acronyms, but how many people know they began, respectively, as "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus" and "radio detecting and ranging?"
"People just like shorthand," Doherty said. "Who's going to say 'self-contained underwater breathing apparatus'?' That's a mouthful."
OOPS! (Oh, Other PerilS)
There are pitfalls, however.
"Organic Gardening" magazine changed its name to "O.G." in September. Perhaps the marketing folks were unaware that in the hip-hop world, O.G. stands for "original gangster."
But there are only so many letters to go around, after all. The former World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, learned this the hard way. It changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment earlier this year after a long trademark battle with the World Wildlife Federation.
It's safe to throw letters around when the acronym is clear and deeply entrenched, such as BYOB or TGIF, but some are a little riskier. Browse through magazine racks, and you may be hard- pressed to guess the content of "O" and "Y.M."
"That's the danger of doing something like that," said Jonlee Andrews, associate professor of marketing at Indiana University and director of the Center for Brand Leadership. "Outside of the in group that knows what the letters mean, you lose people unless you create a campaign to educate them, and that can be expensive."
So far, corporations seem willing to take the chance. Reebok is throwing parties around the country to publicize its RBK line and has partnered with record stores to display shoes.
"If acronyms are done right, they're always appealing," said Brian Povinelli, director of global advertising at Reebok.
Acronyms also are a handy way to downplay elements of a name. Consider Kentucky Fried Chicken, which officially became KFC to emphasize menu items that aren't fried. Or SBC, which began as Southwestern Bell Communications but now serves other parts of the country.
Sometimes, it's a matter of following the public's lead. Dairy Queen customers have dubbed the ice cream chain D.Q. for decades. So when the company began test-marketing new restaurants with expanded food menus, it named them D.Q. Grill and Chill.
"It's part of our identity," said Michael Keller, Dairy Queen's executive vice president of marketing. "People already associate it with us, so it just made sense."
Call Courtenay Edelhart at 1-317-444-6481.
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