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A first-in-phone-book business
name is just an AAAA-OK idea

First in the book?When it comes to phone listings, the As have it.

Or do they?

In the business world, many entrepreneurs are convinced there's virtue to taking an "A-game" approach to naming their business.

Who gets first billing in the business listings, they reason, AAAA-1 Plumbers Co. or Young Plumbing Co.? And who will most likely get a call from a frantic customer dealing with a gushing pipe?

Front of the book isn't always best
Isn't it common sense that AAA Limousine Service will catch the attention of Yellow Page shoppers, at least way before Zsa Zsa's Limo & Transport?

Not necessarily so, experts say.

"I think it's basically an urban myth type of thing," says Nancy Swaysey, a listings specialist for Pacific Bell Directory in San Francisco. "We've never been able to determine that it provides any advantage at all, no matter how many 'A's you put in your name."

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So directory publishers don't charge any more for "A" businesses than other listings, she says.

Companies who pay for business-class phone service receive a free one-line listing in the Yellow Pages, according to Swaysey. Those with conventional phone service can pay up to $70 annually to be listed.

For companies that take out display advertising, the smallest ads can cost $400 to $700 annually, she says.

Size and placement matter
The real directory eye-catchers have nothing to do with alphabet, but with placement, presentation, color and, yes, size, Swaysey says.

"Size does matter, at least in the Yellow Pages," she says. "The display ads will always come first in every category, long before AAA Pest Control or some other company with A at the beginning of its name."

But advocates remain unswayed.

They argue that many customers scouring the Yellow Pages or business white pages naturally focus on companies earliest in the alphabet.

And that often leads to a "cha-ching" of the cash register for the "A-team," they say.

Battle to be first
There are many true believers in the "A" approach. Indeed, check the business listings of any metropolitan area and you'll find page after page of A-companies.

A-Plus Action Products Inc., A-Aaction Locksmiths, AAA Mortgage Co. and A Aardvark Glass Co. -- to name a few.

Some can get completely carried away with the ploy.

Consider AAAA Trucks & Van Salvage Co., A AAA Tri County Movers and AAAAAAA Ability Attorney Referral Service.

Far more companies take an A-name than any other frequently used naming approach, such as the use of American or Central.

Unlike school report cards, however, having too many As in your business name can be a bad thing.

Too many 'A's raise eyebrows
Many directory publishers routinely investigate the A-names -- especially those with multiple As -- to see if they are indeed the legal name of the business. If not, the bogus name is tossed and barred from listing.

In one case in Seattle, a company's A-name in the Yellow Pages triggered a lawsuit alleging false advertising and fraud, Pacific Bell spokesman John Britton says.

"Consumers would always be wise to do more research than just going with the first company they find in the listings," he says.

A-names also come under the watchful eye of probably the best-known A-business -- the American Automobile Association, a.k.a. Triple A.

"We monitor the use of the name AAA and our logo," spokeswoman Cindy Sharpe of the Tampa AAA office says. "When we see or hear of a business that might be infringing on our name or logo, we send these to our national office for investigation."

Certainly, there is occasional confusion, she says.

"We receive calls periodically from people who think we are associated with a business that has AAA in its name," she says. "One woman who was terminated from her job called us to vent because the employer who fired her was AAA Parking. She thought we were affiliated. There was also a driving school in South Florida that used the name AAA and this caused some confusion."

Even AAA scrutinized
In at least one case, even the "real" AAA' found itself under scrutiny by a directory publisher, Sharpe says. Several years ago, a directory publisher in Tennessee required AAA to show documents verifying its legal name before it could be listed.

Most companies using the A-name approach are in the service or retail sectors, They're rarely found in the high-tech industry, says Gordon Hogan, a business development manager for the Central Florida Innovation Corp., an Orlando-based business incubator firm that works with technology companies.

Out of hundreds of inquiries and business plans received by the firm, only two played the A-game: A-Plus Products Inc. and A Very Private Eye Inc., Hogan says. Neither of them became a client of the innovation group.

"Most of the companies we work with are into manufacturing and they don't rely on the Yellow Pages to get their customers," he says. "With tech companies, you're more likely to see a lot of names beginning with the word 'advanced.' They like to think that tells people they're on the cutting edge."

Angling for any advantage
An overwhelming number of Yellow-Page advertisers -- about 95 percent -- are small business that are looking for any competitive advantage they can find, says Swaysey of Pacific Bell. It is not surprising some would be attracted to the A-name approach, she says.

"If there really was some advantage to it as far as the Yellow Pages goes, we would have found it by now," she says. "We study Yellow Page usage constantly, with focus groups, surveys and other means. We've never been able to track anything telling us it makes a difference."

Sprint Publishing has never felt a need to analyze the A-listings, says spokeswoman Robin Gilbert. "We are aware that this is a strategy used by some business owners, but it isn't something we participate in and have had no reason to research it," she says.

At the bottom line, however, if the "A" fits, wear it, small business officials say. You might, in fact, catch that stray customer here and there who happens to like your phone book A-game.

But let the namer beware.

"Our typical advice would be to choose a name that reflects a unique business quality or niche," says Al Polfer, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Central Florida. "Simply putting AAA in front of a name doesn't necessarily accomplish that. We also feel a name or advertisement that suggests quality, certification or longevity would have more value to someone making a business decision."

Rick Walter is a freelance writer based in Florida
To comment on this story, please e-mail the
Bankrate.com editors

-- Posted: June 23, 2000


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