How to Win at the Name Game

Posted by martin.parnell |

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson reveals where the name Apple comes from: Apparently, on the naming of Apple, Jobs said he was “on one of my fruitarian diets.” He said he had just come back from an apple farm, and thought the name sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating.”

Reading this got me interested in how other well-known companies came by their names. I discovered that the name IKEA is made up from the initials of their founder, Ingvar Kamprad and the first letters of the farm Elmtaryd and the village of Agunnarydin in rural southern Sweden where he grew up.

Here are examples of how a couple of other very familiar company names were developed:

LEGO got its name when the founder, Ole Kirk Christiansen, took the first two letters of the Danish words LEG GODT, meaning “play well”, and put them together – quite unaware that LEGO in Latin means ... “I put together”.

In the 1920s, the Dassler brothers operated a sports shoe company out of their mother's laundry room in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Adolf Dassler, who went by the nickname "Adi" handled the design of the shoes, and Rudi Dassler did the marketing. The company started to take off when they signed some big name athletes like Jesse Owens. However, the brothers had a severe falling out, split the company assets and ran competing sports shoe companies in the same town. Adi renamed his company "Adidas" using his nickname plus the first three letters of his last name. Rudi at first went with "Ruda" but, wisely, later renamed his company "Puma".

These are all interesting stories and I came across many more. I then wondered about the effect a name can have on a company.

Sometimes it might be necessary to rethink a company name and come up with something that better reflects the purpose of your company or just make it sound less intimidating or even just easier to spell, allowing for  quicker access on search engines etc. In a 2015 article for CNBC, Karissa Giuliano  listed  some of the biggest brands you may not have known any other way, but who had in fact started off under different names. Here are just three of them:

Back in 1996, the world's number one search engine was created under the name "BackRub." Creators Larry Page and Serge Brin's renamed their business and technology Google in 1998. It's "a play on the word 'googol,' a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. The use of the term reflects their mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web, says Google.

In 1893, a North Carolina pharmacist named Caleb Bradham started experimenting with a few soft drink recipes. One of these bore his name: "Brad's Drink." In 1898 Brad's Drink was renamed Pepsi-Cola and would become one of the world's most recognized brands.

Launched in 1995, eBay was initially named AuctionWeb – one of four sites housed under founder Pierre Omidyar's umbrella company called eBay Internet. Spurred by the media referring to AuctionWeb as ebay, the company made the name change official in 1997.

If you think a change of name might benefit your company, don’t be afraid to make that change. Consider whether your name is catchy, easy to remember or perhaps just better reflects what image you want to present. Here are some final tips from Martin Zwilling is CEO & Founder of Startup Professionals Inc. with some help from Alex frankel and others in a 2011 FORTUNE  publication:

Make your business name one that customers can pronounce and remember easily.

Keep it simple. The shorter in length, the better. Limit it to two syllables. Avoid using hyphens and other special characters. Since certain algorithms and directory listings work alphabetically, pick a name closer to A than Z. These days, it even helps if the name can easily be turned into a verb, like Google me. 

Make some sense. Occasionally, business owners will choose names that are nonsense words. Quirky words (Yahoo, Google, Fogdog) or trademark-proof names concocted from scratch (Novartis, Aventis, Lycos) are a big risk. Always check the international implications. More than one company has been embarrassed by a new name that had negative and even obscene connotations in another language. 

Finally, make sure the name is available. This may sound obvious, but a miss here will cost you dearly.

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