Naming In The News

The Name of the Game

How to Choose a Winning Name for a Company

Keren Argaman, Globes Online
June 7, 2007

Often, the choice of a name spells out the destiny of a company or a brand. The era of globalization has only intensified the challenge. What is the connection between Rolls Royce and feces, which product got its name after random flipping through the telephone directory, and does someone at Microsoft suffer from a lack of a sex life?

Steve Jobs was worried. The registration documents for the new company, which he had founded together with Steve Wozniak, had to be submitted that same day. The documents were already filled out, except for one field — the name of the company. Jobs, who at the time was a strict vegetarian and ate only fruit, spent the summer in Oregon picking apples. He suggested the name Apple as a tribute to his favorite fruit. The two decided that should they not find a more suitable name by the end of the day, the new company would take on the name suggested by Jobs. And so, on April 1, 1976, Apple Computers, Inc. was founded.

Apple's decision was extraordinary in many ways. The name was starkly different from the names of other companies in the field. It was chosen quickly, without any testing or research, and already belonged to a different company, Apple Records. Apple is not the only company to keep a successful, spontaneous name, chosen without professional consulting, for many years. William Hewlett and David Packard met at Stanford University. When the two decided to form a company in the garage of a house they were renting together in Palo Alto, California, they debated whether the company, named after its founders, would be called Packard-Hewlett or Hewlett-Packard. As befitting such a serious matter, the issue was resolved by means of an intricate tool, the flip of a coin. If not for Hewlett's luck, it is likely that today many of the computers and printers would carry the logo PH.

Like Hewlett and Packard, the employees of Procter & Gamble's marketing division also chose to try their luck when searching for a name for the company's new potato snack. The company decided to use an existing name instead of creating a new one. Since the phone directory had the largest selection of existing names, they flipped through the pages of the Cincinnati telephone directory starting with the letter P (for potato), and the name of a particular street — Pringle Drive caught their eye. That was how Pringles got its name.

The local portal Walla [an Arabic interjection used by the Israelis to mean 'really?'] also got its name by chance. "At the time, the Internet was subversive and scorned all social norms, so we wanted a name that would be out of the ordinary," recalls Erez Philosof, the portal's founder. "I looked for a name that wasn't connected to anything. At first, I thought of was Yalla [an Arabic interjection common in Hebrew to mean 'get going']. It was awesome, but too low-class. We started to toss the idea around. I talked to my partner, Gadi Hadar and he tossed it on to his friends. A guy by the name of Ron Huntman heard it and suggested Walla. We settled for that."

Is this an acceptable way to choose a name for a company?
"I believe that this is the way to do it. You simply toss ideas into the air and see how they get a life of their own. Even if I were to establish Walla today, chances are the name would be the same. I think the name proved itself over the course of time. As opposed to slang words that change with the times, the expression 'walla' remains part of our daily life. Everyday, we hear the word used many times. I don't think names [of other Israeli portals], such as Tapuz [orange] or Nana [mint], come close to the success of the name Walla. Walla conveys an entire world of values and sends you to very specific places. When you hear the word 'mint,' what do you have to think of? Tea?"

Can a serious news organization call itself by a name such as Walla?
"Definitely. If someone wants to establish a newspaper, whose message is that it is not part of the old media, if he wants to communicate a different spirit, he needs to choose a name that would express this. Everything begins with a name."

You don't want the Israeli consumer to vomit.
Spontaneity does not always pay off. Microsoft had to withstand numerous comments about the name of its new music player — Zune, connotations of which hardly need clarification for a Hebrew speaker [equivalent to the English four-letter word]. Microsoft's One Care security system, launched in the United States, produced many jokes, because of its similarity to "wanker," meaning, among other things "masturbator."

Microsoft didn't change the name, but importers of Korean Kia did. Concerned that the resemblance between the original pronunciations of the name and the Hebrew word for vomit would affect the cars' popularity in Israel, they quickly decided to change the name, so that it would be pronounced as Kaya. While in Mandarin the brand name means "to arise in Asia," the Hebrew meaning is far less attractive. Yoav Schaeffer, copywriter and owner of A. B. Marcom and Copywriting notes that such changes are not rare. "Kia, like Ikea [pronounced in Hebrew as EE-KE-A], uses pronunciation that is different from that in the original language, to fit Israel. When a company enters a certain market, it needs to adjust to the local culture in two respects — not to use a name that creates negative feelings and to take advantage of narratives and structures present in the culture."

William Lozito, President of a US company Strategic Name Development, which deals with product and company branding, claims in an interview with G, that the adjustment to international markets creates a host of problems for companies. "When developing a name for a company, a product, or a service intended for the international market, it is vital to test possible names from several angles, including semantics, pronunciation, cultural context, and the colloquial language of the location. Coca-Cola faced a serious problem when it was first imported to China under the brand name of Ko-kou-ko-le. The translation of the name was 'chew the wax post' or 'a mare filled with wax' depending on the local dialect. The company had to test 40,000 Chinese characters to find an acceptable equivalent. The result, Ko-kou-ko-le, can be translated as 'happiness in the mouth.'" Lozito says Coca-Cola was not the only one to have difficulty in translating its name. Buick launched its Lacrosse model in Canada, but was forced to switch to Allure, because in Quebec slang the original name meant "masturbation." In Germany, Rolls Royce changed the name of its Silver Mist model to Silver Shadow, because in German 'mist' is a slang expression for feces. Ford, which intended to market its Comet model in Mexico under the name Caliente [hot], discovered that the translation meant prostitute. Similarly, Colgate launched its Cue toothpaste in France, without knowing that to be the name of a well-known porno magazine."

How often are companies forced to change their names?
"Last year, 1,904 companies changed their names for one reason or another. Certain companies wanted to make changes to become politically correct. For example, The Center for Minority Education turned into The Center for Multi-Cultural Justice. In other cases, companies changed names in order to create a greener image. Thus, Boss Minerals chose a name that sounded more ecological — Biofuels Corp."

A name change may signal a successful beginning of rebranding. Kwanon was the first camera produced by Precision Optical Instruments Laboratories in 1934. Goro Yoshida, one of its founders, was a practicing Buddhist and chose to name the camera after the Buddhist goddess of mercy. A year later, it was decided to change the name of the company. Yoshida proposed Kwanon, but also mentioned an interest in a name that would sound catchy to a western ear. Canon was chosen as a tribute to the first camera.

The Israeli Gurunet is an example of a company that decided to change its name as part of rebranding, but regretted the move. The company planned to rebrand as Atomica, but quickly reverted to its previous name, only to change again to Answers.com, after the website it operates. Danny Altman, the Founder and CEO of A Hundred Monkeys, a US branding company that took part in Gurunet rebranding, finds it difficult to defend the move. "It didn't happen under our supervision. This was a very exceptional case, in which a company chose to revert to its previous name after having changed it."

Loyalty to a name characterizes many successful companies, which do not rush to part with their names, even when such change is mandated by reality. In 1920, Victrola audio systems gained immense popularity. Paul Galwin from Chicago established a small car radio company and decided to choose a name similar to that of the successful brand. He chose a name that reflected the company's activity, audio systems for automobiles — Motorola. Although today the company is mainly known for its cellular communications products, the name describing its previous field has remained to this day.

Gaining a back entrance
So how does a company choose the perfect brand name? This is no simple matter, claims Schaeffer. "When choosing a name for a company or a product, the first thing to consider is the message. What do they want the name to reflect? Should the name sound prestigious or light-hearted, youthful or serious? Which population does it target? Once the decision is made, we examine the tone reflected by the chosen name."

Schaeffer also points out the significance of the Internet. "Since the web is important for so many businesses, suitable names must be selected." [Hebrew] letters, such as Tzaddik and Chet, do not transcribe well into English and make it difficult to remember the correct spelling. When I was asked to create a name for an online flower store, the name Perach [flower] was ruled out in the very beginning, because of the letter Chet it contained. We wanted to convey something catchy and simple, and the company wanted to use a name connected with the Internet, so we adopted the accepted abbreviations and created Zer4U [a bouquet for you]".

Has the Internet done away with Hebrew names?
"Not necessarily. In certain cases, such names are especially appropriate for a company. A company wishing to reflect something deep-rooted, a company producing organic products for example, would prefer to use the name Adama [Earth] or Shivat Haminim [the Seven Species, mentioned in the Bible as especially abundant in the Land of Israel]. Such words convey the nature of the company."

Schaeffer notes that by and large the way people relate to a product's name has nothing to do with the name itself. "When a company enters a certain market, it needs to adjust to the local culture in two respects — not to use a name that creates negative feelings and to take advantage of narratives and structures present in the culture. If there is an affinity between the name and a certain cultural element, if the name sounds familiar, if it reminds of something — you are halfway there, gaining an entrance through the back door, which although unconscious on the part of the consumer, is nonetheless powerful."

Doesn't this kind of a link harm the uniqueness of a product or a name?
"We are not talking about imitation, but a take off on something that already exists. We can certainly 'catch a ride' on a product or an expression in order to associate values or create an advantage for a company. Incredimail (developers and marketers of an e-mail software enabled with emoticons, illustrations, animations, etc) was perfect for this company. It combined the connotations of an existing word with a description of the product itself." Schaeffer suggests, almost identical names of various hi-tech companies also transmit a message. While in the past, companies preferred to create unique names that would differentiate them from others, today many companies, especially hi-tech ones, prefer names that are common in their fields. "It is sufficient to create some mix of words — click, whiz, or com — to make it sound representative of the company's activity. Many companies do not want to stand out. There is no differentiation, no specialty of service. Such companies are betting on a safe horse — all they want is an international name."

Are generic names reserved exclusively for hi-tech?
"Certainly not. These types of names can be found in cases where companies wish to emphasize the atmosphere, rather than their advantage. There are certain names, such as Apollo, Everest, or Sphinx, that convey strength and power. Names of perfumes or carbonated beverages do not suggest any advantage for the consumer; instead they convey sensations. On the other hand, certain companies choose to emphasize their advantage. Tambour with its Just One Coat is one such example. The name is quite long, but it clearly transmits the message and expresses a sense of assurance in the product.

"When I was working with The Elem Foundation, which searched for a name for its at-risk youth center, I wished to create a feeling of hope and promise, so we called the center A Different Way. The choice of words is not random. A good name must communicate a promise, express uniqueness, adapt to the target population, and be memorable and catchy."

What happens when a company wanting to be unique, discovers that someone has already thought of that original name? When Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce opened their small electronics company in 1968, they considered calling it after themselves, but feared that the similarity in sound between Moore Noyce and 'more noise' would put the customers off. At first, they decided to use their initials, but later forsook the original name and tried registering the company as Integrated Electronics, or Intel for short. Unfortunately, at that point, they discovered that Intelco was already used by an existing hotel chain, and were thus forced to purchase the rights to the name from the group.

Echo Bay could have become the best known electronic trading site in the world. Pierre Omidier, the founder of Echo Bay Technologies, wanted to use the name for an electronic auction site. When attempting to register the site, he discovered that the domain EchoBay.com was already registered by another company. Omidier was forced to use a name he considered to be less successful, Ebay. Lozito claims cases in which several companies compete for the same name are not uncommon, due to the inflation in trademark registration. "In the United States alone, 280,000 trademark registration requests are submitted annually," he adds.

Such inflation is not contained to trademarks. Terrible names are commonplace, some appearing even in your own neighborhood. "If there is one area in which bad names are more common than anywhere else, that's real estate," says Schaeffer. "I recently came across a construction project called Nes Ziona Valley [Nes Ziona is a city]. This name reflects bad taste. I call this type of names 'carpenter glue' — a crude mélange of Hebrew and English words. Kiryat Hatanei Prass Nobel [Nobel Prize Laureates' City] is decidedly unsuccessful. It is reminiscent of the 70s — too long, too bombastic, and extremely unattractive. They could have surely chosen a more successful name."

In this modern day and age, brand names have come to concern political parties and organizations. When Meretz merged with Yossi Beilin's Shachar movement in November 2003, the new left-wing party was called Ya'ad [Goal] — an acronym for Israeli Democratic Labor. However, due to immediate public feedback (the name resembles the Russian word for poison — yad), the party's name was changed to Yachad — Israeli Social Democrats.

Kadima [literally — 'go ahead'] also had its share of indecision when choosing a name. "Kadima was supposed to have been called National Responsibility," says Reuven Adler, an advertiser and an intimate advisor to Ariel Sharon. "We started the registration process, but then at night something didn't seem quite right — the name was too long and was difficult to pronounce in English. I called Arik [Ariel Sharon] and asked permission to change the name to Kadima. He went silent for a moment and then said, 'I trust you,'" Adler recalls with unabashed pride.

These are the Names

Ten rules for choosing a successful name.

  1. Short — A long name tends to be less catchy than a short one.
  2. Not too short — Names composed of abbreviations are usually harder to remember. In addition, there is good chance that a three or a four-letter Internet domain has already been taken.
  3. Added value — A name connected to content or a description of the company's activity tends to be more memorable.
  4. Target population — To obtain an effective name, company's target population, its age, background, and social class, should be taken into account.
  5. Goodname.com — A clumsy domain name that does not match the company's name precisely will limit traffic to the site.
  6. Spelling — A name that can be spelled in several ways or is purposely misspelled causes confusion among target population.
  7. Globalization — The company with a name that is offensive to a certain population or culture will have difficulties penetrating international markets.
  8. Not too close — A name closely resembling that of another company is likely to lead to lawsuits.
  9. Conspicuous — Unlike a generic name, similar to those of other companies, a unique name allows a company to stand out.
  10. Not too conspicuous — An obscure or a difficult to pronunciation name is less memorable.

Blurbs

  • Apple — Just because Jobs spent the summer apple-picking.
  • Rolls Royce — Silver Mist turned the Germans' stomachs.
  • Coca-Cola — The taste of life or the taste of a wax-stuffed mare?
  • Intel — Someone had thought of that already.
  • Pringles — [The branders] chose a street name by drawing lots.
  • Canon — The name of the Buddhist goddess was adjusted to suit a western ear.
  • IKEA — The original name doesn't sound good in Hebrew. [In colloquial Hebrew, kea means "vomit".]
  • Motorola — The name stayed even though the company no longer related to cars.
  • KIA — the pronunciation initially scared the Israeli importers [means "vomit"]

Translated from the original Hebrew.