Twitter represents the American dream of brand recognition. Much of the success of the social networking site can be attributed to its unique name, a word that didn’t exist until the company’s founders invented it in 2006. Today, Twitter is included in the Collins English Dictionary, and it’s become the most used word in the English language, according to findings by the Global Language Monitor last year. And the company is worth roughly $1.4 billion, with over one hundred million registered users and new users signing up at the rate of 300,000 per day. As William Shakespeare once famously pondered, “What’s in a name?” Well, if the name happens to be Twitter, the answer is “One hell of a stock portfolio.”
But how does it happen? How does a company dream up a name that goes on to become so historic and profitable? According to Matt Graves, a Twitter spokesperson, it was mostly happenstance. “The name was the result of a brainstorm between a small group of employees at Odeo, the San Francisco podcasting startup where Twitter initially began as a side-project,” he says. “They brainstormed possible names, including ‘Jitter’ and ‘Twitter’, and put them in a hat; Twitter was the name that won.”
It’s not surprising that other businesses would want to repeat Twitter’s winning formula. But coming up with a catchy name is no longer as easy as picking a name out of a hat. The next Google, Verizon and Amazon have an uphill battle ahead of them, if only because all the good names, both fake and real, are disappearing fast. There are more than a million names, slogans and logos currently registered at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And according to VeriSign Inc., a global domain name registry company, 11 million new Internet domain names were registered over the last twelve months, a six percent increase since the first quarter of 2009. That brings the grand total to 193 million Internet domain names that are no longer available to new businesses.
“The days of accidental naming are over,” says Naseem Javed, the founder of ABC Namebank, a New York-based consultant firm specializing in corporate nomenclature. Because of the increasingly overcrowded global marketplace, he says, a company’s name has to be especially unusual and memorable to stand out in the crowd. “Ten, twenty years ago, you could start a business and take the name in any direction,” he says. “But now, with 200 countries on the cyber platform around the globe humming, finding the right name has become an expert’s field. It requires professional analysis. The CEO and management can’t just come up with something during a barbecue.”
One of the most popular naming trends in recent years, according to Javed, is the double-O. “A lot of companies feel that by using the double-O in the name, they are getting some kind of comfort level,” he says. “You have names like Joost, Boost, Wakoopa, iSkoot and Qool. Basically, you put the double-O in the center, and then you drop one letter on the left and one letter on the right, and it hopefully gives you some magic.” By ABC’s estimate, there are close to 760 double-O company names around the globe, and hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to promote these names.
Sometimes, however, company names don’t follow any pattern at all. SafeNet, a information security company in Belcamp, Maryland, capitalized the “N” in their name because, according to Chairman Anthony A. Caputo, “some graphic designer thought it was cool.” Last summer, the Sci Fi channel changed its name to “Syfy,” and the network’s president Dave Howe explained that “it made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge.” And then there’s a2z, an event management and marketing software provider in Columbia, Maryland, whose name president Rajiv Jain claims was picked at least in part because it’s “cute.” It seems that many businesses have decided to model themselves after insecure teenagers. They just want the world to think they’re cute and cool.
Jay Jurisich, the Creative Director at Igor, a naming and branding agency in San Francisco, believes that most new companies make the mistake of thinking “weird” names will help them stand out and be noticed. They end up throwing together a random combination of letters and sometimes numbers, resulting in regrettable names like Coalogic, Xignux, Epizon, Spansion, Asurent, Primaxis, Qorus, Theravance, and Wherify. “I call this the Snowflake Fallacy,” he says. “While every individual snowflake is technically unique, in a blizzard they all blend in together and become indistinguishable.”
Occasionally a purposively weird name can be effective. Take Hairy Lemon, a website development and applications company in Christchurch, New Zealand. Graham Dockrill, Hairy Lemon’s co-founder and president of sales, explains that the name comes from cockney slang for “here at eleven,” eleven meaning 11am, the time when pubs typically open in New Zealand. “So you would say ‘hairy lemon’ and I would know to meet you for a pint when the pub opens,” he says. Of course, drinking in the morning has little or nothing to do with the company itself, but it has attracted business. Dockrill believes that at least a third of their business comes from their name. “People might be looking at three or four different companies, and they’ll pick us because we’ve got such a fun, quirky name.”
It can be a dangerous crapshoot, especially in a global market where one country’s idea of quirky could be deemed offensive in another. In June of 2009, Russian gas company Gazprom announced a joint venture with Nigerian firm NNPC, calling themselves “Nigaz.” The name was meant to be an amalgamation of “Nigeria” and “Gazprom”, but at least in the U.S., it was too reminiscent of a racist term for African-Americans. A fine enough name if your CEO is gangsta rapper Ice Cube, but not a good choice for a Russian gas monopoly.
With the wrong name being such a potential minefield, more companies than ever have moved away from self-naming and are seeking out professional guidance. Although the exact numbers are only speculative, according to DMOZ (a.k.a. the Open Directory Project), there are 50 “naming firms” in existence, many of them launched within the past decade. Phillip Davis, the president and owner of Tungsten Branding, a business naming firm in Brevard, North Carolina, takes his job very seriously. “I’m passionate about this,” he says. “It’s just like modern art. I study words. I live inside words. What could they become, what could they be shaped into, are they malleable? In our industry, we call it a partially shaped vessel. The best words needs to be able to contain something new and fresh.”
His most famous name invention is PODS, short for Portable On-Demand Storage. The company’s original name was Portables, but Davis thought it “sounded too much like a toilet.” A name like PODS, he says, creates a feeling of “What, Tell Me More” instead of a “Huh, I Don’t Get It.”
The biggest mistake among amateur name creators, Davis believes, is overanalyzing and overthinking the language. They become too focused on the linguistics and the number of vowels and consonants. “They’re so grammatically focused that they miss the bigger picture,” he says. “They forget that there’s got to be a story connected to it. And some people get the story, but the word is so clunky that nobody cares about the story. They’ll be like, ‘In Latin, this word means the god of business.’ Well yeah, but it’s got 16 syllables and five x’s and three z’s.”
But even the experts sometimes can’t help but overthink their favorite subject. Susan Purcell, a professional linguist who lives near London, gave us a peek at her research notes on why certain names are more successful than others.
Viagra: strength, power, rhymes with Niagara (powerful, also water = sexuality in sexual symbolism). Vi sounds like ‘vie’ to fight, start of words such as vigour, vitality, virile, victory, agra suggest aggression. V = energetic sound. Name doesn’t touch on intimate relationships, or emotional aspects of drug.
Wii (Nintendo) = we, ie everyone, all in it together. Two ii’s could be 2 players, or 2 remotes. Name generated discussion, people started singing songs eg Wii will rock you, Nintendo made teaser video, watched by 1000s on You Tube (viral marketing); humour works well with target market
For companies that don’t have the income to employ a professional naming advisor, the Internet is littered with free business name generators. But not all of them are legitimate, and some might even be secretly mocking you. Back in 2003, a London advertising agency called The Design Conspiracy launched a website called What Brand Are You?, in which visitors could type in their “core values” (like “dynamic” or “passionate”) and company goals (like “global leadership” or “client focus”) and the site would provide a personalized brand name. “We were poking fun at a number of ridiculous rebrands at the time, like Accenture and Consignia,” says Ben Terrett, a former member of the Design Conspiracy. He says that all 150 of the site’s so-called “generated” names were carefully thought out in advance, and intended to be as stupid as possible. But the satire was so convincing that twenty of their fake names, including Bivium, Libero and Winnovate, were actually registered as trademarks by real companies.
The art (if you can call it that with a straight face) of creating marketable names probably won’t be getting less competitive or confusing anytime soon. As Susan Purcell points out, “There are around 600,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, many fewer words than there are businesses.” At least for now, startups who want to stand apart have little choice but to give themselves crazy names like Xeequa, Frengo, Ooma, and other words that sound like they were cribbed from a Dr. Seuss book. Which may not be a bad thing. As Seuss himself once said, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the October 21, 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)