One thing every company goes through is the struggle to find a business name that will stand the test of time. A name that will accurately represent the values and vision of the founders and above all, will help sell products and services. Inspiration often comes from the strangest places. And more often than you’d think, the most successful examples seem to break the cardinal laws of naming a company. Here are some stories behind today’s household names.
Zildjian was founded in 1623 by an Armenian alchemist who happened upon an alloy of copper, tin and traces of silver. When struck, the metal produced an extraordinary sound that found favour with the sultan; and the first cymbals were born. Zildjian in fact means simply ‘son of cymbal maker’; but defining the company name by the product it sells hasn’t limited either the company’s product range or its historic growth to become what’s acknowledged to be the oldest family-run business in America and one of the oldest companies in the world.
Some look for obscure literary inspiration when choosing their company’s name. Perhaps the best-known household example these days is Starbucks, originally christened thus after the ship’s mate in Moby Dick. While many may be unaware of the origins of the name, the identity the company had created was so strong that it outlived the takeover by its spinoff Il Giornale in 1987.
Fledgling companies are usually advised to steer clear of the risqué or the comical. Not everyone can get away with it; but with sufficient personality and a forward-thinking business, it appears, anything goes. Virgin was suggested as a company name to Richard Branson by his friend and co-founder, on the grounds that they were both virgins in business. It’s been a bumpy ride at times, but overall the name has served them well. Yahoo! was named after an in-joke by its founders, said to be an acronym of “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”; and also a reference to the slang word ‘yahoo’ meaning rude, unsophisticated and uncouth. While the exclamation mark is often dropped by the media, the name itself is recognisable enough now not to suffer.
But for a paradigm of the benefits of doing your homework before choosing a company name, see Sony. When the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation) expanded into foreign markets, they wanted a new name that resonated with audiences overseas. The company discarded variants of the original name because they were difficult to pronounce in English-speaking countries or were already in use by other pre-existing businesses. Sony became the new name in 1958. This was chosen from the Latin word ‘sonus’ meaning sound, and is a word that’s easy to say in most languages. The name had the added benefit of connoting a smart, presentable young man, from the popular term ‘sonny’ much used in 1950s America.
Sometimes the most obvious solutions are the best. Lego, founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, gets its name from the Danish ‘leg godt’ (play well). The idea is reinforced by its meanings in Latin – ‘I gather together’; and ‘I connect’ in Italian. The company’s mainstay product fits fully within its name in any language. And Sega is simply a contraction of Service Games, a company founded in 1940 which originally imported jukeboxes, slot machines and pinball games into American military bases in Japan. Few may realise the name’s origins, but the name has become synonymous with the gaming experience, albeit a far more technical affair in the 21st century.
Finally, using science to sell: originally the more prosaic Brad’s Drink, in 1898 Pepsi-Cola was renamed and marketed as a drink that was appealing, aided digestion and boosted energy. It sounds a lot less appealing these days when you think it was named after the digestive enzyme pepsin.