It’s all in the name: how famous brands got their names

Did you know that Google was originally called BackRub? Or Yahoo was going to be called Jerry’s Guide? This month’s The Marketer takes a look at how some of our fave brands got their names. And which brands have changed their names – and not always for the better.

Ebay got its name when its founder Pierre Omidyar discovered that the domain name for Echo Bay, his web consulting company, was already taken. While Haagen-Dazs, started by New Yorker Reuben Mattus is a completely made-up ‘European sounding’ name. (And how many of you thought it was spelt Haagen-Daaz?)

Portmanteaus and acronyms seem to be popular. German supermarket chain Aldi comes from a portmanteau of the founder’s name, Albrecht, and discount. While, the famous cinema chain, Odeon is an acronym of Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.

So how about the ubiquitous Starbucks? Apparently, it was named after the coffee loving first-mate in Moby Dick. Although naming it after the ship in the book was vetoed pretty early on. As an associate of founder Gordon Bowker pointed out, ‘no one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod!’

Some famous brands have changed their names of course. Who can forget the demise of Opal Fruit and Marathon in favour of Starburst and Snickers? (Just for the record: Opal Fruits were juicer!)

Tokyo Tsoshiu Kogyo KK was thankfully renamed Sony. A combination of the Latin for sonus meaning sound, and sonny, American slang for youngster. While moisturiser Oil of Olay has been known as Oil of Ulay in the UK, Oil of Ulan in Australia, and Oil of Olaz in Europe, before it was standardised in 1999.

So how about the renames that weren’t successful? Remember The Post Office? It changed its name to Consignia. Only to change it to The Royal Mail less than a year later.

Tough sounding British Steel merged with Dutch steel company Hoogovens NV and became the forgettable The Corus Group. While the jury’s still out on Norwich Union’s name change to Aviva. A name described by the Guardian newspaper as sounding like a vitamin pill.

How did Turner Ink get its name I hear you ask? Well it sort of sounded familiar because of Ted Turner’s Turner Inc. And I chose the ink bit as it sounded ‘writerish’. Although, the last time I wrote anything with a pen was about 5 years ago. And the amount of calls I get asking “d’ya sell ink cartridges for HP printers?” is unbelievably annoying.

So how did your company get its name? Share your story in the comments.

  • deltacubed web design
    Posted at 15:11h, 09 September Reply

    Interesting article, thanks. deltacubed comes from the three core directives of our business. We want to make the web:
    1. Simple and easy to use
    2. Accessible for all users
    3. Functionally rich
    Thanks for the retweet 🙂

  • Katherine
    Posted at 16:47h, 19 April Reply

    Really interesting article – thank you! I do believe in the power of a name to make a difference. I called my company Keeping HR Simple because that’s exactly what I do for my customers – it’s a name and a mission statement in one. Best of all, I don’t have to explain what I do once I’ve told someone my company name 🙂

    Thanks again – I like your straightforward, tell it like it is approach 🙂


  • Matt Hill
    Posted at 15:32h, 30 July Reply

    Cool article. My trading name “Frisk Design” was one of a few that made it onto my shortlist. It was important to have the word “design” to at least give some indicator of what I do (web design), and the I liked “Frisk” as it sounded fresh and fun as well as a bit cheeky .It was also easy to remember. 3 years down the line though I’m not entirely sure I like it anymore!

    By the way, I hate to be a smarty pants, but your ODEON description is wrong. The “Oscar Deutsch” thing came much after the fact: Odeon is an Ancient Greek word meaning “building for musical competitions” — they were small amphitheatres. It had been used by other cinemas as their name well before Oscar opened his chain.

    • Sarah Turner
      Posted at 15:40h, 30 July Reply

      Matt – you’re right! More stuff on the Odeon story here.

  • Morag
    Posted at 15:25h, 16 November Reply

    My business name is The Nappy Lady.

    Any clue as to what I do? Actually, a deliberately generic name was a clever idea, it turns out. There are lots of cloth nappy sellers on the web, and they mostly have cutesy names like Twinkle Twinkle, Lollipop, Green Baby, Plushpants, Cuddlebabes etc (excuse while I go vomit – I can’t stand cutesy names). I wanted a much more memorable name, and this one was available.

    Also, when mums come to have their second child and want to top up on items, they have often forgotten who they bought from in the first place. So they google The Nappy Lady, and up I pop. A bonus I completely wasn’t expecting.

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