Imagine what life was like before Google. Worse yet, imagine if there were no Google and we had to look up everything on BackRub. That's right. Before Sergey Brin and Larry Page called their baby Google, they gave it the uniquely inapt name BackRub.
We often scratch our heads at the whacky names served up by corporate America but picking a good name is not as easy as it seems. Companies must communicate a lot of different messages with a name, explaining with a short string of letters whether they're selling toys (Razr) or drugs (Prozac); whether their product makes you feel cool (Blizzard) or 'cool' (iPhone).
Companies want their names to be remembered and not ridiculed and, most importantly, don't want another company suing them for stealing a trademark.
"A product name is like seeing a potential date across the room," says Nancy Koehn, a marketing professor at Harvard University. "That look and feel is the opening gambit."
Thankfully, when BackRub began drawing traffic, Brin and Page decided to brainstorm a better name. Google is a play on the mathematical term "googol," which means "one" followed by a hundred zeroes, and refers to the pair's desire to catalog a seemingly endless number of Web sites.
Take uggs. Those frumpy, fuzzy boots have been worn by Australians for decades, who sometimes also call them "ugs" and "ughs." Folklore has it that the boots began as sheepskins worn by shearers and that their name is an abbreviation of ugly.
When Deckers Outdoor Corp. of Goleta, Calif., which had registered a U.S. trademark and had popularized them here, tried to stop Australians from using the name, furor ensued.
"The Yanks steal another one of our beaut ideas," roared a headline in Sydney's Daily Herald, declaring "uggs" to be "as much an Australian icon as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Uluru."
One boot maker claimed that Deckers' attempt to trademark "ugg" was like Ford trying to trademark "sedan." An Australian judge eventually sided with Australian boot makers but Deckers still owns a trademark in the United States.
Not all names are weighed down by such conflicts. These days, most names for large companies are created by naming, or branding, agencies that charge hefty sums for developing a name, testing it on consumers and clearing it with trademark registries around the world.
Paola Norambuena, who runs the naming division at New York City-based Interbrand Corp., one of the world's largest branding agencies, says her staff often pores over thousands of names before deciding on the right one.
"A name is essentially all of your intellectual property," says Norambuena, whose firm has named everything from Nintendo's Wii to Prozac. "If you took the Apple name away and sold all of its other assets, they wouldn't be worth as much."
A good name speaks volumes to consumers, she says. Made-up names that are a combination of real words, such as Accenture and Verizon, for example, usually belong to large companies that sell services.