Jan. 11, 2010 -- 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.
Names Speak Volumes
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.
"These companies need a name that doesn't mean anything at first and that you define over time," she says, explaining that it's more difficult for a company to find a catchy name for an intangible service, as opposed to a product that consumers can see. "And they often have trademark issues so they want a name that nobody else has."
Accenture, an accounting firm, created its name by combining "accent" and "future." Verizon, the telecommunications company, is a combination of "verity" and "horizon."
Consumer companies, on the other hand, usually want more evocative names. When Interbrand was asked to name Nintendo's Wii game system and Microsoft's Bing search engine, namers chose onomatopoeic names whose sound suggests their meaning.
"With Wii, we wanted to evoke that sense of freedom -- weeeee!" says Nurambuena, adding that "Wii" also sounds like the personal pronoun "we," which implies that it's meant to be used by "us."
She concedes that Wii was a risky choice: When Nintendo first announced the name, jokes sailed across the Internet, claiming that it was too juvenile, too difficult to pronounce, and even sounded like "pee."
Bing, meanwhile, is a globally recognized sound of "finding or getting something," she says. "It's like your microwave just binged."
Such names sound very simple but choosing a name is hard work.
Clayton Tolley, CEO of branding company Addison Whitney of Charlotte, N.C., who helped name Cadillac's Escalade, Microsoft's Outlook and Coke's Vault, says it takes his six-strong team about a month of intensive brainstorming to come up with lists of names that are then picked over by clients.
Breaking Down Cliches
The brainstorming sessions are designed to help break down clichés and namers are encouraged to play games and get silly in the pursuit of spontaneity. When Addison Whitney was asked to find a name for a Coca-Cola energy drink, the namers sat in a conference room for hours and played a variation on Taboo in which they tried to come up with attributes to describe words related to the product they were naming.
Once names have been suggested, namers begin examining each word to rate how it reads, how it sounds, how it translates into different languages and, most importantly, how it tests with consumers.
Cadillac chose Escalade, for example, because its Latin root "escala" (as in "escalator") invoked climbing, while the "-ade" suffix (as in "glade") evoked a "soft tranquil place," Tolley says.
Escalade is also a real word, which Cadillac prefers, defined by the the American Heritage Dictionary as "the act of scaling a fortified wall or rampart."
In testing, consumers overwhelmingly described the name as "elegant" and "expensive."
Companies such as Interbrand and Addison Whitney charge companies anywhere from $20,000 for a series of simple brainstorming sessions to $3 million or more for the full works, including the legal work involved in securing global trademarks.
As for whether all the effort and expense is worth it, that's not quite clear, in part because it's so difficult to separate a name from its brand.
A consumer's feeling about a company's products and services often override any opinions about a name.
Koehn, the Harvard marketing professor, adds that a lot of the hype behind names has to do with ego. "There have been a lot of products with enormous amounts of attention put on the name, and less attention put on the other parts that make the offering a success," she says. "It's like the entrepreneur is in love with what they're doing, and the name is a Valentine to themselves."
Still, she adds, a good name can boost sales when the product is worthwhile.
Of course, a product sometimes succeeds despite its name. Experts are surprisingly in agreement on the Android phone operating system launched by Google.
"It sounds like a mutant," Koehn says. "Or otherworldly but not in a magnificent way."
There is less consensus about the name for Google's new phone, Nexus One. Family members of science fiction author Philip K. Dick are claiming that the phone's name infringes on Dick's famous novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," which inspired the 1982 film, "Blade Runner." The book features an android described as a "Nexus 6" model.
Google said that the phone's name had nothing to do with Dick's novel, Wired.com reported.
Good Names Vital for Car, Drug Makers
In some industries, names matter more than in others. Carmakers, for example, invest a lot into names because they face intense competition and don't have many opportunities to win over new customers, who are unlikely to trade in their six-month-old vehicle if a better one comes into the market; unlike, say, with a cell phone.
Mark Clawson, a marketing manager at Chevrolet, says Americans like to think of cars as another member of the family and get very attached to certain models.
The Chevy Impala, for example, which has been around for decades, has one of the highest rates of recognition among U.S. cars. When it first came out in 1958, it was so popular -- in part because of the name, Clawson says -- that it helped bump Ford as America's leading automaker.
Good naming is particularly vital in the drug industry because patients are at risk when pharmacists incorrectly fill prescriptions that look or sound very similar.
The problem is caused in large part by doctors' poor handwriting, which can make two different medications look similar. The Food and Drug Administration often publishes notices to warn about such mix-ups, and closely vets naming.
For the most part, however, names are simply a way to enhance a brand and help consumers understand what they're getting into.
Technology companies have been using recently names to humanize their products and make users forget that they're dealing with inanimate tools made of metal and plastic.
BlackBerry, Twitter and Kindle all take their names from real words that describe nature. Kindle, in particular, which shares the same root as "candle" and means "causing something to glow," manages to transport consumers back to the days before books were read on screens.
"It's an interesting choice," Addison Whitney's Tolley says. "It's warm, inviting and old-fashioned."