Brandable names are so 19th century

Brandable names are so 19th century

In an age of weird and occasionally wonderful styles of business names – and with the very contemporary challenge of buying a catchy .com domain name – it’s natural to think that ‘invented’ brand names are a modern phenomenon. Think again. 

Entrepreneurs, business owners, inventors and industrialists have been using made up names for their companies and products for well over a century.

How these invented or synthetic names came about is often interesting, and sometimes random. And it’s hard to imagine that these powerful and resonant brand names, so familiar to us now, were once new, strange and unfamiliar...


The name Kodak was created by George Eastman and his mother, and used to rename Eastman Dry Plate Company in 1888. Apparently they used an ‘anagrams set’ (a Victorian word game) to come up with ideas, and Kodak was chosen because it had no meaning or existing associations – and because George liked the letter K. He also thought it sounded a bit like the clack of a camera shutter, though I suspect that rationale came later. A snappy photography business name, completely and wonderfully synthetic.


Back in 1906, the directors of Joseph Nathan and Co needed a name for their infant dried milk. (The product was called ‘Defiance’ in New Zealand, and they wanted a more appealing name for other markets; good call.) Initially they decided on Lacto, but soon realised this may conflict with existing brand names in their market. So letters were added and changed until Lacto became Glaxo – an invented name with milky origins nobody would be aware of.


Launched in 1912, the Oreo cookie became the best selling cookie brand in the USA. More than a century on, it still is. The origin of the name is unknown, with some believing it’s simply the Greek word Oreo, which means ‘beautiful’ or ‘well done’, and others claiming it’s derived from ‘Or’, the French word for gold. (Why gold though?) It’s more likely that it was a made up name chosen because it was short, easy to pronounce, and had two letter 'O's in it, like the cookie.


From the late 1920s, the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation followed other manufacturers in developing a new type of radio that could be installed in motor cars. The name was created simply by using the word motor, and adding ‘-ola’ – a popular company name suffix in the early 20th century (e.g. Crayola, Shinola). This created a product name that somehow feels like movement. It seems descriptive, but it isn't. The product became so popular that the company later changed its name to Motorola.


The name was invented in 1959 by a British and Polish couple, who moved to New York and wanted to give their new ice cream company a foreign name, presumably to create differentiation in a busy New York ice cream market. They decided on a Danish-sounding name as a tribute to Denmark’s exemplary treatment of Jewish people in World War II …although the ‘ü' umlaut doesn’t exist in the Danish language. So the name is entirely made up, a cultural mashup, technically incorrect, and feels absolutely perfect.


The reasons for Esso needing a new name for some of their trading jurisdictions is a convoluted story. But in 1972 ‘Exxon' apparently came about as a result of a brainstorm where the brief was to develop a name loosely derived from Esso, which had no meaning in any language. Job done. Exxon isn’t the most elegant name, but it’s distinctive, and it worked. (Of course, the name Esso was also an invented phonetic word from the initials ‘S.O.’ – Standard Oil.)


There are dozens more examples of successful businesses (many still with us, some long disappeared or merged) whose brand names didn't come from a dictionary, that didn't describe what the business did, that weren’t named after their founder, or after the town in which they were founded. The tradition of inventing business names is very long, and of course continues today. We can all reel off a list of recent 'made up' brand names that at first would have sounded quite strange at first. For example:


A classic 1990s Latinate name and apparently a re-spelling of ‘novae artes’ – 'new arts' or 'new skills' in Latin. The name ‘Novartis' therefore works as a neat metaphor for innovation and scientific research, which is entirely appropriate for healthcare company name. With names like this I often wonder how much post-rationalisation goes on, but in a way this doesn't matter. A good name is a good name, whatever the reasoning behind it, tenuous or otherwise.


The original concept was referred to as ‘sky peer-to-peer’, which was shortened to ‘Skyper' in 2003, then further abbreviated to Skype. So although its roots are descriptive (sort of), the resulting name is synthetic. There’s meaning hidden in there somewhere, but most people just see a short name with a slightly techie feel, that they can easily say, spell and remember.

We could go on with countless more recent constructions (Accenture, Lenovo, Asus, Snapple, Spotify...) but more usefully, what are the lessons we can learn from the invented brand names of the past?

Firstly, the people who chose them had the courage of their convictions. They didn't follow competitors and give their customers more of the same. They DIFFERENTIATED. The second lesson is that names that first appear strange, soon adapt themselves to the markets they operate in. A name that initially has no meaning will soon have meaning attached to it. And because names like this are unusual, people notice and remember them. This means they're ENGAGING.

So if you open your imagination to unfamiliar, invented names, you might just get yourself a business name that could develop into a brand name. And brand names are the future, just like they always were.

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