10 great business names that started out meaningless
"When you name a business, shouldn't its name actually mean something?"
As naming specialists, it’s a big question - one that we get asked all the time.
Our answer is always the same: No. Because if your business is successful, over time your ‘meaningless’ name will come to mean something. It will become synonymous with what you do and the way you do it. It will become a brand name.
But it’s a concept that’s hard to grasp in the early days of a business. It just feels safer somehow to opt for a descriptive name that spells things out, or at least a dictionary word that people are familiar with. It’s what all companies do, isn’t it?
The answer is still No - it’s not what all businesses do.
This list of 10 very successful businesses proves that business names that might be considered ‘synthetic’, ‘meaningless’, ‘made-up’, or even ‘random’ can develop into great brand names.
Each of these businesses is successful by any measure - and each has a name which might well mean something to the founders, but which started out as ‘meaningless’ to anyone else.
None of these names is literally descriptive of a product or a service. None is a dictionary word. But each one of them is now an important part of the business’s brand.
When you’re writing about ‘made-up’ business names, Häagen-Dazs has to get an honourable mention. In many ways, it is the epitome of its kind and part of branding folklore. Legend has it that the name was invented back in the 60s, by Reuben and Rose Mattus. They wanted their business name to convey an aura tradition and craftsmanship.
Why does it work? Well, it just sounds and looks so strange and awkward, that it must be authentic! And the double-a and the fanciful umlaut give it an exotic, European feel which is just what you want from ice cream. And, of course, it works because - at the time anyway - there wasn’t an ice cream out there with a name anything like it.
Although it’s one of the most profitable businesses in the world, Vitol isn’t exactly a household name. So why is it in a top ten of brand names? It’s here because of what it isn’t.
For a start, the business trades, distributes, refines and stores oil and other commodities, but it doesn’t use the word ‘oil’ in its name - even though it certainly suggests it. And although it’s rooted in delivering energy, it only hints at this with the ‘Vi-‘ element of the name which might well come from the word ‘vitality’. What’s more, it doesn’t copy its peers - its name isn’t an ocean object like Shell, or an acronym like Esso.
So it isn’t obvious, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not fashionable, contemporary or glitzy. But it feels right for a major player. And it’s memorable, universal and unique. An online search will only produce results relevant to them.
Changing your brand name is a great way to signal change to the world. So when Andersen Consulting separated from Arthur Andersen in 2001, adopting a new name was a smart move.
Deciding to change your business name is one thing. But choosing a new name is quite another. The fact that the new name for the business was suggested by an employee - rather than an expensive branding agency - only adds to the kudos for arriving at a name as good as Accenture. Although at first it sounded a little gimmicky and strange, the name has begun to prove its worth - it has quickly become established and effective as a brand name.
Although the word is a compound of Accent and Future, you don’t need to know it. It feels relatively comfortable to pronounce and spell because the elements of the word are common. And the result of the compounding is a name - a word - that feels authoritative, a bit clever, and positive.
It’s this feel, rather than the etymology, that makes the name successful.
Another classic in the pantheon of ‘synthetic’ brand names. Like many business names that seem entirely ‘random’ to the average consumer in the outside world, the name Xerox actually has a clear etymology. It’s a shortening of the word xerography, with an ‘x’ added for extra techy glitz. Xerography is the technical name for the dry copying process that photocopiers use, which derives from the Greek words xeros - ‘dry’ and graphos - ‘writing’.
Interestingly, the name Xerox started out as XeroX - a product name - which morphed into the company name Xerox over many years. Since the launch of that first product in 1949, this odd name has become comfortable and familiar - so much so that it is sometimes used as a generic verb for the act of photocopying.
Brand names aren’t just for retailers, or consumer-focused businesses. An effective brand name supports the development of any business. Take Hydrock: it’s one of the UK’s most successful civil engineering companies.
The name Hydrock is strong and distinctive. It’s a good, honest kind of name that seems to reflect the nature of the business. It has a well-earned reputation as an excellent employer, being ranked as one of the Best Companies to Work For by the Sunday Times.
It’s the kind of brand name that could well have a meaningful origin to its founders. (They may have Cornish roots, as St. Hydrock was a local saint.) But to an observer, and to Google, the name is theirs.
George Eastman was a clever guy. He not only invented the Kodak camera which did so much to make photography part of everyday life, but he knew a thing or two about branding.
Eastman wanted a business name that was unique, so that it could be trademarked. He also wanted it to be short and simple so that it was easy to say and easy to spell. And he wanted the name to be unlike anything else in the market. (Oh, and he just happened to like the letter K.) After considering a few options, Kodak was the result.
Eastman knew he didn’t want a descriptive name, or a name that simply adopted a familiar word. He might not have used the term, but he wanted to create a brand name. And he certainly succeeded.
If you work in a business that needs to accurately specify a colour - or you are a fan of its stylish home decor accessories and stationery, you’ll be familiar with the Pantone colour system.
You’re probably so familiar with it that you have never considered the origins of the name. This is true of many successful brand names: the ‘meaning’ behind the name is irrelevant when the name has become a brand.
On reflection, the name Pantone probably comes from the combination of the prefix Pan- (meaning ‘all’ or ‘every’) and tone (as in the strength or quality of a colour). But after 30 or more years of working with the brand, it’s not something that I had ever thought about.
The etymology is irrelevant, because the meanings of the word are those attached to the brand name: to some, Pantone means accurate colour specification; to others it means colour.
Sometimes imaginative naming is a result of pragmatism or the solving of challenges. Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo might have been easily understood as Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering in its native Japan, but in the US its challenging name was a bit of a hurdle.
As their business abroad developed during the late 50s, a more easily pronounceable name was needed, and Sony fitted the bill nicely. Not only was it short and sweet, but it suggested the word ‘sonus’ - the Latin for sound - and even alluded to the American slang word for a young lad, Sonny. It sounded friendly.
So the beginnings of a global economy produced one of the first universal brand names - a unique name with no actual meaning, but one with positive associations and allusions.
As with many brand names, it’s hard to imagine life without the name Google. The origins of the name in the misspelling of the word googol, have been covered so often that most people are familiar with it. But this familiarity masks the sheer oddness of the name when it first became prominent.
Before the internet - and search engines - were a part of most people’s lives, discovering Google amongst the plethora of dull, technical names (hello, Microsoft) and metaphors (remember Netscape Navigator, anyone?), had a big impact.
Not only did the product work really well, but the name shouted ‘this is different’. It made something technological feel relevant, fun and human.
Business names can come from anywhere. From a flash of inspiration, hard graft and brainstorming, or from straightforward pragmatism. The origins of brand names don’t really matter. But they do sometimes pique the curiosity of branding people and journalists. So a ‘reason’ for a name is often concocted to deliver the required rationale.
When he set about naming his new furniture business, Ingvar Kamprad almost certainly started with his initials. But whether he added the E and the A to represent the nearby villages of Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd seems unlikely to me; it feels a bit like a handy explanation of the inexplicable. ‘It just sounded good’ sometimes isn’t enough.
Whatever the origins, Ikea was - at the time - meaningless. Now it is synonymous with well-designed, affordable flat-packed furniture.
Original names make for great brands
These 10 businesses prove that it’s more important that a business name is distinctive, ownable and memorable than rational, descriptive or explicable.
Whatever its etymology, a business name means nothing until it becomes a brand name.
Are there other examples of successful businesses with apparently meaningless names that are great brand names? If so, let us know and we’ll include them in another compilation.