Are there bad company names, or just poor products and services?

branding iron

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
– Shakespeare’s Juliet

In the recent CBS special commemorating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first performing in the U.S. on The Ed Sullivan show, Paul McCartney told David Letterman that originally girls in England didn’t like the name “The Beatles”. It sounded like a bug and it grossed them out. The guys tried explaining that it wasn’t those beetles, it was a pun on the word “beat”; and they thought of it as kind of a tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, too. Maybe not the best name, but the girls got over it. (Unfortunately the show isn’t available online so I can’t find the exact quote.)

Is a company’s name really important to its success? Companies have been successful, and unsuccessful, with a wide range of names. I’d say they generally fall into one of four categories:

Founder’s names
This was traditionally one of the most common sources of a company name: Procter & Gamble; Ferrari; Johnson & Johnson; GoldmanSachs; Ogilvy & Mather; Harley-Davidson; Sears, Roebuck and Company; Dell; Disney, etc. Years later these may end up reduced to initials, such as P&G, HP and BBDO. The company name may also originally combine the founder’s name with a mention of its industry (Ford Motor Company) but it typically gets swiftly shortened to just the founder names, and when these company names move into new cultures, as Toyota and Honda did, they have no meaning at all. Most Americans probably couldn’t tell you that people named Toyoda and Honda founded  those two car companies.

Literal, descriptive names
Many great companies were founded with literal names: International Business Machines (now IBM); American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T); Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M); Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS); Standard Oil; General Motors (often GM), General Electric (often GE), Bank of America, News Corp, etc. Many of these were eventually, or swiftly, shortened. Many other literally named companies have been renamed or folded over the years, such as American Sugar Company (now Domino), U.S. Leather Company, United States Rubber Company (later Uniroyal, and ultimately part of Michelin) – all members of the original Dow Jones Index.

More whimsical or industry-associated names
Companies often combine industry terms or other associated words to create a name, or create a non-literal name associated with what they do: Wal-Mart, Intel (Integrated Electronics), Microsoft, Mastercard, Tesla, Digitas, Marketo, Ideo, SiriusDecisions; Coca-Cola, Humana (originally named Extendicare); eBay, etc.

Random or seemingly made-up words
All the good names apparently have been taken. So companies today increasingly pick what seem to be poetic or random names, or made-up words. They mean something to the founders but may convey little of that meaning to the general public. Apple Computers (named for one of Steve Jobs’ favorite fruits); Apple Corp. (The Beatles’ record label, they said it was a pun); Verizon (the company says it’s a combination of “veritas, the Latin word connoting certainty and reliability, and horizon, signifying forward-looking and visionary”); Accenture (accent on the future) – and Razorfish; Sapient; Akamai (from the Hawaiian word meaning “smart” or “clever), HubSpot; Google (a play on googol, a very large number: a 1 followed by 100 zeroes); Eloqua, etc. Samsung means “three stars” or tri-star in Korean, but in English-speaking countries it has no significance.

Companies in very different industries may use the same name successfully. There are Cabot stains and cheeses. Not all Ford models are cars: some are people represented by the prestigious Ford Model agency.

Different companies in the same industry may successfully use the various naming strategies, too.
Computers: Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo
Coffee: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Peet’s
Banks: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo
Retail: Wal-Mart, Kroger, Target, Costco
Fast food: McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s, Burger King
Pharmacy: CVS, Walgreen, Rite Aid

And all of these companies were start-ups at some point, and all were successful. Whether it was because of, or despite of, their names, you decide.

Even when companies narrow their field with a literal name, they sometimes successfully expand beyond it. Analog Devices makes digital devices, too. Compaq Computers ultimately made desktop and other models. The best name for a branding agency that I ever heard is TATTOO, and they have expanded into customer strategy, product strategy and enterprise strategy. But other times a rebranding is called for.

IMHO, though, it’s 10,000 times more important what a company does than what it’s called. Companies of almost any name that deliver great products and services prosper. Companies that don’t deliver on their brand promise wither and die. Some that don’t deliver die in spectacular fashion. Neither their names nor brand equity were able to save Enron, Lehman Brothers, or Washington Mutual. Worldcom only survived by rebranding itself as one of its constituent companies, MCI, and ultimately by being acquired by Verizon.

Major companies spend a lot of money with naming consultancies to figure out the names of new product, but small companies can’t afford to. The Ford Edsel is probably the best known story of a naming consultant having their recommendation overruled. The company put considerable market research into the new car, too, but what it produced was just ugly and the public never showed interest in it. The Ford Mustang had a much better name — and design.

The Corvair sold fine until Ralph Nader showed that it was unsafe at any speed. The Corvette is to this day the prototypical American sports car.

I started a company in 1998 and called it Magic Hour Communications because I thought our primary business would be corporate marketing videos, and the “magic hour” is a film and video industry term for the time around dawn and sunset, the most beautiful light of the day. Within two or three years, though, we were following the money and transitioning into a website design and development agency. The name was still fine (although some employees thought we should drop “communications”; they thought that made us sound like a company that installed phone systems). When we developed our own content management system, we called it MagicWand. We grew to be one of the three or four main companies in our national market niche before I sold it in 2009: all with a name intended for a different market.

This is not to say that there are no limits or serious considerations in what a successful company can be called; there are. But read several pieces on the topic and you’ll find a lot of disagreement among the “experts”, and the fact that there are often trends in names. So I think the boundaries are very wide.

What do you think – are there company names that you think have held back their growth, or killed the company right out of the box? Or are there a wide range of possible names and what you do is what really matters?

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