What's in a name?

June 28, 2007 - Get free updates of new posts here

Andre wrote an interesting article on naming products yesterday. This is where I (Devin Reams) step in and argue the opposite: names don’t matter.

I was talking with Chris one morning and we stumbled into an interesting discussion. What do you think of when you hear of some famous company names for the first time?

  • Burger King and McDonalds – If you heard these two for the first time which would make you think ‘delicious’ and which would make you think tools or something?
  • Maceys and Forbes – Would you know the difference between a clothing store and a business magazine? Using a last name tells me nothing about a company. Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are awesome extensions of Sam Walton’s name.
  • General Motors, Ford, Toyota – Hmm, I’d think General Motors is probably something to do with motors. Cars though? Perhaps. Ford and Toyota? No way.
  • Safeway – First aid? Airbag manufacturer?
  • Flickr – Something to do with light. A camera flash.
  • meebo – Something about myself but I’d never think instant messaging.
  • Pandora – Something bad, cluttered, uncontrollable. Wow, isn’t it all about the opposite?
  • Google – I know everyone in elementary school was fascinated by the word ‘googolplex’ I’m sure I’d think of “a lot” and maybe math. Search, though? Never.
  • OK Dork– Uh….

It’s amazing how many companies actually use family names. Check out the Fortune 100 list: Wells Fargo, Sears, McKesson, Morgan Stanley, Time Warner, Walgreens, Lockheed Martin, Lowes, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Merrill Lynch, Walt Disney, etc.

So, when you’re spending hours coming up with a name for your new company, product, service or feature maybe it’s not worth your time. If it’s good the name will follow…

Feel free to prove me wrong…

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10 responses to “What's in a name?

  1. Andre Nosalsky Reply

    Devin, nice try with your rebuttal!! 🙂 but I’m standing by what I wrote, although I’ll expand a bit.

    1) You’re right in a sense that names can mean nothing, they are just letters put together. But if a “name” is properly branded, it can mean a lot. One example I can give you is of the “mother”. Everybody has a “complex” in their mind of this word. It’s not just a word, it carries with it a lot of emotion, thoughts and imagery. This can happened either on purpose or as a default if the company sticks around.

    2) If you don’t assign a good name to a product or a service, the users will do it for you. This is because how humans are programmed. People need a something to group their experiences around. When you provide a name, they group all of their experiences under this name. And if you “guide” how they should feel about the name, you’re branding.

    3) iPhone

  2. Sean Tierney Reply

    depends on the context- meaningless names are stronger brands because you homestead that mental real estate and own it (in the case of our company, “JumpBox vs. VirtualAppliances.net” – we create a term for something new and then own the term. that’s a way stronger position to hold).

    what’s funny is i had planned to write a post by this exact same title only on a different subject: would the Patriot Act ever have passed if it had been called something like the “Forceful abdication of privacy Act?” In that case the name proved to be everything in convincing the public to accept a horribly ill-conceived and invasive restriction of privacy.

    Names matter but it depends entirely on the context and the motivations of the naming party.

    sean

  3. Damon Billian Reply

    I think we’re seeing a lot of names w/o context these days because of people that buy up domains & squat on them. No, Flickr doesn’t capture what they do entirely…but it doesn’t entirely not make sense…

    The other thing: a lot of companies, at least online ones, generally want to become a verb at some point (twitter=tweets, paypal=paypaled).

  4. Deron Reply

    I agree in that names do not matter. I think it helps if you have a name that’s short and/or has a catchy ring to it, but it’s not a necessity. If you provide a good product and word gets out about your product/business, people will use your services regardless of the name, and when your service explodes and becomes popular, the name will become second nature and wont seem ‘weird’ at all. I mean, if a new retailer opened that had prices there are half the price of Wal-Mart’s, but the name of this new place was “blahblah,” would that really stop you from shopping there? It’s all about getting recognized.

  5. Will Reply

    Devin,
    I tend to agree with you, to a certain extent names do not matter. It helps though to have a catchy name, it is something for people to remember you by, but if your product sucks, they will soon forget no matter what the name is.
    In this day and age of creativity, it may almost work to your advantage to go old school and name your product something simple, like for instance if you were launching say a riske YouTube like site, you could call it ReamsDreams 😉

    Will

  6. Devin Reply

    I think we all agree to some extent. We’re just saying it a bit differently.

    The point being: we could’ve named ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’ totally differently (and obscure) words, but they’d still be popular and successful. The name is going to be used either way–whatever it may be. 😉

  7. Omar Hakim Reply

    The name should be easy to pronounce and – this is often overlooked – not mean anything weird or derogatory in a foreign language. We’re in a global marketplace and who knows if/when your product/service/company will “go global”.

    Chevrolet didn’t think of that when the came up with the name for the Chevy Nova. It seems no one in Detroit spoke Spanish (No-Va = “doesn’t go”)…