The Inspiration Behind the Brand Names of 10 World Famous Companies

Today, brands are an integral part of our daily lives – from the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the food we eat and even our choice of tattoo (no, seriously), are often influenced by leading brands.
 
Harley-Davidson Brand Naming Strategy(Image source: Ad Forum)

And a brand's name is one of the most important assets. According to Al Reis, author of the 22 immutable laws of branding "One of the most important branding decisions you will ever make is what to name your product or service because, in the long run, a brand is nothing more than a name."

Anyone who has ever had to tackle the challenging task of naming a company, brand or product will appreciate just how difficult and sometimes damn right frustrating it can be.

‘Everyone seems to want short, evocative names, that are trademarkable. With anywhere from 240-280,000 U.S. trademark applications per year and only 80,000 works in the typical college dictionary, this makes the work challenging indeed…'  Wall Street Journal

So, to assist any would-be brand namers with their daunting task below is some inspiration from how 10 world-famous brands, iconic brands got their names. 

Nike Brand Naming Strategy

1. The Nike brand name

Founded in 1964 by University of Oregon athlete Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman, Nike started its life as Blue Ribbon Sports, a sportswear distributor, selling gear out of the boot of Knight's car. 

Nike Brand Naming Strategy History Blue Ribbon Sports(Image source: Turner, Hyperbeast)

In June 1971, the duo decided to manufacture and sell their own sportswear and with the first shipment on its way, the pair realised they needed to develop a new brand name. They had 24 hours to do it!

As the story goes, Knight was sold on the name Dimension Six, however, Bowerman and their sole three employees were not convinced. Inspired by the brand name Puma, Bengal and Peregrine were on the shortlist.

Jeff Johnson the company's first employee, who ran the East Coast factory, inspired by an article he'd read in an in-flight magazine, woke at 7 am with a brainwave – Nike – the Greek winged goddess of victory.

Knight didn't like Nike, nor did he like any of the other suggestions for that matter, however with time running out he had to make a decision.  "I guess we'll go with the Nike thing for a while," Knight said. "I don't like any of them, but I guess that's the best of the bunch."

On May 30, 1971, Blue Ribbon Sports became Nike Inc. The swoosh logo was designed by Carolyn Davidson (no relation), Portland State University graphic design student, symbolising her flight. 

Nike Brand Naming Strategy Carolyn Davidson Sketch(Image source: ilPost) 

Nike now generates over $30B in annual revenue and is considered one of the world's most valuable brands, according to the Forbes 2017 list, ranking ahead of Amazon and Disney.

 

Coca Cola Brand Naming Strategy

2. The Coca-Cola brand name

The Coca-Cola story began in 1886 when an Atlanta pharmacist, Dr. John Pemberton, who was wounded in the Civil War and became addicted to morphine, began his mission to create a better alternative. The first prototype, a flavoured syrup, created in Pemberton's Eagle Drug and Chemical House, was mixed with carbonated water and sold at the local pharmacy. Described as "excellent" by all those who sampled it, the product went on sale for five cents a glass.  

Coca Cola Brand Naming Strategy Jacob's Pharmacy History(Image source: The Coca-Cola Company) 

The Coca-Cola brand name was the brain-child of Pemberton's bookkeeper and partner, Frank M. Robinson inspired by the two key ingredients; Coca leaves and Kola nuts (the source of caffeine). Robinson also created the icon logo saying "the two Cs would look well in advertising".  A stroke of his pen and a stroke of genius that would last more than 100 years. Who says accountants cant be creative?

An interesting side note, Pemberton claimed Coca-Cola cured many diseases, including impotence which perhaps inspired the advertising slogans – ‘Coke ads life' ‘Things go better with Coke', or ‘You can't beat the feeling.'

 

Amazon Brand Naming Strategy

3. The Amazon brand name

Amazon wasn't the digital giant's first name or its second name for that matter.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, now the richest man in the world, changed the brand name three times in the first year of business before finally settling on the name for, what is now, one of the world's most iconic brands.

Amazon Brand Naming Strategy Jeff Bezos Office(Image source: Whiskey Riff) 

The first name Jeff registered was ‘Cadabra'. However, Jeff very quickly went cold on the idea when his accountant miss heard him and thought the name was ‘Cadava'.Amazon Brand Naming Strategy cadabra.comBack to the drawing board, Jeff's next naming brainwave was ‘Relentless'. However, soon after registering the name and domains, Jeff's friends and colleagues confessed that they thought the name sounded too sinister. Strike two.

In desperation, Jeff turned to the dictionary. He wanted the new name to start with the letter A  so the company would appear first in a web search. It wasn't long before he stumbled upon the perfect name – Amazon.

It was the ideal metaphor for his new venture. The Amazon was exotic and different, just as he wanted his online store to be. It was also the largest river in the world, 10 times larger than the next contender and that's the vision Jeff had for his business.

 

Sony Brand Naming Strategy

 
4. The Sony brand name

In 1946 businessman Masaru Ibuka established Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo with a vision of "establishing an ideal factory that stresses a spirit of freedom and open-mindedness that will, through technology, contribute to Japanese culture."Sony Brand Naming Strategy Tokyo Tsushin KogyoAfter a decade building a successful business, Masaru had aspirations to expand globally. During a business trip to the United States, he quickly discovered that Americans had trouble pronouncing his company's name. To be a successful international brand, Masaru realised he had to change the company name.

His first thought was to use the acronym ‘TTK', however, this name was being used by the Tokyo Rail. His next thought was to take the first two letters from the company's current name to create an abbreviation ‘Totsuko'  (Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo), however, he discovered that westerners also had trouble pronouncing it.

He settled on the name Tokyo Teletech, however on a subsequent trip to the United States, discovered another company using this name.

In 1958 the name ‘Sony' was chosen – inspired by the Latin word ‘sonus' meaning sonic and sound. The name had a second meaning ‘sonny' a Japanese slang term describing a smart and presentable young man.

Sony is now ranked number 73 in the World's Most Valuable Brands list, proving that persistence pays off.

 

Fanta Brand Naming Strategy

5. The Fanta brand name:

This is one of my favourite brand naming stories. Developing a brand name is often an arduous, frustrating process, and then sometimes magic just happens.

The Fanta story began during World War II when Coca-Cola couldn't import their popular syrup into Nazi Germany due to a trade embargo. The head of local operations, Max Keith, came up with an innovative workaround. He mixed whey and apple fiber to seasonal fruit and created the unique soda that became an icon orange soft drink.

Max Keith gathered his team together for a group brainstorm to come up with a new brand name – "use your imagination" he challenged them, which in German is ‘fantasie'.

One of his key salesmen, Joe Knipp immediately responded ‘Fanta'. And that's what we call a mike dropping moment.

 

Fanta Brand Naming Strategy Logo History

 (Image source: PinImg)

 

Volkswagen Brand Naming Strategy

6. The Volkswagen brand name

The Volkswagen (pronounced "Folks-Vagen" or "Folks-Vah-gen") story began in the 1930s as an initiative of the Labour Front in Berlin. During this time in Germany, the automotive industry consisted largely of luxury cars, which were out of reach for most people. This resulted in only 1 in 50 German's owning their own car. A group of automotive makers united to build a car that would be accessible to the population. The initiative was called "the people's car project" which in German is translated to Volkswagen – a name that's stuck for over 80 years. 

Volkswagen Brand Naming Strategy Logo History(Image source: Paul's Good Food)

 

Lego Brand Naming Strategy

7. The Lego brand name

The Lego brand story is as elegantly simple as the iconic plastic blocks themselves.

The company began in the workshop of Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1932 where he crafted wooden toys.

Lego Brand Naming Strategy Ole Kirk Christiansen(Image source: Lego)

His inspiration for the name came from the Danish term for ‘play well' – leg godt. By combining the first two letters of each word he created a unique and meaningful brand name that has transcended countries and generations.

In 2016, Lego's turnover grew 6% to 5.1 billion euro, surpassing Mattel's measly $4.9 billion, making them, for the first time, the world's largest toy company.

Lego Brand Naming Strategy(Image source: Lego)

 

Starbucks Brand Naming Strategy

8. The Starbucks brand name

In the early 1970s, a history teacher (Zev Siegel), an English teacher (Jerry Baldwin) and a writer (Gordon Bowker) got together with a shared aspiration of bringing the best coffee to Seattle. With the vision locked in, it was time to develop the all-important brand name.

An advertising agency colleague of Bowker's believed that names beginning with ‘st' were more powerful, so the founders began brainstorming a list of words beginning with ‘st'. For inspiration, someone randomly produced an old map of the nearby mountain range and a mining town named "Starbo" jumped out. This sparked the memory of ‘Starbuck', Melville's first mate in the story Moby-Dick, in Bowker's mind. Bowker said, "Moby-Dick didn't have anything to do with Starbucks directly; it was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense.

Starbucks Brand Naming Strategy History(Image source: Julie Peters) 
Starbucks Brand Naming Strategy Moby Dick(Image source: Bosonoga) 

In the book "Pour Your Heart Into It" Howard Schultz's reported that the other investors discussed naming the company Pequod after the ship in "Moby-Dick." Then they decided no one would want to drink a cup of " Pee-quod."

The three founders registered Starbucks and opened the first store in 1971 in Pike Place Market.

Starbucks Brand Naming Strategy Pike Place Market(Image source: The Odyssey Online) 
 

Vodafone Brand Naming Strategy

9. The Vodafone brand name

Vodafone is one of the most recognised, iconic and valuable telecommunication brands in the world, however, the journey has been an interesting one with numerous owners and as many different names.

It all began in 1951 in West London with a company named Racal Ltd who designed and built radio receivers. The name Racal was inspired by combining the names of the founding partners RAymond Brown and George CALder Cunningham.Vodafone Brand Naming Strategy RacalIn 1982 Racal Electronics joined forces with Swedish conglomerate Millicom to bid for the UK's second cellular radio license. The new venture was named Racal-Millicom Ltd.

In 1985 the name Vodafone was chosen for the network – "voice + data + phone" – inspired by the advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi and one of the original company directors. The CEO at the time wasn't keen on the incorrect spelling of phone, however, he eventually came around and described the name as a ‘masterstroke'. The division was registered as Racal-Vodafone Holdings.

After a series of acquisitions including Talkland, Peoples Phone, AirTouch Communications, Vodafone change its name to Vodafone AirTouch.

In 1999, Vodafone AirTouch merged with Orange to form the company Verizon Wireless.

In 2000 after deciding to divest the Orange brand, the Company changed its name back to Vodafone Group – a name the Company has stuck with ever since.

Vodafone Brand Naming Strategy and Identity
(Image source: Under Consideration) 
 
 
Paypal Brand Naming Strategy

10. PayPal brand name

As one of the world's largest internet payment platforms, the story of PayPal is one of a enormous success, although, for the original founders, it was not always smooth sailing.

The story began in the late 90's when founder Max Levchin, a broke computer science graduate from Chicago attended a lecture at Stanford University by American Businessman Peter Thiel. Levchin proposed a business idea to Thiel that involved creating a library to encrypt schemes. Thiel was intrigued and agreed to invest a couple of hundred thousand dollars as seed capital. The new venture was called Field Link. After a short time, the pair discovered that there was very little demand for the technology, which was when Thiel suggested the idea of using crypto technology to store money – a crypto IOU. In 1998 the pair launched the business Confinity. The genesis of the name was the combination of the words confidence and infinity.

The concept proved an overwhelming success, growing at a rate of 10% per day in the early days. In March 2000, Confinity merged with X.com, the online banking company founded by Elon Musk and X.com was renamed PayPal. Elon's instincts paid off. PayPal saw a rapid expansion between the years 2000 and 2002, growing from 1 million to 5 million users in the space of a few months.

Paypal Brand Naming Strategy x.com history(Image source: Indian Web 2)

In 2002, PayPal was purchased by eBay for a staggering $1.5 billion. 

Paypal Brand Naming Strategy and Identity
(Image source: Under Consideration)

Conclusion

History tells us that to develop an iconic and enduring brand name is rarely an easy feat, often taking two, three, even more, goes to get it right. However, when you do get it right, the dividends pay handsomely.

In 2015 the strategy team at Davidson conducted a study of the origins of the world's top 100 brands and discovered 20 territories comprising 4 sources of inspiration and 5 expressions. From these insights, we created The Brand Name Matrix which has proven to be an invaluable tool for inspiring the creation of great brand names.

COMPLETE THE BRAND NAME SCORECARD UNDER 5 MINUTES TO COMPLETE

Written by Grant Davidson

Grant is the founding partner and head of strategy at Davidson Branding. Over his 30 year career, Grant has developed world’s best practice knowledge and expertise through his studies at Harvard Business School and his experience working with global leading brands.

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