What’s in a company name? Plenty. It’s your first opportunity to brand yourself. Get it right and you’ll stand out as clever, useful, and memorable to potential users and investors — even if your product isn’t any good. But get it wrong and you’ll flame out […]

What’s in a company name? Plenty. It’s your first opportunity to brand yourself. Get it right and you’ll stand out as clever, useful, and memorable to potential users and investors — even if your product isn’t any good. But get it wrong and you’ll flame out before your product even gets out of beta.

So, what makes Brightmail, PayPal and IronPort great names, but Lycos, Xobni and Vidoop really lousy? It turns out there’s a formula for effective naming and it’s surprisingly simple.

Look at many of the most successful brands and you’ll notice they’re often compound names, consistently made up of two components:

  • a word that relates to the company product in a direct, literal sense, establishing a clear association between the brand and what the company does.
  • a word not literally related to the product, but rather a metaphorical adjective to evoke a differentiating characteristic or “feeling” about the company’s product.

Our minds are built to make connections, mostly at a subconscious level. When a metaphor is detected, it triggers a process in our brains that associates the metaphor with the next object or reference. This naming system forces the mind to take the cognitive step of associating the metaphor to the product it represents, thus forming a positive association to the brand. And once your brain has woven the connection, it sticks, so there’s a great chance your company name won’t be forgotten.

So when we break down the name Brightmail, we see that “mail” indicates what the product does — they make email — while “bright” is metaphorical, framing their product in a positive light. This same logic applies to PayPal; “pay” is literal, “pal” is metaphorical. Ditto with IronPort, a provider of email and web security products — “iron” is a metaphor for strength and “port” is a literal reference to what the company product protects: network ports.

Search company Lycos tried a made-up word, to ill effect. After all, what’s a lycos? Xobni makes a cool email service, but someone had to tell me that xobni is “inbox” spelled backwards. Vidoop is just yucky. Reminds me of, well, you know.

Of course there are startups that get so far out in front of their competitive fields, or whose products are so exemplary, that names which ought to have been tricky are nevertheless well received.

Consider Twitter. If you had asked me a year-and-a-half ago, I’d have said it was a terrible name — all I could think of was “twit.” But people’s associations with Twitter are good because its communication tool is first-in-class and offers a great experience.

I was recently asked to consult with a startup that is considering re-naming itself. It’s a good thing, because the name they’re using now is totally confusing. It’s one of those Google-wannabe made-up words that sounds vaguely Latin, but isn’t. Worst of all, it doesn’t tell users like me anything about the company’s product (they archive web pages). When the company explained the name to me, I got even more confused.

In my view, while site archiving is useful (and they do it well), this probably isn’t a broad-based enough service to be elevated to the level of a consumer utility, as search or micro-blogging (Twitter) have been. This means their made-up name is unlikely to ever be turned into a verb (like “to google” or “to tweet”).

I suggested some new names, based on the two-part formula:

: Archi sounds like architect, a good association. It also refers to archive. “Arch” as a prefix is “chief,” so metaphorically it evokes priority. Text is literal for content. Combined you might get: “storage for vital web content.”
PermaPage: “Perma” evokes impermeability. “Page” is literal.
ArchWeb: “Arch” for “archive,” and the metaphorical “priority.” Web is web.

Evan Paull is software engineer for Mark Logic and a startup consultant.

  1. Great tips! Coming up with a start-up name can be so tough–but you point in the right direction.

  2. Um. Maybe you should stick to engineering. This post is so utterly simplistic and naive, it’s funny. Really not up to GigaOm’s usual standard.

  3. I remember choosing Padpaw for our company name for similar reasons. Plus, I picked the name from the first letters on a phone key pad (A, D, G, J, M, P, T, W).

  4. This article doesn’t even make sense. The twitter example contradicts the main point.

  5. doesn’t lycos mean ‘spider’?

  6. Than you! now I have a thoughtfull reason to be happy about my product name: Podmailing, which enables to send any size file by email.

    Actually I got challenged by Apple for this brand because of the “pod” in it. But I think “pod” is really metaphorical and gives a sense of modernity. And for an email service it makes sense because P.O.D. = proof of delivery.

  7. Evan,

    Your assessment is on the money. Too many entrepreneurs make significant branding mistakes which are quite costly. This point you didn’t address, poor branding results in SIGNIFICANTLY increased marketing costs across the board. This issue combines with the “made up word” that has no significance to the product/service, and hence the entrepreneurs are forced to “educate the market”. This is the kiss of death for startups.

    Nice post.


  8. Jack Kornfield was Radioshack’s marketing guru in the hey day of the 60’s and 70’s when the chain was the go to place for everything hifi.

    He published a book called, “If you want to catch a mouse, make a noise like a cheese”. He took great issue with companies like Toshiba naming their new (quite good) personal copier line names like, ‘BD7210′.

    Most Web 20 names are too cute by far. They think cool, most however are copycats of other more successful trailblazers.

    Tell me what the damn product is and what the company does, dammit. In the enterprise space, we went through a time where one could not intuit what the hell they were talking about in the early days of SOA and ESB – still a cloudy and uncertain branding pool anyway, even after the dust has cleared somewhat.

  9. Lycos is Greek for wolf. Their symbol is a dog. Nevertheless you are right. They took the name from “Lycosidae” which is Latin for “Wolf spiders”.

  10. Um, I liked the name ArchiText. In 1993 when it was the original name for Excite. Another rule for naming – do some research.


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