A photo of the orange symbolising how the brand name 'Orange' came about

How Do Brands Come Up With Their Names?

Ever wondered where companies get their brand names from?

By and large, new companies will turn to a naming agency or a copywriter to create a brand name that’s fresh, memorable and available as a dot something. But it’s not always the case.

Here’s a look at the origins of some of the world’s best-known brand names – and the inside knowledge (from yours truly) on how one of them came to be.

A photo of the orange symbolising how the brand name 'Orange' came about

In the 90s, when I worked at Wolff Olins, a team of us spent days and days coming up with a new brand name for Hutchison Microtel. The telecoms market was on the brink of a revolution with mobile phones set to become less of a gadget, more of an accessory. Hutchison Microtel wanted to lead that revolution and stand out in a complicated market, competing against brand names such as Motorola, Cellnet, Mercury and BT.

The naming brief, which I still have, ended with this: ‘Our benchmark will be that in the year 2000, this will be the word on the street: “It may sound strange, but it just appealed to me. This service just seemed to be calling my name. Now I don’t know how I would manage without it.” ‘

The new name? Orange.

Here’s the reasoning behind some of the world’s most-well-known brand names. So if you’re ever in a pub quiz and asked ‘How did Esso get its name?’, well now you’ll know.

Brand names based around letters

  • Esso: no fancy rationale here; just a simple-as-anything use of the first two letters (‘S’ and ‘O’) of the company’s original name – Standard Oil.
  • Cisco: San Francisco. Short and sweet.
  • QVC: Quality, Value, Convenience. Who knew?
  • Sega: originally named Service Games of Japan because the company began life as coin-operated slot machines for U.S. military bases in Japan.
  • Vodafone: taken from letters in Voice, Data, Telefone. Again, who knew?

Brand names with provenance

  • Coca-Cola: the recipe is secretly guarded but we do know that the flavouring uses coca leaves and kola nuts. John S. Pemberton opted to use ‘C’ twice as it makes the name looks better. Good decision.
  • Fever-Tree: during the British Empire, soldiers in India discovered they could mix bitter quinine (taken to prevent malaria) in tonic water with gin, making the drink altogether more pleasant. Quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, known as ‘fever tree’.
  • Pepsi: back in 1898, this was called ‘Brad’s Drink’ after its pharmacist founder Caleb D. Bradham. He bought the name ‘Pep Kola’ from a local competitor and changed it to Pepsi-Cola to let people know that it was a healthy drink aiding digestion. Dyspepsia means indigestion.

Brand names based on a place or person

  • Crabtree & Evelyn: although this is a US company, the name was inspired by a 17th century English gardener, John Evelyn, and the crabtree because apples were often used in apothecary.
  • Haribo: combines the founder’s name (Hans Riegel) with the company location (Bonn).
  • IKEA: made up of letters from the founder’s name plus where he grew up in Sweden – Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd.
  • Tesco: Jack Cohen, the founder, had market stalls in Hackney and combined the letters from his surname with those of a shipment of tea to sell from T. E. Stockwell.

Brand names inspired by literature

  • Starbucks: Starbuck is chief mate in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, though the name of Captain Ahab’s ship was also initially considered: Pequod. Would have defo been harder to pronounce.
  • Yahoo!: the company began life as Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web but then became Yahoo, a word made up by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels for legendary beasts with unpleasant habits. Imagine if Swift’s ‘Houyhnhnms’ had been used instead.

Brand names due to serendipity

  • Dixons: when the two founders set up their photographic studio in 1937 in 1937, there was only room for six letters on the frontage. They simply picked the name out of the phone directory.
  • Etsy: its founder wanted a name that didn’t really mean anything. While watching  Federico Fellini’s 8½ , he kept hearing ‘eh, si’ (meaning ‘what if?) as ‘etsi’.
  • Mailchimp: the name was meant to be  Chimpmail but that had already been snapped up so its co-owner just switched it around.

Brand names that have shrunk along the way

  • 3M: started out as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.
  • eBay: originally Echo Bay Technology Group. However because Echo Bay Mines Limited was already registered, the second best option was chosen instead.
  • MG Cars: Morris Garages was named after its co-founder William Morris though, in 2007, its new Chinese owners changed the acronym’s meaning ‘Modern Gentleman’ to reflect the brand’s grace and style.

Brand names that say what they do on the tin

  • 7-Eleven: convenience stores open from 7:00 am until 11:00 pm.
  • Groupon: errrr, group coupon.

Brand names created by employees (who needs to pay a naming agency ££££?!)

  • Accenture: suggested by a company employee in Norway, as a shortened form of ‘accent on the future’.
  • Fanta: it’s said that an employee contest was held and the head of Coca-Cola Deutschland told everyone to use their imagination (their ‘fantasie’).
  • Caterpillar: originally, this was Holt Tractor Co. The company photographer exclaimed that the tractor looked like a ‘monster caterpillar’ as it moved. (The machines were often referred to as ‘mud turtles’ so, phew.)

Brand names derived from foreign words (how good is your French, Japanese, Latin ….?)

  • Kia Motors: comes from the Korean and Chinese word ‘ki’ (to rise) and ‘a’ for Asia. Therefore it means ‘to come out of Asia’. Simple.
  • LEGO: from the Danish ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’. Equally simple.
  • Sony: from the Latin word for sound (‘sonus’). Rolls off the tongue far more easily than the original name of Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo KK.
  • TREsemmé: the name was inspired by a hair care expert, Edna Emmé, but also sounds like ‘très aimée’ which means very beloved.

Interested in etymology? Check out my blog The Naming of Cocktails.

Written by Caroline Gibson, naming copywriter who loves a good trawl through a Thesaurus to help new brands find a name that’s also ‘the word on the street’.

E: caroline@carolinegibson.co.uk  T: +44 (0) 7957 567766

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