Choosing the right brand name can be a make-it or break-it experience for a lot of startups.
Finding something that defines your brand, gives homage to your core message and resonates with your future customers is a tough trifecta to nail down.
Even with this complicated process, you’d be surprised at the relatively similar steps brand founders go through. First, there is an experience that triggers an idea, which is often derived from a personal problem or a high-frequency experience.
The idea is bounced around a little, notes are taken and feedback is accepted. Most importantly, a vision starts to develop and dots start to connect.
It’s the clarity between the problem that they’re facing and the solution they’re bringing to the table that initiates the thought of: “What the heck should I call this thing?”
Intuitively, most consumers should understand the basics behind a brand name. It needs to be short, memorable and easy to pronounce.
Should we make up a word or call it something literal like Travel.com?
Expedia, Netflix, Zillow and Instagram all built their names from scratch and raised brands without any previous perceptions or misconceptions based on the word they launched with.
Other founders believe in homonyms, palindromes, double “o’s” as a sign of good luck (Facebook, Google, Yahoo) and high-point scrabble letters Z, Q, X, J, K (you can thank Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia and Zillow, for that one).
Winning the jackpot? When their brand names turn into verbs (“Googled it” or “Uber it”).
It comes as no surprise then, that sometimes, the first name doesn’t stick. Read on to see the inspiration behind some of the biggest tech brand names in the world and what they started out as.
Square is a mobile and point-of-sale payments company that was founded in San Francisco by Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey in 2009.
Where did the name Square come from?
Jack Dorsey picked up a dictionary and looked for words that started with Sq. He came across Square. The two sayings were perfect – “Fair & Square” and “Squaring Up.” You’ll even notice their domain is Squareup.com. Other brand names included Seashell (a form of payments way back when), Stash and Wallet.
Why not “Squirrel?”
Squirrel was the initial brand name of choice for Dorsey, but at the time, there was a point of sale system in Canada called Squirrel Systems.
Expedia is an online travel company that was founded in 1996 by an internal group at Microsoft.
Where did the name Expedia come from?
The word Expedia is derived from a combination of “exploration and speed” and at the time, the domain only cost $9.99, according founder Rich Barton.
Why not “Microsoft Travel?”
This was an internal name before Expedia became a customer-facing company. For many reasons (including boredom with that name), it had to be changed.
Twitter is a an online social networking and microblogging service that was founded by Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Noah Glass in March 2006. The company evolved from an online podcast startup called Odeo.
Where did the name Twitter come from?
The definition of Twitter, “a short burst of inconsequential information, and chirps from birds,” caught Dorsey’s attention while he was flipping through the dictionary. They also considered the names Twttr, Jitter and Twitch.
Why not “Status?”
They wanted a name that evoked what the product did, but they also wanted a name that was tangible. When you received a tweet over SMS, your phone would buzz. It would jitter. It would twitch. After careful consideration, they felt Status, Jitter and Twitch all lacked positive (or exciting) imagery.
Snapchat is a photo and video messaging application that allows users to communicate via smartphones. It was founded by Evan Spiegel and Reggie Brown, but later incorporated by Spiegel and Robert Murphy in July of 2011.
Where did the name SnapChat come from?
The name Snapchat is derived from the intention of sending short snaps that disappear.
Why not Picaboo?
The first version of Snapchat was launched under the name Picaboo. Due to slow user growth, Brown suggested they start marketing the app as a sexting tool. “Picaboo lets you and your boyfriend send photos for peeks and not keeps!”
Spiegel changed the name to Snapchat after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from a photo-book company with the name Picaboo.
Instagram is an online social networking company that lets you share photos and videos. The company was founded by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in October of 2012.
Where did the name Instagram come from?
The name Instagram is a portmanteau of “instant camera” and “telegram.” Systrom wanted the name to be easy to pronounce and spell and follow the “right here, right now” concept.
Why not Burbn?
The breakthrough was conceptual: Instead of doing a check-in that had an optional photo, they thought, “Why don’t we do a photo that has an optional check-in?” This pivot led to rebranding the app features and app name.
As of June 30th, 2015, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the largest retailer in the United States. The company was founded on July 5th 1994 in Bellevue, Washington (in a neighborhood called Apple Valley) by Jeff Bezos.
Where did the name Amazon come from?
Bezos picked up a dictionary and scanned word after word, page after page, until he discovered the word “Amazon.” He liked the homonym for two primary reasons. In the past, websites were listed alphabetically, which meant Amazon would always be higher on the page, giving a slight competitive advantage.
And secondly, he picked the largest river in the world to communicate Amazon’s vast selection of books. He also considered the brand name relentless.com.
Why not Cadabra?
Yes, as in Abracadabra. The brand name died shortly after Bezos’ trademark lawyer mistakenly heard “cadaver.”
Did you know Amazon owns Zappos?
Zappos was founded by Nick Swinmurn in 1999 in Las Vegas. The company is currently led by CEO Tony Hsieh.
Where did the name Zappos come from?
The word Zappos is commonly thought to be derived from the word “zap,” (shipping is so fast, it’s like a zap), however it’s actually a catchy variation of the spanish word for shoes: “Zapatos.” They intentionally didn’t called it “zapatos” because their vision was much larger than just becoming the largest online shoe retailer. This is a great example of thinking about what you could become before you become it to avoid pigeonholing your brand name.
Why not shoesite.com?
The company was initially called shoesite.com, but rebranded shortly after their initial launch because their goal was to deliver the best service online- and not just in shoes.
Yelp aims to help consumers connect with local businesses. The company’s five star rating system and filtering options make it easy for consumers to find the perfect place to eat or visit.
Where did the name Yelp come from?
The name “Yelp” was recommend by David Calbraith, a friend of the founders who simply liked the word. But it also serves as a nifty contraction of “yellow pages.” Originally, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman didn’t like the name because it reminded him of a noise a dog would make after being kicked.
Why not Yocal?
Internal champions continued to fight for Yelp. After battling against them and deciding to give in, Stoppelman gave the new name a five star review.
Hipmunk is a travel company that aggregates travel sites to make it easy for consumers to compare and book flights. The company was co-founded by Adam Goldstein and Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman in 2010. Shortly after, Alexis Ohanian, the other co-founder of Reddit, joined the team.
Where did the name Hipmunk come from?
They initially agreed on the name Suckage, but didn’t think publications would find it attractive. Struggling to come up with a name, Goldstein asked his girlfriend for a few suggestions. She suggested a cute, misspelled animal so they could have a unique logo. This inspired the name name CHipmunk. They also considered the names BouncePounce and Truvel (true travel).
Why not “BouncePounce?”
They simply weren’t sold on the name and let their instincts and feedback guide them.
Unbounce is a mobile responsive DIY landing page builder that makes it easier for marketers to perform tests. The company was founded by Oli Gardner, Rick Perreault, Jason Murphy, Carl Schmidt, Carter Gilchrist and Justin Stacey.
Where did the name Unbounce come from?
Oli was out walking late one night on the Vancouver seawall and focused in on the fundamentals of a landing page. A dedicated, standalone landing page has only one thing to do, so you either convert or you bounce. Bouncing – and bounce rate in general – is a bad thing, so he flipped it on its head by un’ing it. Hence, Unbounce.
Why not EZlanding?
Originally Rick Perreault purchased a domain name as a kind of a placeholder. It was called EZlanding.com which is pronounced “easy landing.” In a interview with me, Oli Gander admitted that it was a terrible name and knew they had the right fit when “Unbounce” came into play.
Relatively unknown tech startup creating the best products in the ABCs.
Where did the name Google come from?
The name Google originated from a misspelling of a mathematical term called “googol,” which is a “1” followed by a hundred “0’s. Larry and Sergey also considered the name “Backrub,” which derived from ranking pages based on backlinks.
Why not Googol?
Larry Page prefered the made up word to the textbook spelling. I think we’re all glad Backrub wasn’t the #1 choice.
eBay is an online auction and shopping website that was founded by Pierre Omidyar in 1995.
Where did the name ebay come from?
eBay was under the umbrella of Echo Bay Technology Group, Omidyar’s consulting firm.
Why not EchoBay?
Omidyar tried to register the name echobay.com, however the domain was already registered by Echo Bay Mines, a gold mining company. Many customers already called it ebay.com so he decided to go with the shortened version. They also considered the name AuctionWeb.
Stripe is the best way to accept payments online and in mobile apps. The company was founded by John and Patrick Collison, two brothers from Ireland.
Where did the name Stripe come from?
The word ‘Stripe’ was interestingly free of any existing brand associations. And everything it evoked was at least vaguely positive — racing stripes, striping across a RAID array and, of course, the magnetic stripe on a card.
Why not Forge?
It wasn’t until Greg Brockman (CTO) shared the idea with a friend that he was forced to confront the idea that “forge” could also mean to copy or imitate, sometimes illegally. Shortly after, they scrapped the name. They also considered names like /Dev/Payments (SlashDevSlashPayments), Stack, Parse and a few variations of Pay Demon.
Wistia provides professional video hosting with amazing viewer analytics, HD video delivery, and marketing tools to help marketers understand how users are interacting with their videos. The company was founded by Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz in 2006.
Where did the name Wistia come from?
Founders Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz were looking for something short, memorable, and available (.com). Wistia met the criteria, plus it was fun to say! It turns out that ‘wist’ is the past tense of “wit” as in “to wit.” They added the ‘ia’ to make it modern. Basically, it’s a made up word.
Why not Tropist?
Their first project before founding Wistia was called Tropist, so they considered that name, but wanted something a little more fun to say. They also considered a bunch of other bizarre names like BigBasil, BigAxe and HappyGlad.
WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. The company was founded by Jan Koum and Brian Acton in 2007.
Where did the name WhatsApp come from?
WhatsApp is a pun on “what’s up?” During the early stages of ideation, Koum also considered the name “Zap.”
Why not Zap?
Because, who doesn’t like a good pun?
I hope you learned a thing or two, or three about what to think about when picking a brand name. If you had the capital to start your own venture tomorrow, would you make up a new word?
If you’d like to learn how other tech brands like Reddit, Airbnb, Shazam, and Etsy got their names, take a quick peek around on Rewind & Capture.