Ad and marketing creatives

Brand Names of the Year for 2011

It's high season for X-of-the-year lists, especially words of the year. I'll leave it to my fellow language observers to decide whether volatility, occupy, squeezed middle, tergiversate, or some other word best sums up the year's prevailing mood. For my part, I'm focusing on a different corner of the linguaverse: brand names of the year.

I haven't settled on just one, so I'm offering you a top-ten list of company and product names. It's a list that's admittedly biased toward North American brands, because they're the ones I'm most familiar with. And it skews toward Internet brands with short histories because those are the brands most representative of our attention-challenged era. Four of the ten brands made headlines this year by failing in dramatic fashion; one of them collapsed after only a few weeks. (It was a year of gloomy economic news, after all.) But my interest in these brands goes beyond their business records: each of them represents a distinct naming style or trend.  

In alphabetical order, then, here are my brand names of the year:

Borders. The bookstore chain, founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had more than 500 stores nationwide when it filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. By autumn, all of the stores were closed. The chain's name seemed metaphorical—expand your borders with books!—but in fact it was an eponym, named for Tom and Louis Borders, the brothers who founded the company in 1971 and sold it to Kmart in 1992. Louis went on to start the grocery-delivery website Webvan in 1999; it lost $1 billion and closed in 2001. The brothers have kept low profiles ever since.

Klout. Launched in September 2009, Klout measures social-media users' influence, or "Klout," across multiple platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. The name is simply "clout" with a "k"—a popular letter substitution in American brand names for nearly a century. (I wrote about some of those names, including Tastykake and Klever Klippers, in an August Candlepower column, "Phood for Thought.") According to a TechCrunch report, Klout's founder, Joe Fernandez, wrested control of the domain by tracking down its owner to a San Francisco restaurant and tossing an envelope with $5,000 in cash on the table. Klout has attracted praise (TechCrunch called it "an admirable pioneer") and scorn (British science-fiction author Charlie Stross called it "the Internet equivalent of herpes"). It has also inspired a parody,, whose name is both a blend ("fake" and "Klout") and a descriptive verb. The satirical service allows users to flout the rules and make up their own social-media scores.

Leaf. Nissan's new electric car has just finished its first full year on the market. The name represents a departure from conventional car-model nomenclature (place names, aggressive animal names, alphanumeric codes, Latinate-sounding coinages): it's metaphorical (leaves are sources of green energy) and small-sounding. In its marketing materials, Nissan spells the name in all capitals; LEAF is supposed to stand for "Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car"—an attempt at a backronym that's both clumsy and unnecessary.

News of the World. The venerable British tabloid, founded in 1843 as a cheap paper for the working classes and owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch since 1969, ceased publication in July 2011 amid a public uproar over revelations about phone hacking and other improprieties. The bland, near-generic name was a mask for the paper's content: light on actual news and so heavy on celebrity sex scandals that it was often referred to as "News of the Screws."

Qwikster. DVD-rental company Netflix angered its US customers in July by splitting its service and charging separately for streaming video and DVDs by mail. Then, on September 18, CEO Reed Hastings announced that the mail service would be renamed Qwikster. The name was meant to suggest "quick service," Hastings said in a blog post—an assertion dismissed as laughable. (Quick service from the US Postal Service?) The contrived spelling and -ster suffix also provoked derision; "-ster" names (Napster, Friendster) were last popular more than a decade ago, during the first wave of Internet startups. The Netflix announcement triggered a furor; nearly 28,000 comments, overwhelmingly negative, were posted on the Netflix blog. On October 10, Hastings announced that he was cancelling Qwikster.

Rovio. You may not be familiar with this company name, but you've almost certainly heard of its most popular product, Angry Birds. The hugely popular puzzle game—more than 500 million downloads since its release in December 2009—was created by Rovio Mobile, which is based in Espoo, Finland. This year the company opened its first retail store, in Helsinki, and announced plans for a feature-length Angry Birds movie. The company was founded in 2003 as "Relude" and changed its name to Rovio in July 2011. The website is silent about the meaning of the names and the reason for the change, but I'll hazard a couple of guesses. The "rove" syllable in "Rovio" suggests mobility, and the -io suffix is popular right now among Internet companies, possibly because i-o suggests input-output. Compare Lendio,,, and Panoramio, among others. There's even a venture capital firm called I/O Ventures.

Siri. The day before Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died, his successor, Tim Cook, announced the new iPhone 4S. Its most talked-about feature has been a voice-activated "digital assistant" called Siri. The name came from the company where Siri was originally developed: SRI International. "Siri" is simply "SRI" with an additional vowel. Uncharacteristically, Apple chose not to rename the product (although it had briefly considered calling it "The Assistant"). The slightly exotic and enigmatic name, coupled with the technology's robotic female voice, has led users to regard Siri as a woman: most reviews of the product refer to Siri as "she."

Solyndra. The six-year-old solar-panel company made headlines this year not simply because it went bankrupt and ceased all business activity but because the US Department of Energy had given the company a $535 million loan guarantee. The Solyndra name was a blend inspired by the product: sol for sun and lyndra from the cylindrical shape of the solar panels.

Spotify. The world's largest streaming-music service was founded in Sweden in 2006 and is now headquartered in the UK; it launched in US to much fanfare in July 2011. Like Rovio, Spotify represents a hot naming trend: words that end in -ify. (A sampling: Adify, Appify, Buddhify, Crowdify, and Storify.) What's especially interesting about Spotify is that it originated in confusion. Company CEO Daniel Ek recalled that he and his co-founder, Martin Lorentzon, "were sitting in different rooms shouting ideas back and forth of company names. We were even using jargon generators and stuff. Out of the blue Martin shouted a name that I misheard as Spotify. I immediately Googled the name and realized there were no Google hits for the word at all. A few minutes later we registered the domain names and off we went." The story was a little embarrassing, Ek said, so he has sometimes told interviewers that Spotify was coined from "spot" and "identify." Neither of those words has any connection to the company or its service.

Zynga. The company behind FarmVille and other popular social-network games was founded in San Francisco in 2007 and is scheduled to have an initial public offering in mid-December. The Zynga name is a variation on "Zinga," the name of a bulldog once owned by co-founder Mark Pincus. (Zynga uses a bulldog in its logo.) Though essentially meaningless, Zynga does suggest "zing," a synonym for vitality or a high-pitched buzzing sound—both appropriate to the nature of online gaming.
Have I omitted any of your favorite brand names of 2011? Leave a comment and share your suggestions.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.