Ad and marketing creatives

Brand Names of the Year for 2021

Welcome, at last, to the end of 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, but so are vaccines. Our shopping habits have changed, and so have the places where we shop. And some familiar brands no longer look quite so familiar.

Let’s ring out the year with a look at the brand names that made their mark by being novel or newly significant — for their linguistic qualities as well as for their newsworthiness. I’ve grouped my selections into thematic categories, arranged alphabetically.


Games were on our minds in 2021. In January, a struggling chain of brick-and-mortar video-game stores called GameStop became famous when a group of mischievous day traders, noticing that big Wall Street hedge funds had shorted the chain’s stock, began buying it and driving up its price, from $4 a share to $150. Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk got in on the fun, punnily tweeting about “Gamestonk.”  (What’s a stonk? Read my explanation.)

A grimmer game caught our attention in November, when Netflix debuted the dystopian Korean drama series “Squid Game.” The title refers to a real-life children’s game popular in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, in which the playing field resembles the body of a squid. By November, the show had become the streaming network’s most-watched series. The Korean title, “Ojing-eo Geim,” imports geim directly from English; the Japanese translation, Ika gēmua candidate for Japanese word of the year for 2021 — also borrows the English word.


An NFT, which stands for non-fungible token, grants ownership of a piece of code in the blockchain that represents an artwork or other creative content. It’s also known as “crypto-art”: the “crypto” refers to cryptocurrency such as bitcoin.) In March, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey attempted to sell an NFT of the first tweet — his own, from March 6, 2006. Bidding reached $2.5 million. (Read more on my blog.)

SPACsspecial purpose acquisition companies — are also known as “blank-check companies”; they’re publicly traded companies created for the express purpose of acquiring a private company — and avoiding the usual regulatory scrutiny. They’re now among the world’s fastest-growing financial instruments. (More here.) One of the most noteworthy SPACs of 2021 was the one used by former President Donald Trump to leverage his newest venture, Trump Media and Technology Company, into existence.


In early 2021 Dan Pashman, host of the Sporkful podcast, achieved what he had called “Mission ImPASTAble”: creating and launching a completely new pasta shape, cascatelli.

The pasta fulfilled Pashman’s three delightfully named criteria: forkability, sauceability, and toothsinkability. Choosing a name for the new shape proved to be almost as challenging as the engineering: Pashman noodled around with “pashmini,” “sporkini,” and “millepiedi” before settling on “cascatelli,” a slight tweak of the Italian word for “waterfalls,” which the pasta shape suggests. In March, Pashman applied for trademark protection for CASCATELLI. (Read more about cascatelli.)


On November 19, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland declared squaw a derogatory term and began the process of finding new names for more than 650 federal places that include the word squaw. The renaming is already under way on private properties: In September, the 72-year-old Squaw Valley Ski Resort, home of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, announced that it would now be called Palisades Tahoe.


Many consumers of journalism “aren’t willing to pay $5 a month to support the work of dozens of journalists at a single publication but are eager to pay $8 a month to patronize a single blogger,” wrote Eric Levitz in New York magazine in March. One company is responsible for a lot of those $8-a-month debits: Substack, which was founded in 2017 and which describes itself not as a publisher but as a newsletter-publishing tool. In November 2021, Substack announced that it had 1 million paid subscribers; its top ten publications — many written by well-known journalists — collectively bring in over $20 million a year. And the Substack name? The company doesn’t explain it (and didn’t respond to my queries). “Substack” is a term in computing, and two of the company’s founders come from the tech world. But as one of my Twitter friends suggested, the name may instead allude to “subscription” and “a whole big heap of them to choose from.”


The most-downloaded shopping app in May 2021 wasn’t Amazon or Walmart: It was Shein, an online-only retailer of cheap fast fashion. Founded in 2008 in Nanjing, China, by search-engine-optimization specialist Chris Xu, the company has a total merchandise volume surpassing $15 billion. “Shein,” pronounced she in, is a compression of the company’s original name, “SheInside.” (Read more about Shein.)

Elsewhere in the fashion world, lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret created a stir in June when it announced that it was dropping its “Angels”—the supermodels who strutted down runways wearing 30-pound wings and little else. In their place would be the VS Collective, seven women “famous for their achievements and not their proportions,” as a New York Times article put it. The chain was founded in San Francisco in 1977 and is now based in Columbus, Ohio; its name is an homage to Queen Victoria and the “secret” hidden beneath the frilly undies.


Renaming was the name of the game this year. The Major League Baseball franchise known for more than a century as the Cleveland Indians — a name criticized as racist for many years — announced in July that it would now be called the Cleveland Guardians. The new name pays tribute to a local landmark: the twin Guardians of Traffic statues on a bridge near the team’s home ballpark.

In Los Angeles, the Staples Center, home to four professional sports teams, will become the Arena on December 25. The original naming rights had been purchased in 1997 by office-supply company Staples; the new name belongs to a cryptocurrency exchange — yes, there’s our friend bitcoin again — that paid $700 million for the privilege and was founded a mere five years ago.


Three tech giants — IBM, Facebook, and Square — made headlines this year with corporate name changes. In April, IBM announced that its $19 billion managed-infrastructure spinoff would be called Kyndryl, a name supposedly derived from “kinship” and “tendril.” (I was skeptical.) In October, Facebook introduced Meta as the name of its umbrella brand, parent to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram and harbinger of a “metaverse” to come. (Read my critique.) And as of December 10, the parent company of the payment app Square, the music-streaming service Tidal, and other holdings was called Block: a Square with extra dimension, so to speak. (Read what I had to say about Block.)

Did you think I’d forgotten about pandemic words? Not a chance! Read my May column about vaccine vocabulary and my blog posts about the Omicron variant, the Comirnaty vaccine, and a new oral medication called Mjolnir (pronounced MYAWL-nir), inspired by Mjölnir, the magical hammer of the Norse god Thor. Feel free to submit your own nominations in the comments, but first please check my 2020 list and the previous roundups linked at the bottom of that column.

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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.