Ad and marketing creatives

From Aspirin to Twitter: Stories Behind the Brand Names

Where do successful company and product names come from? Some are created in a flash of insight, others after months of painstaking research. And some are the result of human error.

Here are the stories behind eight brands — some of them well known, some a little obscure, each interesting in its own way. For eight more, see my December 2008 column.

Aspirin. It's a generic term in the US now, but "Aspirin" was a worldwide trademark from 1899 until 1919, and it's still legally protected in more than 80 countries. Acetylsalicylic acid was formulated in 1853 by a French chemist who never marketed his discovery. Forty-six years later a chemist working for the German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer rediscovered the formula; Bayer patented it and trademarked the Aspirin name, which it coined from the a in acetyl chloride, the spir in spiraea ulmaria (the plant source of salicylic acid), and in, a common suffix for commercial medicines. Aspirin was originally sold in powder form; the first tablets came on the market in 1915. After Germany's surrender ended World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles exacted war reparations that included Bayer's forfeiture of the aspirin trademark in the victorious countries: the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and Russia.

Aspirin wasn't the only brand affected by the peace treaty. Bayer also owned the trademark to an opiate drug it had named Heroin. The legal rights to that name were among the spoils of war, and "heroin" has been a lower-case generic ever since.

Butterball. Every November and December since 1981, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line takes thousands of calls from home cooks wrestling with the holiday feast. (In 2009, the company started accepting tweeted questions, too.) If Butterball seems like an odd name for a poultry company, it's because it didn't start out that way. "Butterball" was originally registered in 1940 by Ada Walker of Wyoming, Ohio, for unknown purposes. In 1951, Leo Peters, an employee of the Chicago meat processor Swift and Co., purchased the mark (for $10, according to one account). At first he didn't know what it use it for either, but he soon found a match: a turkey he claimed to have developed while he was at Swift. (Historical accounts are silent on what the "development" consisted of.) Peters licensed the Butterball name to Swift for ten years before selling it to the company. In the transaction he retained the rights to the use of the name for butter products. Butterball Farms, the company he founded in 1956 (as Peters Pak), is still in operation today in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the company makes embossed butter pats for hotels and restaurants.

Cataphora. "Arcane grammar references used as technology-company names" would be a very short round on the "Jeopardy" game show. One of the answers would surely be Cataphora, in Redwood City, California, which tracks and predicts human behavior, often for investigators and litigators. Cataphor — "cataphora" is the plural form — is the grammatical term for a word or phrase that refers to something identified later in the sentence. (In the sentence "If you want them, there are cookies in the kitchen," them is a cataphor.) As Cataphora's website explains: "The significance of a piece of evidence is often not apparent until further information is revealed at a later time. The name Cataphora neatly captures our specialty — making sense of potentially cryptic evidence by putting it into its proper context." The word is pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable.

Countach. The Lamborghini Countach, a mid-engine sports car produced from 1974 to 1990, may be the only automobile in history whose name is a crude word in Piedmontese, which is spoken by about 2 million people in northwestern Italy. The word—pronounced, roughly, coon-tahshe—is usually said to translate to "Wow!" or "Look at that!" (Sometimes a more vulgar variation is suggested.) According to one story — it's lacking a citation, according to the Wikipedia entry — "Countach!" was what Italian automobile designer Giuseppe "Nuccio" Bertone exclaimed when he saw the prototype in his studio.

IKEA. The global home-furnishings company reveals its humble roots in its name, which is an acronym. I and K are the initials of Ingvar Kamprad, the company's founder; the E stands for Elmtaryd, the farm where Kamprad grew up; and the A is for Agunnaryd, Kamprad's home village. As for the names of IKEA's products — Bestå, Poäng, Ektorp, and all the rest — there's a method to their seeming madness.

Lane Bryant. Every once in a while a memorable name is produced by mistake. When a young widow named Lena Himmelstein Bryant, who had immigrated from Lithuania to the US when she was sixteen, opened a maternity-wear store in New York in 1904, the bank transcribed her first name as "Lane," and Mrs. Bryant accepted the new spelling. The original store specialized in "self-adjustable" dresses for pregnant women — Lane Bryant was the first company to distribute a maternity-clothing mail-order catalog — but as the store grew into a nationwide chain it branched out into the apparel it's now best known for: "plus-size" fashion.

Siri. When I originally wrote about Siri, the voice-activated "digital assistant" for the iPhone, I relied on media reports that the name had been derived from SRI, the research institution where the technology was developed before it was sold to Apple. But one of Siri's co-developers, a Norwegian named Dag Kittlaus, tells a different story. Kittlaus teamed up in 2007 with SRI scientists to launch a new venture to work on the voice-activation project. According to a story published in late 2011 in 9to5Mac, Kittlaus and his wife were expecting a child whom they planned to name Siri — which means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory" in Norwegian — if it was a girl. But they had a boy, so the company got the name instead of the child (who was named Markus). Apple bought Siri — the company and the technology — in 2010 for $200 million.

Twitter. The six-year-old social-media service was almost named Jitter or Twitch, according to company co-founder Jack Dorsey. "We wanted a name that evoked what we did," Dorsey told New York radio station WNYC in 2011. When you received a tweet, he said, "your phone would buzz. It would jitter. It would twitch." But those names had too many negative connotations, so another member of the team, Noah Glass, "took the word Twitch, and he went down the dictionary. And we all looked at the Oxford English Dictionary at the T-W's, and we found the word Twitter. And Twitter means a short inconsequential burst of information, chirps from birds. And we were like, that describes exactly what we're doing here. So it was an easy choice, and we got for some very low price, and we named the company Twitter."

Actually, they named it Twttr. They bought the vowel-enhanced domain later.

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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.