Ad and marketing creatives

Where Did They Get That Name?

When I'm feeling stuck on a naming project, I like to remind myself of brand names' myriad and diverse genealogies. Companies have been named for their founders (L.L. Bean), products for their founders' daughters (Mercedes-Benz). Trademarks have been created from street names and star names, numbers and neologisms, contemporary slang and archaic vocabulary.

Here are the stories behind eight brand names—some familiar around the world, some known mostly to aficionados. Each has a clear, consistent naming story that its creators enjoy telling. As for consumers … well, leave a comment and let us know whether you think these names succeed.

Acne. Jeans with the Acne label sell for $250 and more in the United States—a steep price to pay, you might protest, for wearing pimples on your backside. But this Acne isn't dermatological: the company's Swedish founders claim it's an acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expressions. (In Sweden, it's pronounced ACK-nay.) It's also conceivable that the founders liked the shock value of "acne" and created a backronym to make it sound serious. Acronyms are something of a Swedish national industry: think of ABBA. Or of IKEA, whose initials stand for the founder's name, Ingvar Kamprad, the farm where he grew up (Elmtaryd) and his home county (Agunnaryd).

Adobe Systems. Adobe is a mud brick used to build houses in the Southwest—a compelling metaphor for a software company. But that's not what co-founder John Warnock was thinking of. Instead, he looked behind his house and saw Adobe Creek.

Cuil. It's pronounced cool, or so the founders of this new search engine, launched in July 2008, would have us believe. Their official story: "Cuil is the Gaelic word for both knowledge and hazel, and features prominently in ancient legend. One famous story tells of a salmon that ate nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the Fountain of Wisdom and thereby gained all the knowledge in the world. Whoever ate the salmon would acquire this knowledge." True or not (and Gaelic scholars pounced on this explanation after the company's launch), it certainly makes a charming and memorable story to tell investors and the public.

Fluther. If you've ever looked for a website where you could post a question and get knowledgeable answers, you may have stumbled upon Fluther and felt compelled to ask a new question: what's a fluther? Here's your answer: "A fluther is a group of jellyfish, like a gaggle of geese (or a taint of tilapia)." It rhymes with "brother" and "mother." Searching for names that suggest "group knowledge," the company's founders discovered a list of obscure collective nouns and appropriated one of the most obscure. It's so obscure that it doesn't appear in any standard dictionaries. Details, details.

Kindle. Amazon's electronic book reader was named by a small Bay Area branding agency, Cronan. According to Karin Hibma, one of the agency's principals, Amazon "wanted to talk about the future of reading, but in a small, not braggadocio way. We didn't want it to be 'techie' or trite, we wanted it to be memorable, and meaningful in many ways of expression." Kindle is an old word, originally from Old Norse kyndill, meaning candle. Hibma even found a quote from Voltaire (who must have used the French equivalent of "kindle") that spoke of borrowing a book to "kindle" it at home. Presumably he wasn't talking about book burning.

J.P. Tod's. This Italian luxury leather-goods company was named after its founding family until the 1970s, when scion Diego Della Valle decided to rebrand it. He flipped through the Boston telephone directory and landed on J.P. Tod, which had the right Anglo sound and a slightly quirky spelling that made it distinctive.

Slinky. Some brand names are waiting to be discovered in another book: the dictionary. That's where Betty James found slinky when, in 1943, her husband asked her to name a toy he'd created from a piece of coiled metal. Twenty-seven years later, after the Slinky toy had become a nationwide success, Richard James abandoned his family to join a religious cult in Bolivia. Betty James took over, guiding the Slinky and its kin—remember the Slinky dog from Toy Story?—until 1998, when she retired. She died in 2008.

Tiguan. When one dictionary word doesn't quite do the job, some brands blend two words. Tiguan, a Volkswagen compact SUV introduced for the 2009 model year, is a blend of the German words for "tiger" and "iguana"; it's pronounced TEE-gwan. To select the name, VW staged a popularity contest: it teamed up with a publisher of German auto magazines and asked readers to choose their favorite name from a list developed by VW's internal marketing department. Would you drive a car half-named after a large, coldblooded lizard? Well, consider the alternatives: other names on the list included Nanuk, Rockton, Samun, and Namib.

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

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.