A Brand by Any Other Name: The Stories Behind Iconic Business Names

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Have you ever been asked to “Xerox” a document? Or asked a friend for a “Q-tip?” Both of these household words started life as “brands” that fell victim to their own overly successful marketing. These innovations achieved such widespread popularity, as competitors jumped on the bandwagon, consumers simply applied the brand names generically to any product in the category. This, of course, was not what Xerox Corp. and Cheesbrough-Ponds had in mind when they spent millions promoting their trademarked brands. As it turns out, many of the most popular brand names have pretty interesting stories behind them.

Ever heard of a company called BackRub? Hint: It’s now a popular search engine that practically redefined online searches. Or how about a beverage brand called Brad’s Drink? Perhaps you know them by their more common names—Google and Pepsi Cola.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, initially called their search engine BackRub and aimed to create a “web crawler designed to traverse the web.” As the Stanford-based service grew bigger the company’s name evolved, and out came “Googol,”—a mathematical reference to the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. However, it wasn’t until an investor wrote out a check to the founders and mistakenly wrote “Google” that the name stuck and Google was born.

Pepsi is a household name now but it wasn’t always. The drink was originally called Brad’s Drink, after its inventor, Caleb Bradham, and his drugstore soda fountain. Brad’s Drink was very popular with customers and included, among other ingredients, pepsin (a digestive enzyme) and cola nuts. Just before the end of the nineteenth century, the beverage was renamed Pepsi Cola and the name stuck.

Google and Pepsi aren’t the only companies with fascinating stories behind their names. Here are a few others:

 

  • Lego – From the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning play well.

  • Adidas – The company’s name is a combination of founder Adolf “Adi” Dassler’s nickname and last name. His brother, Rudolf “Rudi” Dassler, founded his own shoe company called, Ruda, which later was renamed Puma.

  • 7-Eleven – Once known as Tot’em Stores, the convenience store chain changed its name to 7-11 to reflect its extended operating hours (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.). Now that name is obsolete since most stores remain open 24 hours a day, but it’s too well-recognized a brand for the company to be concerned about literal accuracy.

    Verizon – A combination of horizon and veritas, Latin for truth.

  • Skype – First it was Sky-Peer-to-Peer (doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?). Then the name was cut to Skyper. Finally, the founders renamed it Skype, and on that day a new verb—Skyping—was born.

  • 3M – The abbreviation stands for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. The company changed its name when it switched its focus to innovation.

  • Arby’s – Despite rumors to the contrary, the enunciation of the restaurant R.B. doesn’t stand for roast beef. It stands for the initials of its founders—the Raffel Brothers.

  • Bridgestone – Named after founder Shojiro Ishibashi. His last name in English translates to bridge of stone.

  • Yahoo! – The term yahoo was taken from the novel “Gulliver’s Travels,” referring to certain unpleasant creatures liked by the founders of that company.

  • Lenovo – “Lenovo” combines “le” from the word legend and novo, Latin for new.

  • Mattel – The makers of Barbie derived its name from the names of its founders—Harold "Matt" Matson and Elliot Handler.

  • Reebok – The athletic brand’s name comes from the Afrikaans spelling of rhebok, a type of African antelope or gazelle.

  • Cisco – As you may have guessed, this bay area tech giant used a shortened version of San Francisco.

  • Starbucks – Named after a character in “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.

  • Geico – Shortened from Government Employees Insurance Company.

  • Ikea – This made-up word comes from founder Ingvar Kamprad’s initials and the first letters of the Swedish village where he grew up, Elmtaryd Agunnaryd. (Try saying that three times fast!)

  • IBM –IBM founder Tom Watson Sr. left National Cash Register only to name his new company in a way that suggested even broader success: International Business Machines.

  • Nabisco – Shortened from the original company name National Biscuit Company.

  • Nike – Named after the Greek goddess of victory. A rather fitting moniker if there ever was one.

 

Use these interesting bits of trivia to start a conversation at your next business function. Or better yet, become inspired and create your own brand name for that business you’ve always wanted to start.