What’s in a (company) name?

Published on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022 by julian

Lighthouse Communications > News + Views > What’s in a (company) name?

The fintech revolution has sparked off a whole host of exciting company names that aim to capture the youthful spirit of these challenger brands. Often short and breezy, they’re often a mixture of new words or existing ones joined together, all seeking the elusive attention-grabbing impact that will make the brand stick.

But as we begin 2022, is this a trend set to continue, or will the pendulum swing back to more traditional and longer names?

First, let’s look at where we are today, using the BNPL sector as a starting point. Some names accurately describe what the company does, with Afterpay being the most obvious – because you pay for your purchases afterwards. Splitit and Commonwealth Bank’s StepPay achieve similar ends, while companies like Zip, Humm and Bundll are far less descriptive.

As an interesting aside, ‘klarna’ is an actual Swedish word referring to the weather or a situation becoming clearer, which one assumes is what its founders thought would apply to people’s financial situation after using their BNPL product.

In the fintech sector more generally, a quick look over the informative Australian FinTech news site reveals a host of interesting and intriguing monikers, from Basiq and Bamboo to Nodifi, Superhero and Ziksu.

Waning trend

US publication Crunchbase regularly keeps track of company naming trends, and has suggested that “funded start-ups are increasingly choosing brands made up of recognized words or names that describe what they actually do”. This comes after a period where unusual company names such as Dogpile or Doostang were flavour of the month. Crunchbase quotes an industry expert as saying: “The crazy, silly, weird spelling name trend seems to have waned a lot… people are a bit longer with the names, and going back to English words.”

Perhaps the enormous success of Amazon has a lot to answer for. There’s not much obvious overlap between a large river in South America and an online bookseller, but the name has worked a treat. Let’s not forget that Jeff Bezos’ first choice for his company name was ‘Cadabra’, referring to the magical term ‘abracadabra’. Fortunately for him, his lawyer talked him out of it, feeling that the reference was too obscure and amusingly pointing out that people could mistake the word on the phone and think you were saying ‘cadaver’ instead.

After toying with ‘Relentless’, Bezos looked through the dictionary and ended up landing on ‘Amazon’, as the longest river in the world reflected his ambition to build the biggest bookstore in the world. It was a masterstroke of branding, in much the same way Steve Jobs picked ‘Apple’ several years earlier because “it sounded fun, spirited, and not too intimidating”. He was also on a fruit diet at the time.

However, despite these successes, there are problems with shorter names – potentially structural ones associated with our use of language. As The Guardian points out: “One of the most common requests branding professionals receive for new names is that they must be short and memorable. This is a contradiction in terms. Short names are inherently less memorable. There’s less to grab onto. Longer names give you more freedom of expression; are easier to trademark and find URLs for; and are generally more memorable. Short names are… short.”

End of an era?

So could we be starting to see the end of an era of short, one or two word names? It’s possible that the tide may be turning, especially as the digital economy gets increasingly crowded with company names that all feel very similar. And fashions change too, of course.

The second half of the 20th century and the last two decades have witnessed a long-term trend of shorter new company names, as well as companies changing from long to short names, for a variety of reasons. These include Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo transforming into Sony; Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation becoming IBM; Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice shortening to Starbucks; Blue Ribbon Sports turning into Nike; and Pete’s Super Submarines ending up as Subway. And perhaps in a sign of things to come as the internet era took off, the rather long-winded ‘Jerry and David’s guide to the World Wide Web’ became Yahoo.

The current fixation on very short names and funky words may form the apex of this trend, and perhaps it won’t be long before we see the pendulum swing the other way and longer names start to achieve prominence again. After all, they can’t go much shorter than they are now – unless we go more towards numbers like 86 400. All it may take are potentially one or two big successes for longer-named companies for a whole new trend to catch on.

While this may seem unlikely in today’s buzzy marketing environment, nothing lasts forever. We’re not saying everyone has to mimic Germany’s Muenchener Rueckversicherungs Gesellschaft in Muenchen AG (a financial services company popularly known as Munich Re), or France’s Essilor International Compagnie Generale d’Optique SA (which after a merger is now EssilorLuxottica) – but just like company revenues, when it comes to names, there does seem to be room to grow.


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