NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Sometimes there's little mystery surrounding a company or product's name. IBM (IBM) - Get Report has always made machines for doing business, so its name is aptly an acronym for "International Business Machines." Burger King (BKC) is a burger shop, and one that evidently seeks to be the king of that market. Bank of America (BAC) - Get Report probably didn't need to bring in a team of linguists to craft its own moniker.
But those companies and their products have been around for a while. Newer companies have fewer names to choose from and more competition to distinguish themselves. And sometimes that means creating a name from scratch.
Sometimes it's obvious how a product got its name, while other times the origin is more obscure.
"There are about 350,000 trademark applications a year, and about 80,000 words in a college dictionary," says William Lozito, chief branding officer of Strategic Name Development. "They think of the obvious and find that it's all 'been there, done that.'"
That's when they need to get creative.
Certain bases must be covered when naming a product, Lozito says. You have to make sure there are no trademark conflicts, and it's also important to check the name's meaning in other languages if you intend to make it a global brand (he points to one proposed name for a product, "Zip," which had to be scuttled after it turned out to be an Arabic term for male genitalia.
Beyond that, he says he has a few guidelines.
"It's not a beauty contest," he explains. "If the name feels comfortable or familiar and you fall in love with it, it's probably nondifferentiating -- it suggests what the product is." He also says it's important to put yourself in the shoes of the customer, be that a consumer or another business.
Helen Gould, director of verbal identity for Interbrand, the world's largest brand consultancy, says it's a balancing act between a name that's too descriptive and not descriptive enough.
"If it's overly descriptive, you box yourself in ... there's no room to grow," she says, pointing to
, which was originally called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing before wisely rebranding. "If it's too broad, people don't know what you do."
With that challenge in mind, here's a look at how 10 companies named their products.
You wouldn't know it by looking at the name, but this Web site sells college textbooks. So what's a Chegg?
A company spokesperson explains: "The name originated at Iowa State University where the company was founded and comes from a clever combination of 'chicken' and 'egg,' representing the situation students face when they're transitioning from school: They need to have experience to get a job but first need to have a job to get experience -- a chicken-or-an-egg situation!"
It doesn't exactly relate to the experience of buying textbooks, but it's certainly a situation college students can relate to. And it makes for a clever little
To come up with the name for its erectile dysfunction pill,
went to Interbrand. Naming pharmaceutical products is a tricky business, as government regulations prohibit them from making overt promises in their branding. That's why Prozac, for instance, isn't called "happy pills."
Of course, with Viagra, they probably didn't want to be too direct anyway. So they went with a more suggestive approach, and the similarity to Niagara Falls is no accident.
"It's about life and surging forth with power," Interbrand's Gould says. "It's a suggestive name with a nice association." She adds that the "Vi-" prefix is meant to invoke vitality.
Chobani is a brand of Greek yogurt. Its name may sound made up, but it's actually meant to evoke that Greek heritage.
"Our name comes from the Greek word 'chopani', which means 'shepherd' in many Mediterranean languages, and multiple countries near where our founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, grew up in Turkey," explains a company representative. "It is a word that means a great deal to Hamdi and our company, as it symbolizes giving and good."
Sometimes a company will have to kill a name because it means something in another language. In this case, another language is exactly what they were going for.
Look up "Fandango" in the dictionary. The first entry will likely tell you that it's a lively Spanish dance between two people.
So what does that have to do with selling movie tickets, as Fandango.com does?
"It had the word 'fan' in it, and we wanted to be the home of the fan," says a company spokesman, Ted Hong, who adds that the association with the Spanish word was deliberate. "It's the name of a Spanish dance, which is very playful and fun."
Hong says the name came about as a result of internal brainstorming. And he notes that this sort of name for a Web site was somewhat unusual at the time -- the company was founded around the time of the dot-com bubble, when literal names like Pets.com were the norm and every other movie ticket site had "movie" in the name.
This recently-introduced Wendy's sandwich boasts eight strips of bacon, and clearly the fast food chain sought to communicate that in its name. To find the best way to communicate its bacon-heavy nature, Wendy's brought in Strategic Name Development.
"It's hardy and substantial," Lozito says. "Generally speaking, fast food draws young males;
the target market here was even younger, hardier types, construction workers who needed fuel, calories to get through the day. We thought of Arnold
Schwarzenegger, the Terminator."
More amusing than the final name was what could have been. Lozito says that one proposed name was the "Aporkalypse."
"The client thought that was a little much," he says.
The Kashi brand is associated with healthy eating. So its origin story isn't shocking.
"After considering names such as 'Gold'n Grains' and 'Graino,' we decided on Kashi, a synthesis of 'kashruth' or kosher/pure food and 'Kushi,' the last name of the founders of American Macrobiotics,"
the company's Web site, referring to Michio Kushi, who introduced the macrobiotic diet to America. "Later, we discovered that Kashi has international meanings: 'porridge' in Russian, 'happy' in Chinese, and 'energy' in Japanese."
Usually when a brand name means something else in another language, it spells trouble for the company, as Lozito pointed out earlier. Looks like Kashi got lucky with this one.
"Triscuit" sounds a lot like "biscuit," which makes perfect sense until you realize they're crackers, not biscuits (sort of like when you realize that Donkey Kong is a gorilla, not a donkey).
The brand is owned by Nabisco, which is in turn owned by
. Kraft brand manager Jimmy Wu explains that the brand's founder was originally making shredded wheat biscuits. He realized, though, that people were cutting the biscuits lengthwise, coating them in butter and eating them like crackers. He changed gears with the product and renamed it.
We couldn't actually get a good explanation for the "Tri-" prefix, which makes sense, since the name was chosen in 1902. We imagine there weren't too many brand consultancies back then.
Tizen is an open-sourced, Linux-based mobile operating system. It's the replacement for the old MeeGo, and the Linux Foundation -- a nonprofit consortium that includes Samsung and
-- brought in Interbrand to come up with a new name.
Gould points to Tizen as a good case study for how a name is formulated. Because the product is meant to be international, they wanted to stay away from using English words, she says. So they coined an abstract word that would evoke the qualities they wanted the operating system to possess. "Ti" suggests that it ties people together, "ize" is meant to evoke the energetic word "rise," and "zen" suggests a meditative coming-together.
All of these associations are meant to be subconscious, Gould explains.
"It works when you explain it, and also when you don't," she says. "It's kind of a pleasing word."
But does it matter?
"A good name connects with its target audience, helps a company achieve its stated objectives, and is memorable and easy to say," Gould says. "You could take any one name, and given how it's promoted and used, it could be good or bad."
, for instance. Now one of the world's most valuable companies, it was famously once called BackRub, meant to convey how the search engine works. While it's hard to imagine analysts talking about how high BackRub stock will go, let's be honest: Google is kind of a silly name, too, being the misspelling of an obscure number. We could just as easily be talking about how crazy it would be if BackRub had decided to call itself Google.
So does the name matter? Yes, but not as much as the product.
"It can help or hinder, but it's not the end-all," Gould says.
>To submit a news tip, email:
Follow TheStreet.com on
and become a fan on