When naming is done well—be it for a business, a band, a product, or anything—it paves the way for a good impression, enticing the listener or reader to come in closer. But when naming goes wrong, as it did for some companies in 2017, it can become the hook upon which the world hangs its grievances, the basis for punny headlines, and an invitation for Twitter shaming.
Too often, naming is an informal exercise. Startup founders who spend months meticulously developing products have been known to go with a name that just “feels good,” without bothering to examine cultural contexts, competitive landscapes, or even simple pronunciation.
It has also become harder to choose a good name amid a booming startup scene. How do you find a unique-sounding name when it seems like everything is taken, or leverage familiarity without sounding derivative? The answers often surface in trends, where Flickr begets Tumblr (Domain taken? Drop a vowel.) and Birchbox begets Barkbox (Nothing says “subscription service” like -box).
But there’s a better way. As product builders who have advised and named a number of companies, we’ve seen how good tools and techniques can help avoid naming mistakes. Recently, we’ve compiled them into a resource called Onym (a name we came up with by following our own advice). Take a look at it here.
It’s also helpful to look at why some names succeed and others fail. With that, here are the best, and worst, names of 2017 —and what trends we have to look forward to in 2018.
The Boring Company
If Tesla is a bit on the nose for some, Elon Musk’s latest venture, The Boring Company, takes it to the logical extreme. A beautiful double entendre that grabs the listener, it’s also a little self-deprecating given the company’s lofty ambitions to dig (nay, bore) an extensive tunnel system for high-speed automobile travel.
Takeaway: Humor can work (especially with a fanbase like Musk’s) but be conscious of your audience and context.
In a world where more of our online staples come from a single company (Read: Amazon), it’s refreshing to see a startup breakthrough with a clear value proposition on low-priced essentials. The positioning of a brand without branding cuts through the noise and aligns well with broader post-consumerism consumer movements, but it’s still more than a little ironic that they hired a fancy branding firm to deliver the look and name.
Takeaway: Bucking convention works best when it’s aligned with your core message.
This one is not as much about the name (it’s good) but more about the thoughtful rebrand of eShares—makers of software for managing shares and options in a company—away from a dated name that never reflected the seriousness of the company’s business-minded audience. The team’s detailed announcement gave a nice glimpse into the creative reasoning behind the change without being breathlessly grandiose.
Takeaway: A story worth telling can amplify the significance of a name.
OFF-WHITE x Nike “The Ten”
While designer Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE was started in 2014, his work (and love of framing words with quotation marks) broke into the mainstream this year with an extremely limited run of Nike shoes. One of the most notable trademarks of OFF-WHITE is that just about everything on the products is labeled, from “SHOELACES,” and “FOAM” to “SCARF” and “WEBSITE”—it’s obvious and repetitive but OFF-WHITE pulls it off and now owns a piece of grammar that was not long ago ubiquitous and plain.
Takeaway: A strong naming aesthetic can support an entire system of names.
Sure it’s one of the best albums of the year, but the title of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is also a powerful statement. In talking about the single word, all-caps, punctuated style that extends to the song titles (BLOOD., FEEL., LUST., etc.), Lamar explained that he wanted them to encapsulate the content and feeling of each song. DAMN., then, is left to describe the collection as a whole by referencing the most common reaction listeners have had when hearing this artist at the top of his game. Between OFF-WHITE, DAMN. and JAY-Z (who switched to all-caps and reinstated a hyphen this year), uppercase is having a moment.
Takeaway: A thematic structure, when used appropriately, can be powerful—but be careful, it can also come off as incredibly lame.
Ollie, an online dog food company, follows on the mega-trend of startups using first names to humanize their cold digital souls (See: Harry’s, Oscar, Alfred, Clara, Siri, Alexa, Casper, et al.). But Ollie uses the trope really well. First, it’s a short and pretty word with a nice set of characters for the logotype that, in this context, brings to mind a very slobbery, very good boy. Perhaps more importantly, it’s common enough to be familiar while remaining uncommon enough for the brand to own it.
Takeaway: Following a trend doesn’t necessarily mean blending in—when well-executed, it can provide a useful foundation.
An otherwise ordinary startup launch became mired in controversy, in large part because of an insensitive name. The SF-based founders of Bodega, a vending-machine replacement, thought the name would be a cute wink to the urban corner stores they claimed to admire, but in reality were looking to disrupt. Instead, New Yorkers (and others) saw yet another cash-flush Silicon Valley duo trying to exploit a beloved institution, and with the gall to steal the name while they were at it.
Takeaway: Take the time to understand your name’s cultural context and, above all, avoid cultural appropriation.
Despite its product prowess, Apple continues to name things with no interest in ease of use or sequential logic (for instance it is “wrong” to use articles like an and the before iPhone). It may read as the 24th letter in the alphabet, and was prophesied by the Apple blogosphere to be pronounced as “Ex”, but Apple, just like the Super Bowl, is still trying to make Roman numerals a thing. Coupling this with the fact that it’s actually the 9th (or 14th) major iPhone version and was released alongside the iPhone 8 adds to the fact that this name really takes the L (that’s L as in loss, not the Roman numeral for 50).
Takeaway: If you’re aiming for wide appeal, aim for widely understood naming conventions.
This is less a story about the name and more a lesson about where the public can take your name, especially when the narrative is already against you. Juicero, an at-home juicing system, became the target of public ire after reports that their $400 appliance was superfluous—no better at extracting juice from their propriety juice packs than a pair of ordinary human hands. The absurdity of Juicero’s solution-in-search-of-a-problem, coupled with their mismanagement and eventual flameout as a company, led to the coining of a nickname: Juicebro. The term fit well with the growing bro-culture narrative emerging from some of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile companies and investment firms.
Takeaway: Before settling on a name, consider how it could be misused or mocked.
In a year when AOL’s most-loved product (AIM) said goodbye, AOL, the parent company of Aol., Tumblr, Yahoo!, TechCrunch, HuffPost, and more said goodbye to its own name. Heralded by its CEO as “unstoppable,” the collection of once-powerful companies rebranded as Oath:, a clunky and hollow name that somehow reads as “O-ath” and inexplicably includes a colon (but only sometimes). While parent company names tend to be pretty meaningless, the history and legacy of the brands Oath: holds makes it that much more painful and botched. All in all, a worthy follow up to last year’s tronc debacle.
Takeaway: When you have heritage and history, don’t bury it—leverage it.
Amazon’s New Private Label Brands
Lark & Ro, Franklin & Freeman, James & Erin—no, these aren’t wedding registries or trendy restaurants in Seattle; they’re new Amazon brands. Amazon does a lot of things really well, but branding has never come naturally to the company. That hasn’t stopped it from launching in-house labels to replace third-party products on the site, leveraging its strong distribution power to compensate for brand names that look and sound like they were generated by a dated trend algorithm. Also coming to an Amazon search near you: Goodthreads, Buttoned Down (really), Mama Bear, Pinzon, North Eleven, and Single Cow Burger.
Takeaway: If you’re Amazon, you can probably get away with having bad names. But you’re not Amazon—spend the time to do it right.
Trends for 2018
Crypto- names have the chance to catch fire in consumer companies.
Transformative technologies have a history of bringing new affixes with them. In the ’90s, the internet gave us names with cyber-, e-, net- and, .com; two decades later, blockchains come bearing crypto-, bit-, -coin-, and -chain.
Bitcoin, Bitfinex, Coinbase, CoinDesk, Cryptokitties, Mediachain—the list goes on. Nevermind prefixes, with blockchain hype at an all-time high there’s value in simply shoehorning the word into your name as The Long Island Iced Tea Company proved when it renamed itself Long Blockchain, temporarily sending its stock on a 500% run.
We expect the crypto themed names to continue (so long as bitcoin’s price continues to rise) in the short term, but as the space matures and the technology diffuses, expect affixes to phase out of crypto-naming, much as they have for “internet” companies.
The anti-Silicon Valley backlash will continue
2017 was the year that the public opinion of tech players shifted from “pluckish upstarts” to “abusers of unchecked power and wealth.” Every major tech firm (and many powerful tech leaders) were pilloried for overreaching privacy, poor treatment of employees, and draconian policies.
It’s increasingly important that young tech companies avoid (and be conscious of) names (and aesthetics) that are easily pegged to the cash-rich, move-fast-and-break things culture of Silicon Valley. The message in 2018 should be move-prudently-and-be-a-genuinely-good-citizen, beginning with your company name.
The branded movement
The internet has empowered people to quickly coalesce around shared causes. And, often what transforms a fleeting moment of solidarity into a lasting movement is a name—one that travels well in the bit-sized formats of Twitter and Facebook and serves as a hyperlink back to the founding moment.
The names we saw rise in 2017 had the power to help elect a president (#MAGA), fuel a response (The Resistance), dress-up unpalatable ideas in new clothes (Alt-Right), and empower individuals to speak up (#MeToo).
While this phenomenon isn’t new, the speed of organizing is increasing and the power of a name is being leveraged at earlier stages. With political dissonance on the rise (especially with midterm elections this year) and the cultural stage becoming a battlefield for equality, expect 2018 to be a year of branded movements.
Willem Van Lancker is a Brooklyn-based designer and company builder. In 2012, he founded Oyster (now a part of Google) the first Netflix-for-books service. He previously designed products at Google Maps, Apple, and IDEO. Greg Leppert is a designer and developer. He previously helped found and sell the product bookmarking site Svpply, now a part of eBay. He lives in Cambridge, MA where he’s an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. Willem and Greg developed Onym to make naming things easier. It’s open source, and they have a mailing list about names. You can subscribe here.