Spake Your Money-Maker: How Tech Companies Turned Gibberish into a Brand Identity

If the goal of a name is economy — meaning a single word that speaks volumes — then no name in the world is more effective than “Google.” A misspelling of the mathematical term “googol,” it nonetheless has similar connotations. A googol is a 1 with 100 zeros after it, or ten duotrigintillion, or, in plain English, a number so large it doesn't even exist in nature. (It could be used to denote the number of pennies in Eric Schmidt's bank account, or the number of subatomic particles in the universe.) “Google” is a gibberish word that also connotes large quantities and manifold possibilities — in this case, the number of links generated by typing a single query into a search engine.

Evidently, Google did all of that on purpose. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to foment the idea that a Google search is boundless and liberating; in the company's mission statement, they promise to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They also gained a competitive edge by contorting the word “googol” to create a made-up homonym, a move that branding experts suspect was deliberate. The name “Googol” might have been harder to commandeer and protect, given that it already had widespread currency. “Google,” on the other hand, is one of a kind.

And as such, it spawned a whole lexicon. Render the noun a verb and you get such phrases as “I'm Googling you,” and, “He's an arrogant self-Googler” — both of which seemed exotic 10 years ago, but which have now become common coin. That would be a mark of success in any industry, but it's even more pronounced when you consider that Google had to acclimate us to an entirely new form of technology, at a time when the Internet was still rather young.

Historically, that's been the burden of technology companies, says UC San Diego associate marketing professor On Amir, who studies the machinations of naming and branding. In the early days of the Internet, he says, companies often had to endow their products with generic names that helped explain the function to consumers. In terms of adoption, Amir explains, “every new form of technology seemed like an uphill battle.”

Take America Online, for example: straightforward, self-explanatory, zero sex appeal. The name gathered dust almost as soon as people started using it, and quickly became associated with wheezing dial-up connections and archaic e-mail addresses. These days, having an AOL e-mail account is like being Amish.

But the new spate of start-ups has less to worry about, since most of their audience grew up using modern gadgetry. That's opened the door for more imaginative, nonsensical names that help differentiate individual businesses in an increasingly crowded market, Amir says. Twitter, for instance, began life as Twttr, a name that hewed to the five-character length for Short Message Service (SMS) — more commonly known as text messaging. (Originally, the idea was to create a service that would allow one person to message a group.) It was the brainchild of co-founder Noah Glass, whose comrades later changed the name to “Twitter,” which seemed more accessible, familiar, and apropos of a network that encouraged online babble.

And like the name Google, “Twitter” sired its own set of nouns and verbs, which only helped crystallize the brand identity. Users of the service “tweet,” a word that refers both to the action of micro-blogging, and to the 140-character blog itself. There's even a name for people who've used the network to create a cult of celebrity: Twitterati.

While it's unlikely that Glass or co-creator Jack Dorsey anticipated the name's massive popularity, they clearly had some inkling of what it takes to make something pronounceable and memorable. “Twitter” is tech branding par excellence: Not only does it consist of two consonant syllables; the moniker also explains what the service does. People like it for the same reason they like the name “Visa” better than “Mastercard,” Amir says, the difference being that nobody actually knows what “Visa” means.

Yet even a company inspired by bird sounds might seem staid and square by today's standards. The latest crop of start-ups are veering ever more frequently into nonsense territory, partly as a mode of survival (most companies buy a web domain long before creating a product, so they have to scour for something that isn't claimed yet); partly for logistics (like Google, they want to protect their trademark assets without stepping on someone else); and partly — well, mostly — for fun.

Zynga, for instance, is christened for co-founder Mark Pincus' bulldog Zinga, albeit with a hipper spelling. The online storefront Gumroad — which allows web designers, game developers, and artists to sell directly to audiences — is a portmanteau of the “roads” running through Internet portals, and the gummy connections between them. CEO Sahil Lavingia says he also wanted the brand to conjure images of colorful candy; to him, “colors” signify “diversity.”

Other names, such as that of San Francisco's now-ubiquitous car-hire start-up Uber, seem even more calculating. In German, “Uber” means “above”; in English it denotes something superlative and high-quality. Initially founders Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick called their service UberCab, to suggest that is competed directly with, but still outstripped, traditional cab companies. They shortened the name after San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency sent a cease-and-desist order that accused Uber of deceptive marketing.

If anything, the names of future start-ups will become even more alliterative and incomprehensible, celebrating sound for sound's sake, rather than the old rule that a name should contain an explanation. That's a good route for a company whose product is hard to explain anyway, or a business that has to permeate language barriers so it can scale internationally. It also applies to any company founder trying to create a veneer of sex appeal, even if he traffics in a boring hinterland of the Internet (mobile payments, enterprise social networks, commodities and exchanges).

Thus, the Googles and Microsofts of yesteryear paved the way for a new spate of Yammers and VigLinks and Gumroads, all defying the credo that a name must be worth a thousand words. In fact, it need not contain any actual words at all.

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