What's it Mean? Does it Matter?

Jeff Frumin and Neil Siman sat before an illuminated computer screen, surrounded by pizza boxes, junk food wrappers, international dictionaries and business plans. The two had long since crested their candy-and soda-induced sugar-highs and were tired, frustrated and punchy. For months, Frumin and Siman had been developing the business plan for a new venture, an e-commerce portal site for college students. But their progress was hampered by one vexing problem: what were they going to call it? Without a name, it was hard to approach potential investors and partners, and it was impossible for the development team to create a logo, business cards and the other trappings of a corporate identity. Time was running out.

They wanted a name that was catchy, smart and appealing to the ultrahip college crowd. They brainstormed with friends and business colleagues, but every time a promising name popped up they'd discover it was already taken. It was midnight, and the two swore that the question of a name would be settled before they left the office.

Pythagorus.com, Hakuna.com, Aardvark.com, Goulash.com… "The names were getting a little ridiculous," admits Frumin. But as silly as they might have seemed, every one had been gobbled up. In a fit of exasperation Frumin typed in Everythingistaken.com.

It was taken.

The Internet land rush has made naming an expensive and complicated proposition. Anything with fewer than five letters is likely taken, and the outrageous price tags placed on some domain names can make acquiring a URL as expensive as a Mick Jagger divorce settlement. The additional challenge of making an immediate impression on consumers who are being bombarded by dotcom advertising is forcing Internet startups to get more and more creative. Listen to the radio or watch TV for a few minutes and you'll probably hear some bizarre names - Boo.com, Kozmo.com, Snickelways.com. They may sound nonsensical or even downright foolish, but more often than not there is serious money and strategy behind the whimsy.

New York-based branding consultancy Interbrand calls this approach to naming "destination branding", a strategy that relies on advertising and marketing to build a brand's identity rather than the literal meaning of the name itself. "The most successful brands do more than present a product or service," says Julie Cottineau, director of naming for Interbrand. "They create an emotional experience."

In fact, many consulting companies encourage their clients to choose names that are blank slates, enabling the consultants to imbue a brand with a unique personality and flavour. For example, a bland name like Coffee.com comes with some preconceived motifs - chances are they'll be selling coffee. On the other hand, a more distinctive moniker like Starbucks could be anything.

In the Internet space, Cottineau argues that corporate names have to be edgier and hipper than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Settling for a mediocre or plain name may actually have a negative effect because it suggests that a company doesn't have enough attitude or pizazz to be a forceful online presence. And in today's jittery stock market, startups don't need any more strikes against them.

The companies profiled in this story all faced the naming challenge. Read on to learn their tips and advice for success.

Funky down under

Quokka.com

"We needed something a little sexier," says David Reimer, senior vice president of marketing, recalling the impetus behind changing Sports Interactive's name to Quokka Sports in 1996. Two of Quokka's founders, president and CEO Alan Ramadan and vice chairman John Bertrand, had participated in the America's Cup sailing competition and became fascinated with the idea of creating an "immersion" sports site that would cover only the most intense competitions - in an entirely new way. They wanted to provide streaming video of events like the Marathon des Sables (runners traverse nearly 250 kilometres in the blazing heat of Morocco's Sahara Desert), the Volvo Ocean Race (yachts sail around the globe) and Pakistan's Great Trango Tower (climbers scramble more than 6,000 metres up one of the tallest rock faces in the world). Visitors could access information such as GPS and environmental data, the athletes' personal journals and even their vital signs. This ambitious venture demanded an equally formidable name, one that could represent the intensity of the athletic experience.

The company brought in a Melbourne-based naming agency, but after a month of discussions and $US20,000 in fees, suggestions like Eventrix.com and Mesmerix.com fell flat. Then at a meeting one executive suggested Quokka, after a small ratlike cousin of the kangaroo primarily known for its survival instincts. The entire table broke up with laughter at the thought of a marsupial moniker, but within a few minutes everyone in the room agreed that Quokka had just the sort of energy they were looking for. After a quick check, they found out that the name was available. "We just knew," says Ramadan. "It's a hard-sounding name like Xerox or Kodak," he points out, "yet funky like Yahoo." Quokka was also a brand name that they could create a meaning for over time. The company ran the name past the copyright lawyers to ensure that it could be trademarked, but they had enough faith in their choice that they didn't seek any additional counsel from the naming agency.

In choosing a name, Ramadan and his team drew courage from the experience of trailblazers like Yahoo and Amazon.com. Amazon remains the best known online shopping space, and when many people think search engine they think Yahoo. They both represent the importance of distinctive naming to online success.

Boring No More

Fatbrain.com

Finding an available name for a company is always difficult, but the choice is even harder when a company with an established name wants to change it to stay competitive. Customers and shareholders can prove to be quite protective of a company's existing corporate identity, even when the name is as mundane as Computer Literacy. Executives at the California-based online seller of professional books, manuals and research reports faced such a predicament when they proposed a name change to stay competitive.

Over a casual business lunch, an executive from Intel mentioned to Chris MacAskill, Computer Literacy's cofounder and CEO, that he did much of his business book shopping at Amazon. He hated shopping there because he found the site difficult to navigate, but he always found himself going back there because the selection of telecomms titles was so good. MacAskill was stunned. His company's site then had more than 300,000 business titles and a great selection of telecomms books. Why would his colleague go to Amazon's site instead?

"It's the name," the executive explained. Computer Literacy is long, requires a lot of typing and conjures visions of introductory computer training classes, hardly the image to lure business executives. MacAskill's unease about the name was strengthened by comments that rival Jeff Bezos, Amazon's chairman and CEO, made during a speech at Stanford University. Bezos was discussing Amazon's five-star rating system. He pointed out that books that receive a one- or five-star rating are hotly discussed and sell well, but books that received a rating of three or four stars aren't discussed as much and sell less briskly.

MacAskill and his executives started their search for a name that would garner them some attention. To assist in the quest they hired Interbrand, which quickly compiled a list of names it felt would be successful: Brillion, Cilantro, Firos, Hibachi, MindPark, ThinkStation and Veos, to name a few. Computer Literacy employees made suggestions on a sheet of paper in the lunchroom, one of which was Chomp. MacAskill and Interbrand tested the names on focus groups across the country. The results were mixed. Some names, like Brillion, tested well and evoked positive responses in groups but were prone to frequent misspellings. A name like Chomp sounded hip and edgy to some but like Chump to others. There were no clear winners.

Late one afternoon, several months into the name search, Deborah Bohn, then director of editorial, sent an e-mail to MacAskill suggesting the name Fatbrain. She had been testing word combinations and this one stuck in her mind. It had a bit too much attitude for MacAskill, and he was leery of the word fat and its negative connotations. Unable to let it go, MacAskill began to test the name around the office. The results were evenly split, but the people who disliked the name were vehement in their opposition. "Some people were so angry about it, they said they'd quit," says MacAskill. Employees suggested that he run the name by lawyers as he could be subject to lawsuits from shareholders who might think the name was so dumb it could damage the company's financial prospects.

With great trepidation, MacAskill took the name to Interbrand, where he expected it to be met with similar vitriol. To his surprise the people there liked it, and the name was thrown in the mix for the next round of consumer research. "Focus groups assassinated Fatbrain," recounts MacAskill. One group gave the name a negative 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, and one member of the group said she would be personally offended if that name was chosen.

Despite the negative reactions, Paul Parkin, then Interbrand's creative director, was adamant that Fatbrain was the best choice. He explained that no name would meet with everyone's approval and that controversy in this case was actually a good thing. "Paul said, ‘If you give me emotion, I can almost always channel it positively through taglines, imagery and advertising'," recalls MacAskill. Fatbrain did evoke some very strong emotions, but on the other hand, research showed that a whopping 90 per cent of people remembered it seven days after hearing it.

The name change has revitalised the company. By July 1999, four months after the decision, company awareness had tripled and sales had nearly doubled. Even reluctant employees have been won over. MacAskill is convinced that changing the name was a defining moment for his company.

Yuppie Equipage

Foofoo.com

Connie Ling wanted a name for her new online company that would elicit a visceral reaction in consumers. The target audience was people in the "aspirational luxury market" - that is, people living the yuppie lifestyle. The Virginia-based company planned to offer the essential accoutrements for that lifestyle, including Beluga caviar, martini misters and silk-screened yoga mats.

Before the company could start hawking its upscale wares, however, it needed a name that lived up to the image. Like Quokka's executives, Ling was interested in finding a word that had very little intrinsic meaning, one that she and her partners could mould and brand. In conversation she found herself increasingly using the term froufrou (a French slang word for frivolous) to describe the content and attitude of the site. The more she thought about it, the more that term fitted with what the site had to offer: "Hip and neat things of high quality, but fun," says Ling.

Through some informal polling, Ling discovered that two-thirds of the people she asked really liked the name; the other third hated it. In an attempt to elicit a more favourable response, she played around with the spelling; however, variations like "FU-FU" (which could be read as eff you, eff you) didn't meet with rave reviews either.

With content and commerce partners like J. Crew, Elle and Travel & Leisure already signed on, Ling was under intense pressure to choose a name. She decided to go with Foofoo.com, an anglicized version of her original idea. Subsequent to trademarking the name, she researched all the possible meanings of Foofoo in other languages to make sure that there were no negative connotations. When she told her father the name they had chosen, he revealed that the name actually has another meaning in Mandarin - foo means wealthy and foofoo means very wealthy. Ling took this information as a good omen for her company.

Although the name has been quite attractive to the site's demographic - frequent contributors to the site use the term in abundance, discussing topics like a "fabulously Foofoo vacation" to French Polynesia or finding the "right Foofoo ensemble" for a weekend in the Hamptons - it did pose a problem when it came to signing up partners. "We had a few [potential] partners who said they liked what we were doing," recalls Ling, "but they didn't like the name, and if we agreed to change it they would partner with us." From the beginning, however, Ling had determined that the choice of a name would come down to a gut decision rather than one dictated by focus groups and individual opinions. Ling called back any company that questioned the name and explained that the moniker was important to her and was the right choice for the site. In some cases she won companies over despite their initial reluctance.

Within the last few months, the once-steady flow of name-knocking comments from site visitors and business associates has tapered off into a mere trickle, signalling that the marketplace has adapted to the name.

As for Frumin and Siman, they eventually found a name for their fledgling portal site for the university set. After months of having their hopes dashed, they scored a hit with BoldBrain.com, a name they think will capture the imagination (and business) of the notoriously independent-thinking college crowd.

Name your Price

Examples (extortions?) from the wild, woolly world of online naming rights Compaq Computer paid $US3.35 million for the rights to the name AltaVista.com from California-based AltaVista Technology.

An anonymous buyer purchased the name Drugs.com in an auction for $US823,456.

Players Only, a casino off the coast of Venezuela, bought the name WallStreet.com for about $US1.03 million.

Progressive General Lumber of Vancouver bought the rights to the name Bingo.com (Progressive subsequently changed its name to Bingo.com and plans to run an Internet gaming operation) for $US200,000 in cash, 500,000 common shares of the company and an ongoing quarterly payment equal to 4 per cent of the gross revenue of the company (with a guaranteed minimum of $US1.1 million).

Robert Mondavi's former chauffeur sold Wine.com to Virtual Vineyards for more than $US3.3 million. Virtual Vineyards bought the company primarily for the value of its name.

In December 1999, Los Angeles-based eCompanies (an incubator that rolls out Internet startups) bought the name Business.com for $US7.5 million from Marc Ostrofsky, a Houston entrepreneur who bought the name in 1996 for a mere $US150,000.

Marc Ostrofsky also sold the name Eflowers.com to Flowers Direct for $US25,000, plus he earns 50 cents from every transaction made on the site. As part of the deal, Ostrofsky's wife will receive flowers once a month for the rest of her life. -- D Duffy

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