The Unexpected Stories Behind Some of the Biggest Brand Names
What’s in a name? Well, if you are one of the masterminds behind some of the world’s biggest brands, an answer to that Shakespearean question is a lot of brainstorming, some hits, some misses, maybe some rebranding, and eventually landing on the perfect brand name. Imagine yourself in a world where you pick up a sandwich from Pete’s Super Submarines, pair it with some Brad’s Drink on the side, and check Backrub for the latest pair of Blue Ribbon Sports shoes. Do these brands not sound familiar? They should, because you use them every day. So play the name game, and see if you could have guessed some of these surprising backstories behind the world’s biggest brand names.
For the last few years, athletic wear companies have been competing to see who can get the biggest names in sports and Hollywood to represent their brands. But before any of them can secure the big names, they have to think of a good name for themselves. But the meaning behind the Adidas name is commonly misunderstood.
While many believe the letters in the name Adidas stand for the phrase “All Day I Dream About Sports,” that tall tale is wrong. The name is actually much simpler than that. Adidas is named after the founder of the company, Adolf “Adi” Dassler (Adi+Das, get it?). The famous three striped design came later, and was chosen to symbolize a climb upward.
There is nothing better than an ice cold Slurpee from 7-Eleven after a long, hot day. The brand has become so synonymous with its famous drink that July 7th (7/11) is now known as Free Slurpee Day. But before the sugar highs, the brand name 7-Eleven stood for something else.
What we now know as 7-Eleven was originally called “Tote’m Stores” in 1927. The grocery store owners ended up changing the name around 20 years later to 7-Eleven, because the store’s hours were from 7am to 11pm. Makes sense. The only issue is that the store has kept the brand name, but many are serving up Slurpees all night long. Now, that’s what we call a party.
When you are Jeff Bezos, you are basically known world wide for being a technology genius. But the story behind Amazon’s original name can give us all comfort in knowing that even geniuses get it wrong sometimes. And just be thankful you aren’t shopping on Cadabra.
In 1994, when Bezos was developing his idea for the world’s largest online bookstore, he originally wanted to name it Cadabra, after the spell “Abracadabra.” But he noticed something was wrong when his lawyer thought his company was named “cadaver.” Yep, that will do it. Bezos fixed the name, changing it to Amazon after the largest river and his even larger ambitions.
Even thinking about AOL makes a dial up tone ring in our heads and the term “You’ve got mail!” instantly pops into our minds. The web portal was a staple of the early 1990s and continues today. But over time, the name has been tweaked and perfected.
AOL was originally called Quantum Computer Services, which is, let’s just say, a mouthful. But have no fear, a shorter name came along. We’re just kidding, they renamed the company to America Online in 1991, which is slightly less of a mouthful. By 2006, after years of being given the nickname, the company learned the beauty of brevity and changed the name officially to AOL.
Steve Jobs might have been one of the most famous entrepreneurs and inventors of all time, but he is also just like many of us. He was a huge Beatles fan, and so many believe that Apple was named after the Beatles’ record label, Apple Records. But that is actually not the case.
Instead, the story started with Jobs was, oddly enough, picking apples at an orchard in Oregon (we imagine he was doing so while sporting his signature black turtleneck) when the idea of calling his company Apple came to mind. He called co-founder Steve Wozniak to pitch the idea, which Wozniak almost rejected because he thought it sounded too much like the Beatles record label.
6. Best Buy
If you thought that the Black Friday lines famously stationed outside of Best Buy every year are crazy, just wait until you hear the story behind the company’s name. In 1966, the mostly stereo store was called Sound of Music, and it was not doing so well. Then, to make matters worse, it was hit by a tornado.
The store was forced to host a “tornado sale” on some of their inventory that was slightly damaged during the storm. They advertised the sale around town as having some of the “best buys” you could find. The sale was a hit, and sales were unexpectedly high. The success of the sale influenced them to give Sound of Music one more try, and changed the name to Best Buy after their advertisements.
We all know that one person from years ago who seemed to always have their BlackBerry phone practically glued to their hand, as they furiously typed on the keys to send their latest “BBM” or email. It seemed like anyone who had a Blackberry was nonstop moving and working, which is probably why the original name for the smart phone was Research in Motion.
The name was later changed in 2013, after declining sales meant the owners were in desperate need of a rebrand. They enlisted a marketing firm, which suggested the name blackberry after they thought the small keys on the phone resembled the tiny bumps on a blackberry fruit. The name stuck, and now the only thing juicier than a blackberry is the gossip you’re sharing over text on your BlackBerry phone.
Sometimes fake news can lead to real news. That is exactly what happened when it comes to the auction website eBay. Back in 1995, the original eBay was an umbrella company and owned four websites – AuctionWeb, a shipping website, a travel website, and, oddly enough, a website about the Ebola virus. But soon eBay would mean something different.
As AuctionWeb grew in popularity, the news media began to pick up on the trend and report about it. It seems that a few of the news organizations got the name wrong, and referred to AuctionWeb by the name of its parent company, eBay. In 1997, AuctionWeb’s name was officially changed to eBay.
Feeling overwhelmed as you make your way through the twists and turns of your local IKEA is basically now a staple of moving into a new place. Countless people across the world have tried their hand at building IKEA furniture. But when it comes to creating a name for your company, the process doesn’t exactly come with a simple manual.
Here’s a fact that will make you feel less accomplished: IKEA was actually founded by Ingvar Kamprad, who was 17 years old at the time. The Swedish teenager found inspiration for the name from taking pieces of his own life, literally. IKEA combines the first initial of his first name, the first initial of his last name, the first letter of his childhood farm (Elmtaryd), and the first letter of his hometown (Agunnaryd). Putting all the letters together is arguably much easier than building a couch.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously dropped out of Harvard University to begin working on his social media company, and that choice has definitely paid off. But before he was cutting his college years short, Zuckerberg was also cutting the name of his company short as well.
Originally, Zuckerberg named his company The Facebook, and it was meant to connect students only within Harvard University. While the company grew, the name, luckily, did not. Zuckerberg ultimately dropped the “The” and went with simply Facebook. But even today, years later, if you search for thefacebook.com, the site will automatically redirect you to the regular facebook.com.
11. The Gap
Parents not exactly understanding their teenage children is a tale as old as time. And while many parents choose to grin and bear the difficult teenage years, others choose to name an entire store after them. Take, for example, The Gap.
The clothing store started as a store that mainly sold jeans and vinyl records. You know, things parents just won’t understand. Owners Donald and Doris Fisher wanted to focus their attention on teenagers and young adults, and so they named their store The Gap to signify the generational gap between teens and their parents. They’re not just a regular store, they’re a cool store.
Google has come up with a ton of genius ideas that have definitely made life easier for practically everyone. But when it comes to picking a name, let’s just say that at first the name wasn’t exactly genius. That’s because Google was initially going to be named Backrub. If you don’t believe us, Backrub it!
Apparently the owners realized this was probably not the best name, so they went with the name Googol, the name of the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. Without anywhere to Google the obscure yet, developers accidentally misspelled the name Googol to be Google. The rest is web browsing history.
Lego toys are known for their bright and colorful plastic building blocks and the quintessential yellow head pieces that are featured on every character. So it is surprising to hear that the company did not even start as a plastic building block brand.
Lego started as a wooden block company and was founded by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter. He named his company after being inspired by his own history, borrowing from a Danish saying “Leg Godt,” which translates directly to “Play Well.” Over time, the name stuck around, but the blocks changed significantly, and customers were playing so well that there is now a movie based off of the famous children’s toy.
The name Pepsi has become so ingrained in American culture that we can practically hear Britney Spears singing the catchy Pepsi songs from her advertisements with the brand (or maybe you think of Beyonce, or Jennifer Lopez, you get the point). At barbeques, birthday parties, or just as a treat during your lunch, Pepsi has become America’s drink. But before it was Pepsi, it was “Brad’s Drink.”
Who is Brad? Well, we are referring to Caleb Bradham, a pharmacist who created the Pepsi recipe in North Carolina in 1893. When he started selling his drink, it was originally called “Brad’s Drink,” because, well, it was his drink! But soon it became everyone’s drink, and as it caught on the name changed.
The Nike shoe and clothing brand, along with their world famous Nike swoosh, has become a staple in athletic wear. And if the name of the brand does not pack a big enough punch, the celebrities and hugely successful athletes who are sponsored by the brand certainly pack an even bigger one. But before Nike booked blue ribbon and gold medal stars, it went by a different name.
Actually, Nike was originally called Blue Ribbon Sports. Japanese shoemaker Onitsuka Tiger came up with the name shortly after he founded the company, thinking Nike, the name for the Greek goddess of victory, would be a great name for a sports brand. And the brand definitely took off – making well over the $1,200 that was originally invested into the company.
PayPal has been making it super simple for users to make quick and easy online payments since it was founded in 1998. But coming up with the name for the new company was definitely not as simple, quick or easy. When PayPal started, it went by the name Confinity, which combined the first words in “confidence” with the last words in “infinity.”
The company was originally pitched as a program exclusively for Palm Pilots (remember those?) that dealt with solving complex online codes. But a year later, Confinity started allowing its users to make payments to each other online, and was renamed PayPal.
Reebok has been experiencing a sort of reboot as of late, with celebrities like Ariana Grande, Gigi Hadid, and Gal Gadot all signing on to be brand ambassadors for the shoe company. Reebok classics are being spotted everywhere on some of the biggest stars. But you will Re-balk at the name that its founders originally had for their company.
When the shoe company first started, it was named J.W. Foster and Sons, which to us sounds like a small, local shoe store on the corner near your childhood home, and not like the multi-million dollar company. The founder’s grandson thought so too, and was on the hunt to find a new name for the brand. Eventually, he found a book about South African animals and found an antelope called the Grey Rhebok. He floated the idea to his grandfather, and the shoe company ran with it.
When Samsung was founded, the owner of the company had big plans for his new brand. And the name he eventually landed on for his newly-minted company had to have a name that reflected those sky high ambitions, so he looked up toward the stars.
Samsung was, surprisingly enough, initially a trading company before it moved into the electronic field just over 20 years later. The owner, Lee Byung-chul, came up with Samsung because it meant “Three Stars” in Korean. The number three is held to be a lucky number in Korean culture, combined with the idea that he wanted his company to last as long as the stars.
19. Six Flags
Sometimes company names start from one concept and then turn into something completely different. Sometimes, the owners of a company just end up shortening a way too long name when they begin to expand. Luckily for us, Six Flags amusement park was part of the second group, and saved us from a mouthful of a name.
The first Six Flags was originally named Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, named after the actual full name of the location of their first park. The lengthy name is a tribute to the six countries that once had control over Texas (Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States and, finally, the United States). When they began to operate throughout the country, they thankfully shortened the name.
Every time you are video chatting with a friend or relative, interviewing via video conference, or trying to get your grandparents to turn on the button to get the camera to work, you have Skype to thank, even if you’re not using that particular app. That is because Skype was the first company to find a way to effectively video call online.
With their new invention, Skype founders changed everything, and thankfully changed their name. Skype was originally called “sky peer-to-peer,” but then owners decided against the name. They finally decided to name it Skyper, but the domain name was taken. Not willing to concede defeat entirely, the owners changed it to Skype. Make sure to mention this fun fact during your next Skype call.
Ready for this tall, double shot of hot brand name knowledge? If you think it is bad that the Starbucks barista spelled your name wrong on your morning coffee, just know that the coffee shop got its name by basically misspelling the name of a book character, so you are definitely not alone.
Starbucks started its naming process with the guidelines of picking something that started with an “ST” sound, because it is said to command attention. When Gordon Bowker, one of the founders of Starbucks, was reading Moby Dick, he came across the character Starbuck and pitched it as a name. The founders added an S and Starbucks was born. You can still see the sea inspiration on any of their mermaid cups today.
If at first you do not succeed with giving your company a name, try again. And if that still does not work, try again with another name. That process is exactly what happened to one of America’s favorite sandwich shops, Subway.
When Dr. Peter Buck first began serving sandwiches in Bridgeport, Connecticut, his restaurant was named “Pete’s Super Submarines.” Apparently, Pete liked the sandwiches, but not the name. He later changed the name to Doctor’s Associates Inc., an ode to his doctorate degree that sounds more like a medical clinic than it does a sub shop. When it was clear he needed to rebrand, he gave the whole name thing another try, and along came Subway.
Sometimes brand names can change so slightly that you kind of wonder why they even bothered with the rebranding of their product. Take, for example, Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota, or, as it was called when it was first founded “Toyoda.”
The car company was originally given its name after its founder, Kiichiro Toyoda. But, for some reason, people within the company thought Toyota sounded better, and could be written in Japanese in eight strokes, which matches with the Japanese lucky number 8. So they put the idea to the test, and asked for customers to weigh on in the name and design a new logo. After thousands of submissions, the name Toyota was deemed the most popular, and a new logo was chosen.
Before it was a search engine or its own news entity, Yahoo! was just an idea that two PhD students had while they were studying at Stanford University. But while Jerry Yang and David Filo had a great idea, at first, they did not exactly have a great name to go along with it.
Originally, the Yahoo! we know and love was called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Not exactly catchy, we’d say. Fortunately, the name was ultimately changed to something just as long, but this time it came along with an acronym. The company was soon given the tongue-in-cheek name “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” or just Yahoo for short.
Unfortunately, the decision behind finding the name for Twitter cannot be condensed into 140 characters. Even Twitter founder Jack Dorsey had to use a few tweets to explain the name of the company, which was originally intended to be an SMS texting based service.
Dorsey explained that the meaning of the name “came from a dictionary: short inconsequential bursts of information; chirps from birds.” For a moment, they even shortened the name to twttr (Dorsey’s first tweet was famously “just setting up my twttr”), but the texting code that went along with TWTTR (89887) was already taken. So instead, they put the vowels back in and, as Dorsey says, “thus lost our web 2.0 cool.”
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