Our lives are full of brand names and trademarked products that we use every day, from the Apple computer I turn on every morning to the bowl of Quaker oatmeal I eat for breakfast. At the birth of every company that makes a product we can’t live without, somebody trying to come up with a memorable and successful name was present. Many of us know that a real Ben and Jerry, Wendy, and Ford exist, but the funny-hatted man on my oatmeal box is a figment of the founders’ imagination, thought to evoke images of honesty and value. Although many brand names are simple acronyms or versions of their founders’ names, some of the companies we trust every day actually have fascinating—and surprising—back stories.
It seems fitting that the most famous coffee brand in the world would take its name from one of the world’s greatest works of literature. In his book Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, original owner and current CEO Howard Schultz revealed that the inspiration for the name of the coffeehouse came from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The founders’ original idea was to name the company after Captain Ahab’s ship itself, but they eventually decided that Pequod wasn’t a great name for coffee, so they chose Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck, as a namesake instead.
In 1970, a man named Paul Orfalea decided to open a small copy shop near the University of California, Santa Barbara, to help college students save money on paper and printing costs. He named his shop Kinko’s after his own nickname, which his friends gave him because of his thick, curly red hair.
There may not have been a real Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, but there was a real Chef Boyardee. Hector Boiardi emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in 1898 and found work in the kitchens of New York’s Plaza Hotel. In 1929, he opened his own restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, in Cleveland, where he also sold ready-made portions of his famous pasta sauce. He adopted the spelling Boyardee to make it easier for patrons to pronounce his name, and when he sold his business, the name stuck. The new owners kept his picture on the label, too.
Dreamed up in a Stanford University computer science building, Google was originally called BackRub, for the way it mined links in every nook and cranny of the Web. In 1997, when the founders of the company were searching for a new name for their rapidly improving search technology, they wanted a moniker that suggested a huge amount of data. A friend suggested the word googolplex, which prompted Larry Page to counter with googol. Both are words for incredibly large numbers—a googol is ten to the hundredth power, and a googolplex is a number ten times as large as a googol. When a friend tried to register the new domain name, he misspelled “googol” as “google,” and the misspelling stuck.
In 1886, a Georgian named John Pemberton developed a carbonated beverage that he sold as a health tonic and intended to cure everything from migraines to impotence. The product’s name reflected its two main ingredients: cocaine, derived from the coca plant, and caffeine, from the kola nut. Originally, the beverage did contain hefty doses of cocaine, but subsequent versions phased out the drug and by 1903, it had been removed completely, though Coca-Cola still uses derivatives of the coca plant for flavoring. If you think that’s shocking, consider this: Pemberton’s very first iteration of his beverage not only contained cocaine, but also was alcoholic, called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.
In 1796, Jonathan Swift wrote in Gulliver’s Travels of a fantastical race of beings called the Yahoos, who were vile, slovenly, and stupid. In 1994, as Stanford PhD candidates Jerry Yang and David Filo looked for a better name for their information-indexing Web site, which they were calling “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” a quick search through a dictionary reminded them about Swift’s Yahoos, and they loved the idea. Officially, their search engine’s name is an acronym of “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” but Yang and Filo professed that they liked the name Yahoo! because they saw themselves the way Swift saw his own Yahoos: as rude, unsophisticated, and uncouth.
Originally founded as a distributor for Japanese running shoes, the company was originally named BRS, or Blue Ribbon Sports. In 1971, BRS introduced its own soccer shoe, a model called Nike, which bore the now-iconic Swoosh. (Nike is also the name for the Greek goddess of victory.) By 1978, the company had officially rechristened itself as Nike, Inc.
Is it German? Is it Swedish? Dutch, maybe? It might sound luxurious and European, but its origins are distinctly American. Häagen-Dazs ice cream was originally cooked up by Polish immigrants in the Bronx in 1961. The name is actually nonsensical—designed specifically to make Americans think that it’s Scandinavian. But even Scandinavians are fooled by the curious spelling. Since the words don’t mean anything in their languages, people from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway often assume that they must be German.
The apple is a deeply mystical, meaningful symbol—it’s the Old Testament manifestation of knowledge and temptation, as well as the impetus for Newton and his theory of gravity. Despite these profound philosophical connotations, Owen Linzmayer’s book Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company suggests that Apple most likely got its name simply because in 1976, cofounder Steve Jobs had been spending a lot of time working with friends on a commune (perhaps tending apple trees?) and liked the way it sounded. Although the founders toyed with other, more technical-sounding names, they couldn’t think of anything they liked more than Apple, so the name stuck.
The right name is integral to a company’s success. No one would be interested in sipping a hot, steaming cup of Pequod coffee, and the Southland Ice Company didn’t hit the big time until it renamed itself after its new, extended operating hours: 7-Eleven. A great origin story is just as crucial as a great product—one more thing that keeps customers guessing, wondering, and buying.