If you’re struggling to come up with the perfect business name, looking at companies whose branding can’t stay out of our heads is a good place to start. The companies on this list are the top of the top, trailblazing in tech, food and beverage, cosmetics, eCommerce, and more. Just like you, their founders went back and forth with the naming process. So, let’s learn from their wisdom — this is the story of how the world’s top companies landed upon their names and why they’re so successful.
Examples of the Best Company Names
There are plenty of theories relating to how one of the world’s top tech companies came up with its iconic name, but we’re here to set the record straight. No, Apple wasn’t named for a nod to Isaac Newton or a tribute to the Beatles’ Apple Records label. It’s as simple as this: Steve Jobs had gone to visit an apple farm and thought the name sounded “fun, spirited, and not intimidating.” Jobs considered other “more technical names,” but realized nothing could beat Apple. It was simple, whimsical, and fun to say. Importantly, it was also a far cry from the names of other technology companies at the time (IBM, Cincom, Digital Equipment), giving it an edge on the competition from the get-go.
Twitter’s naming process is a little less straightforward. The name came about through a long brainstorming session with the company’s board, where co-founder Jack Dorsey began looking into words associated with the site’s intended purpose: real-time communication through short messages. Originally coming up with “Status,” Dorsey turned to a dictionary and found the word “Twitter,” defined as “a short burst of inconsequential information, and chirps from birds.” What makes Twitter’s name stand out is the branding opportunity — making for a cohesive bird theme centered around communication. Sometimes keeping the name relevant to your product can be a plus.
It might be comforting to know that it even took Google several times to get it right. Originally named BackRub because the engine searched through backlinks, Google’s founders cycled through multiple options, eventually deciding to name their company Googol(plex), a mathematical term. The final form of Google’s name, which people love for its catchy sound and randomness, actually came about through a spelling error.
A little more straightforward, tech company Reddit got its name from a play-on-words with the phrase “read it.” What’s appealing about the name is that it’s distinctive enough from the phrase that users don’t feel commanded, though psychologically, the similarity sends signals about the website’s content.
Spotify is another nonsense name that came spontaneously through a brainstorming session. The Swedish founders were talking when someone misheard the word “Spotify.” They quickly looked it up, realizing it wasn’t a Swedish word and that its total absence of Google results would make it easy to claim and domain. The name has a verb-like commanding effect that, mixed with its true arbitrary nature, makes it easily brandable and appealing to consumers.
Food & Beverage
The Starbucks founders wanted to name their coffeehouse after the book Moby Dick, originally leaning toward either Cargo House or Pequod, the name of Captain Ahab’s ship. A brand consultant turned them toward Starbucks, pulling out an old 1800s map, on which the name of the mining town, Starbos, featured in the book, stood out. The brand consultant then suggested Starbuck, the name of Pequod’s first mate, adding the “s” to make it sound more conversational. The “st” sound is powerful and commanding, which gives the coffee chain a psychological authority among customers.
First launched as “Open Kettle,” Dunkin’ Donuts’ iconic name, loved for the alliteration and shortened nickname “Dunkin’”, came about through the suggestion of an architect working on the restaurant who was inspired by the idea of dunking donuts into coffee. The company opted to drop the “donuts” and make the “Dunkin’” nickname its new full-time name in January of 2019 as the world began trending toward healthier foods and diets. This is an important lesson in flexibility — as consumer tastes change over time, make sure to keep evolving your brand.
John Mackey opened the small natural foods store, Safer Way Natural Foods, in Austin, Texas, in 1978. The Whole Foods name came about through a merger with a rival — neither company wanted to use the other’s name, so they came up with a new, neutral name. Whole Foods Market was chosen because it described what they were selling with a flare of creativity. The name is so successful because it differentiates Whole Foods, in a subtle way, as a healthy alternative selling high-quality items.
Coca-Cola was named after the coca leaf and kola fruits used to add the flavor. However, the founder’s partner and bookkeeper suggested “Coca-Cola” instead because he thought the alliteration would look better. The brand name appeals to customers for that exact reason — the seemingly whimsical bursts of sound are also easy to nickname, which people enjoy doing. “Coca-Cola” has received many nicknames over the years, including “Cola” and “Coke.”
Another company named after nature, White Claw’s name comes from a natural phenomenon known as “White Claw Waves,” which travel in sets of three across the ocean, providing unexpected refreshment from their spray. White Claw is a great name because it’s fun, but ultimately neutral, meaning customers of all genders and ages feel comfortable and welcomed purchasing it (not always the case with other alcoholic beverages). Additionally, the name offers ample branding opportunity, and has resulted in countless affectionate nicknames and slogans among customers. “Bring the Claws.” “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws.”
Cosmetics & Personal Care
The name of French beauty company Sephora came from combining two Greek words: “sephos,” a word meaning “pretty,” and “Zipporah,” the wife of Moses, known for her beauty. The name appeals to customers because of its elegance, and even though people may not know what the stems were supposed to mean, the name still exudes an air of beauty and mythicality.
The exact story of how Dove’s name came about isn’t clear, however, the word “Dove” was likely chosen because it is synonymous with beauty, purity, and care. Though descriptor words generally don’t make great names, choosing an adjacent word that still evokes descriptions, such as Dove, can be a successful course of action.
Founder Emily Weiss launched Glossier in 2014 as a spinoff to her well-known beauty blog, Into the Gloss. This is another name that’s successful because of its connotations. The word “Glossier” suggests a sheen, gloss, or glow that draws in consumers seeking out healthier, glowing skin from the company’s products. However, the fictitious nature of the name makes this meaning less upfront and more up for user interpretation (which people like).
L’Oréal is a variant on the cosmetic company’s original name, Auréale, likely derived from the Latin word meaning “made of gold, golden.” Though L’Oréal is a French company using a French word for its name, using other languages in your name can be a great way of telling consumers about your product in a non-explicit way. For example, L’Oréal’s name, even if you didn’t know what it meant, evokes a feeling of elegance and status.
Gillette is an appealing name because it remains appealing to both genders. However, the name wasn’t as carefully crafted as some others on this list. In fact, the name Gillette is just the founder’s last name, King Camp Gillette. The business started off catering to men, but the name’s neutrality originally facilitated an expansion into women’s shaving products.
Shopify is another name that’s been through many lives. Shopify was originally opened as a store called Snowdevil, which sold snowboards. Then, in its first incarnation as an e-commerce platform, the company was named Jaded Pixel. A little too long and complicated, the founders settled upon the name “Shopify” in 2006. Like “Spotify,” “Shopify” uses the “ify” sound which suggests to consumers the possibility of finding or purchasing anything of their choosing — like if they think it, it will come to be.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos initially wanted to call his company “Cadabra,” as in “abracadabra,” a way of expressing that it would be “The Everything Store.” Outside council, however, told Bezos that his choice was a little too obscure. So, while browsing the “A” section of the dictionary, Bezos came across “Amazon,” and found it to be a perfect fit, seeing as the Amazon is the earth’s largest river and he was (at the time) building the earth’s largest bookstore. Consumers like the name because it evokes adventure, while remaining short and sweet enough to remember.
Born AuctionWeb, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s next failed name suggestion was echobay.com. However, Omidyar landed upon eBay when the echobay domain was taken. Memorable for its e-commerce emphasis and fun sound combination, it’s somewhat surprising that the name eBay was picked simply because the domain was free. However, this is actually a driving factor behind the final form of many top brands’ names.
Founder Robert Kalin said he chose the name Etsy because he wanted “a nonsense word” in order to build the brand from scratch. Consumers like a name that is free of burden or immediately apparent, as in the case of Etsy. It’s also a benefit to brand-building because it means you can mold the meaning around the world without any inhibition. Etsy was somewhat inspired by the Italian phrase for “oh yes,” which sounds like Etsy.
The name Craigslist was chosen because it described exactly what founder Craig Newmark was producing, a distribution list. A couple of years after launching an interface, Newmark attempted to transition the name to be “List Foundation,” but ran into trouble because several other organizations were using the name and opted to stay with his original title. Though Craigslist lacks the whimsy of other company names, the personal touch works for this type of business — it highlights the importance of people on the platform.
Clothing & Fashion
When it comes to names, shorter is usually better, which is a lesson that Nike learned early on. Nike was originally opened as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964. However, less than a decade later, the founders decided to change the name to Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The name appeals to consumers because it is sleek and sporty; again, lacking a well-known connotation.
Clothing store Forever 21 is another company named after the aspirations of customers. Forever 21 CEO emphasized the fact that the chain was named because of its 20-somethings target demographic and because “old people want to be 21 again, and young people want to be 21 forever.” The name exudes a youthful energy that immediately differentiates it from other clothing stores, appealing to a broad customer base.
Founded in 1978 as the “Banana Republic Travel & Safari Clothing Company,” with the original concept of selling safari themed clothes, Banana Republic received a facelift in 1983 when it was purchased by Gap. The shortened name allowed for a more upscale image which brought in a new clientele, and meant everyone wouldn’t immediately forget the name.
Watching the success of catalog clothing retailers like Lands’ End, Talbots, and L. L. Bean, Popular Club Plan launched J. Crew in the ‘80s. The name was chosen to connote a “preppy” spirit in an attempt to situate the brand in the niche between Ralph Lauren and the Limited. J. Crew’s name also has an air of professionalism that allows it to dabble in workwear, in addition to preppy everyday clothes.
Like most other companies on this list, Coach was also founded under a different name. First known as Manhattan Leather Bags, the name quickly became limiting for a brand with big aspirations. The name “Coach” was selected when a new CEO took over in the late 1990s, deciding to rebrand around the sturdiness, reliability, and high-quality of the bag-maker’s products. The short and sweet Coach name is successful because, in addition to evoking an element of class, it suggests a usability and wearability. Coach bags aren’t breakable or delicate; they can be used for any occasion, which is what the name carefully gets across.
The Pottery Barn was launched by brothers Paul and Morris Secon in 1949. Paul discovered three barns full of pottery from the Glidden Parker factory in New York and decided to launch his own home goods supply chain. The two parts of the name work together to create a cozy, home-made feel, which appeals to a specific subset of consumers looking to personalize their homes.
Interestingly enough, Swedish brand IKEA is not named after a Swedish word. The company was named after the initials of its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, the farm on which he grew up, Elmtaryd, and the nearby village, Aguunaryd. The four-letter name stands out to consumers because it is straightforward, just like it’s products. It also, nonetheless, serves as a nod to the company’s Swedish roots.
The original name for Wayfair, CSN stores, was also chosen because of the founders’ initials. However, after years of expansion, the founders wanted a broader brand that would encapsulate all of the niche acquisitions. Thus, Wayfair was born in 2011. The use of the word “fair” in the name sticks with consumers because it is somewhat reminiscent of an in-person fair, where you can shop for unique, quality items. Additionally, “fair” has a connotation of “justice,” which consumers like because it suggests a fair price.
West Elm is another example of a more carefully curated name. Neither word is random or fictional. Both were selected to evoke a cool, natural, elegant feeling for consumers looking to decorate their homes. The name definitely contains an element of class that appeals to consumers looking for slightly up-market furniture, like what West Elm sells.
Crate & Barrel
Crate & Barrel was named after the materials originally used to display items in the company’s first store in Chicago. Although the name is on the longer side, the symmetrical nature is stylistically appealing to customers. Also, the name suggests a rustic charm that intrigues many consumers.