Creating corporate names used to be a fairly simple endeavor, in some cases as easy as throwing the founders' names out front. That's what candle maker William Procter and soap maker James Gamble did when they formed P&G back in 1837, creating what today is the world's largest advertiser.
But these days, the name game seems a lot more complicated, sometimes needlessly so, with marketers getting a little too cute for their own good, according to some branding experts. Consider Kraft Foods, which faced a wave of criticism after picking the name "Mondelez" for its planned global snack-company spinoff. The food giant said the name came from combining "monde," derived from the Latin word for "world" and "delez," meant to convey "delicious." But when said in Russian, the name sounds rather like the expression for an oral-sex act, as Crain's Chicago Business recently pointed out.
Stef Gans, CEO of global marketing consulting firm Effective Brands, had this reaction: "It strikes me as something people have been thinking about for way too long."
Still, there are legitimate reasons why naming companies is a bit more challenging than it used to be. Marketers must contend with instant backlash from critics on social media and the global reality that one phrase in English might take on a completely different meaning overseas (see Kraft). And they must ensure the moniker is not already trademarked.
The latter has gotten tougher because there are simply more businesses sprouting up, thanks in part to the internet making it possible to start a company with little upfront investment, said Larry Oakner, managing director-strategy for CoreBrand, a consulting firm specializing in research, strategy, creative and naming. "We have to do a name search around the world because the larger the company, the more litigious it can get," he said. "People are reaching farther and farther to find names that are unique."
Companies are going about it in very different ways. Kraft, which is splitting in two at the end of the year, chose to keep "Kraft" for its North American grocery business, calling it "Kraft Foods Group," named for James L. Kraft, who began selling cheese from a horse-drawn wagon in 1903. But for its snacks-company name, the marketer ran an employee contest, sifting through some 1,700 suggestions before settling on Mondelez [pronounced mohn-dah-LEEZ].
Despite the snarky backlash, Kraft is happy with the name, which must be approved by shareholders. "It builds on our higher purpose, which is 'make today delicious' and captures this idea of a delicious world, which is great for a global snacks company," said corporate spokesman Michael Mitchell. And about that Russian thing? The issue occurs only when the word is mispronounced, according to Kraft, which says it vetted the name with focus groups in 28 languages, finding the chance of misinterpretation to be "low."
Health-care company Abbott reportedly relied on an outside consultant to help pick a name for its planned pharmaceutical spin-off, choosing "AbbVie" [Abb-vee]. It combines Abbott with "vie," which the company said refers to the Latin root "vi," meaning "life." But The Wall Street Journal, quoting a Latin professor, reported that "vi" by itself actually means "by force," or "by violence," although the professor said "vie" means life in French, which is derived from Latin.
Beam Inc. took a simpler approach after the company went on its own last year, after parent company Fortune Brands spun off its spirits, golf and security businesses. The liquor division was called Beam Global Spirits & Wine. As a stand-alone company, the marketer just shortened that to Beam, taking the name of its flagship bourbon brand.
"Everybody knows what Jim Beam is ," said spokeswoman Paula Erickson. "So we were like, 'Let's not overthink it, and let's just keep it real and keep it authentic and tie it back to our roots and let's go' -- and that 's literally what we did."
The name is short, which is usually a good thing, said Gary Martin, president of branding and naming consultancy Gary Martin Group. His list of winners includes eBay, Nike and Ikea, the last of which he likes for its four letters and three syllables, "which is kinda neat." "Google" was actually a do-over. The search engine, originally called BackRub, was renamed in 1997 as a play on the word "googol" -- a term for the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros.
In the old days, the company might have named itself after creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin, following the road traveled by P&G. But slapping founders' names on companies is no longer en vogue.
"You want the company name to scream what the company does and what value it provides in one word," said Grace Leong, managing partner at Hunter PR. "People used their backgrounds to prove the importance of a company, but [in most cases] they can't go that route anymore. It's not as easy."
Today, consumers need to have an immediate connection, said Ms. Leong. That's the challenge facing Sara Lee, which is splitting its meats and international coffee and tea businesses into two companies. The coffee and tea outfit named itself "D.E. Master Blenders 1753," a nod to Douwe Egberts, a brand that dates back to a coffee, tea and tobacco shop founded in 1753.
But the meat company, which is still knee-deep in the naming process, sold its bread unit last year. So it can't as easily brand itself as Sara Lee, a name strongly tied to baked goods. Jon Harris, chief communications officer of the new meat company, is spearheading what will be a yearlong process that 's understood to be costing about the same amount as Kraft's recent process, which was upward of $100,000, according to an industry executive.
The company has worked with consultants but also looked to employees for ideas, said Mr. Harris, who even heard from his mother. Her idea was to combine three of the main products to create "Jimmy Farm Park Foods." "Thank you, Mother ," he said, with a laugh.
Suggestions came from everywhere (people at the plants, on the board, and even in-laws and neighbors) but a good portion of the 3,500 names the company looked at were taken. There were some doozies, too, such as Nosh & Nourish and Fork & Flavor. One of Mr. Harris' personal creations and favorites -- "Wild Onion Meats," based on the origin of the name Chicago -- was nixed. For inspiration, the team looked at several case studies, including the naming of Beam, Diageo and Accenture, he said. In late 2000, the accounting firm successfully ditched the name Andersen Consulting, large to distance itself from a crisis.
"I absolutely underestimated the amount of work that goes into this," Mr. Harris said. "This is very much like naming a child. We've got to get it right the first time."