What's in a (Disruptive) Name?

Why companies resort to backward letters, dropped vowels and purposeful misspellings to make their brands stick out

Written by Steve Brearton

In April, PwC celebrated its acquisition of 100-year-old management consultancy Booz & Co. by changing the name to the distinctly modish Strategy&.

Many said the spelling looked like a typo, but the tag reflects an ever-accelerating trend toward abandoning traditional rules of language to attract notice. Known as “disruptive naming,” the trend is partly driven by the challenge of securing domain names and trademarks, says Mich Bergesen, global director for financial services at Landor Associates in New York City. Bergesen adds that while naming strategies have changed, the fundamentals of what makes a successful handle have not. “Be memorable, make sure the name is filled with meaning and make sure it’s pronounceable,” says Bergesen. “It has got to stand out, and it’s got to have a story behind it.”

The introduction of new domain suffixes like .party and .dog are likely to spur another round of creative naming, says Edgar Baum, a Toronto-based managing director for U.K. firm Brand Finance. He notes, however, disruptive naming is less common in Canada than elsewhere. Here, we present our guide to when, how and why words go wrong in business.

Read: How to Pick the Perfect Company Name

1930: X-ism (Example: Publix Markets)

When George Jenkins opened his first grocery store in Winter Haven, Fla., he borrowed the name from a failed movie theatre chain called Paramount-Publix. (X’s haven’t always been all the rage. When Esso changed its name to Exxon in 1973, it got the nickname “the double-cross company.”)

Other offenders: Netflix, Infoblox, Tektronix and Topix.

1957: Backward letters (Example: Toys “R” Us)

The backward R is inserted to offer the impression that a child wrote the name. Parents and teachers complain about the grammar, but founder Charles Lazarus knew it was an attention-getter.

Circa 1960: Gratuitous umlauts (Example: Häagen-Dazs)

“Häagen-Dazs doesn’t mean anything,” said company founder Reuben Mattus. “[But I knew] it would attract attention, especially with the umlaut.”

Other offenders: IÖGO, Yogen Früz, Scünci and Lumbürr.

1964: Apostrophe catastrophe (Example: Lands’ End)

A typo in the outerwear supplier’s original marketing materials was thought too expensive to correct. “While [the name] has prompted some raised eyebrows among English teachers,” a Lands’ End explanation noted. “It also sets us apart as a company.”

Other offenders: Carl’s Jr. and Dunkin’ Donuts

1998: Misspellings—purposeful and not (Example: Google)

A misspelling of googol, the word for 10 to the hundredth power, the name Google was meant to represent the impossible amount of data organized by the search company. Other firms simply chose to misspell their names.

Other offenders: Citi, Sirius, Bawte (bought), Doweet and Fashism.

2000: Blend words (Example: Accenture)

Claiming “the most comprehensive and swiftest name change of a global company ever done,” Andersen Consulting took 80 days to arrive at a blend of “accent on the future.” The name was created by an Andersen consultant from Norway.

Other offenders: Verizon (veritas + horizon), Xstrata (extraction + strata) and Compaq (computer + pack).

2004: Added and dropped letters (Example: Digg)

Digg founder Kevin Rose chose “Dig” to signify a user’s ability to dig up stories from the news aggregator. Dig changed  to Digg when Rose found already registered as a domain name.

Other offenders: Flickr, Tumblr, Scribd and Consumr.

2008: Spelled backward (Example: Xobni)

Software maker Xobni tags itself “your smarter address book,” but the name (inbox backward) is just, well…dumb. “It was originally pronounced €˜ZOH-bnee,'” the firm wrote on its website. “Bill Gates pronounced it €˜ZAH-bnee.’ We went with his pronunciation.”

Other offenders: Harpo Productions (Oprah Winfrey), Serutan (Natures).

2010: Capital punishment (Example: PwC)

PricewaterhouseCoopers—”two caps, no gaps”—formally changed its name to PwC in 2010. Eight years earlier, the firm’s consulting arm announced it would change its name to “Monday,” but a subsequent sale nixes the switch. One branding expert noted the ambiguity of such words and adds, “For myself, Monday means slightly hungover and tetchy.”

Other offenders: BlackBerry, FCUK, NeXT and OXiGENE.

Read: Get Ready for an Explosion in Domain Names

This article is from the PROFIT section of the July 2014 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

Which disruptive names do you think are effective? Which grate the most? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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