Here’s How Some Huge Companies Got Their Famous Names

For an entrepreneur who’s starting a new business, a lot rides on what they choose to call it. A company’s name is a huge part of its overall brand and must be something that will stand out among the competition for all the right reasons. Read on to see what several enterprising business founders decided to call their new companies and how they came up with the names that we all recognize today.

From Cadabra To Amazon

Amazon fulfilment center
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The company that would one day come to dominate e-commerce was originally called “Cadabra” as in the magical phrase, “abracadabra.” As the fledgling online bookstore was scaling up, founder Jeff Bezos’ lawyer suggested a name change, pointing out that “Cadabra” often sounded like “cadaver” when spoken over the phone.

Bezos knew that he wanted the business name to begin with the letter “a,” so he began thumbing through the dictionary. When he stumbled across the entry for “Amazon,” as in the world’s largest river, he knew instantly that this would be the company’s name.

Starbucks Has A Literary History, Matey

Customers at an American coffee company and coffeehouse
Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The three founders of the ubiquitous coffee giant got the inspiration for their company name from a book about a giant whale. The three partners all had literary backgrounds: a writer, an English teacher, and a history teacher. So when Gordon Bowker (the writer) stumbled across the name “Starbuck” (Captain Ahab’s first mate in Moby Dick), he liked the way it sounded and suggested it to the others as a potential name for their new coffee shop.

Unfortunately, first mate Starbuck is never described as having any interest in coffee and the company was formally reprimanded by the Herman Melville Society for drawing such connections to the character in their early marketing.

Nokia Was Originally A Wood Pulp Mill

Shoppers check out mobile phone accessories at a Nokia store
Sean Gallup/Newsmakers
Sean Gallup/Newsmakers

Often when a business has been in existence for generations, it most likely has had to pivot once or twice, specializing where it sees opportunity or changing focus completely based on necessity. Today, we might think of “cell phones from the 1990s” when we hear the word “Nokia,” but the corporation was originally founded in 1865 as a wood pulp mill in Finland.

One of the mills was built on the Nokianvirta river (near the town of Nokia) and the company’s founder, Fredrik Idestam, adopted the town’s name for his thriving business. It would be many mergers and acquisitions before the modern Nokia would emerge.

Richard Branson Was A ‘Virgin’ In The Business World

Close up Richard Branson, President of Virgin
Thierry BOCCON-GIBOD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Thierry BOCCON-GIBOD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

According to Richard Branson, the future multinational conglomerate got its name simply enough when he and partner Nik Powell opened a record shop. Tessa Watts, one of the shop’s employees, suggested the name as a result of them being “virgins” in the world of business.

It also appealed to Branson’s keen marketing sense because of its provocative nature as well as the ability to grow as the company expanded into different ventures. Branson is now worth around $5.1 billion!

Toyota Had A Spelling Change

Toyopet Crown Custom sedan goes on display at the Auto Show
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

In 1937, a man named Kiichiro Toyoda founded the Toyota Motor Corporation. The spelling was changed to include a second “t” rather than the “d” because this version required just eight pen strokes, versus 10 for Toyoda, when written in Japanese.

Eight is considered a lucky number in Japanese culture so the revised spelling was viewed positively. Additionally, changing the name helped to differentiate the new company from the family’s other business, Toyoda Loom Works.

A Random Word Generator Helped Name Spotify

A timeline of Spotify's history begins in the entryway to Spotify headquarters
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

“Officially,” the music streaming giant came up with their name by combining the words “spot” and “identify,” but the company founders later revealed a different story. Spotify’s creators, Daniel EK and Martin Lorentzon, were brainstorming potential names from different rooms of EK’s apartment.

Lorentzon was shouting out names from a random word generator when EK mistakenly heard him say “spotify.” He quickly googled the word to see if it would be available as a domain and the rest is music history.

There Really Is A Wendy

Wendy and Dave Thomas
Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images

When Dave Thomas founded a hamburger restaurant in 1969, he didn’t have to travel far to find a name for it. He called it “Wendy’s” after his daughter Melinda’s nickname. “My mom made my blue and white dress and she stuck my hair up in pigtails,” Wendy recalled later about posing for the logo. “And, boy, did I cry. It hurt.”

Before he died in 2002, he apologized to his beloved daughter. “I should’ve just named it after myself, because it put a lot of pressure on you,” he said. Wendy replied, “Yeah, it is a lot of pressure. I have to do the right thing.” Pictured here are Dave and Wendy in 1980.

‘Reebok’ Could Have Been Spelled ‘Rhebok’

Pedestrian walks past a Reebok store
Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Joe Foster, the co-founder of Reebok, can credit a dictionary with naming his shoe and apparel company. When he was an eight-year-old boy in England, he won a foot race, and the grand prize was an American Webster’s dictionary.

Years later, he looked in that same dictionary and found the word “Reebok,” which is an Americanized version of the Afrikaans word for a type of antelope. The name was given to Foster’s new company, but if he’d won the British English version of the dictionary instead, he would have found the word’s spelling to be “Rhebok.”

The Adidas Brand Came From The Founder’s Name

Derrick Rose of Chicago Bulls visits adidas headquarters
Martin Rose/Getty Images for adidas
Martin Rose/Getty Images for adidas

You might have heard that Adidas got its name from the acronym, “all day I dream about soccer.” In reality, the name comes from the company’s founder, Adolph (Adi) Dassler, who was a German cobbler who created special spiked shoes to help get traction on the soccer field.

The legendary runner Jesse Owens wore a pair of Adidas track shoes as he famously won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Nintendo Brand Is Much Older Than You Might Guess

People play games at Nintendo booth on day one of the 2019 China Digital Entertainment Expo
Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images
Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

It might seem unlikely that the company known for creating some of our favorite modern video games was founded in 1889! Nintendo was known as “Nintendo Koppai” back then, and the Kyoto-based company specialized in the production of “Hanfuda” cards, which are used to play a variety of games, similar to the standard 52-card decks. The Japanese word “nintendou” roughly translates to “leave luck to heaven,” and “koppai” means “playing cards.”

In 1959, Nintendo made a deal to license Disney characters for use on their cards, with the intention of opening the market to a younger audience. The plan worked and as a result, Nintendo was able to explore new areas of game development including a mechanical grabbing arm (Ultra Hand), an electronic love tester, and in 1981 the iconic video game, Donkey Kong.

Google Was Almost Called ‘BackRub’

In this photo illustration, the Google logo is seen trough a magnifying glass
Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In order to find out the history of how Google came to be known as “Google,” one has to visit the national archives and cross-reference ancient tomes dating back to the Roman Empire. Just kidding. If you google “how did google get its name,” Google will tell you that the name is derived from a misspelling of the word “googol,” which represents the number that is 1 followed by one hundred zeroes.

The founders thought that this would demonstrate the vast amounts of data that the search engine would help users sort through. Initially, they named the engine “BackRub.” Aren’t you glad that whenever you don’t know the answer to a question you don’t have to go “backrub” it?

3M Started As A Very Different Kind Of Company

3M logo at headquarters in St. Paul
Marlin Levison/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Marlin Levison/Star Tribune via Getty Images

In 1902, 3M was established as a “small mining company” in Minnesota. The moniker 3M is shortened from the original name, the “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.” The company mined corundum, a material very good for making sandpaper.

Unfortunately, that endeavor didn’t work out. As the 3M website says, “We tried. We failed. We tried something new. Repeat cycle. Innovation and perseverance drove our founders, and it continues to drive 3Mers today.” They’re now a Fortune 500 company with product sales in 200 countries around the world, so it seems they rebounded pretty well from that early failure.

Volkswagens Are Cars For The People

beetle
Grisel/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Grisel/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In English, “Volkswagen” translates to “people’s wagon.” The German auto giant had its beginning when Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design an affordable car for the masses. Porsche designed the iconic Volkswagen Beetle just prior to the beginning of the second World War, but mass production did not go into effect until 1945, after the war ended.

The Beetle’s look changed very little throughout the years, a testament to the unique beauty and practicality of Porsche’s original design.

Play Well With Lego Blocks

Godtfred Kirk Christiansen
Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Just about everyone knows Lego, the interlocking plastic construction blocks that have inspired movies and theme parks and were named the “Toy of the Century” twice. But did you know how the blocks got their name?

A Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen made a variety of wooden products in his workshop, eventually settling on toys after a fire and financial crisis. He changed the name of his business from Billund Woodworking Factory to Lego, a play on the Danish expression “leg godt” which means “play well.” The name stuck, and the rest is history. Pictured here is Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, one of Ole’s sons.

A Coin Toss Led To The Hewlett-Packard Name

Logo of Hewlett Packard. seen at the Mobile World Congress.
Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The company that became Hewlett-Packard got its beginnings in a garage in Palo Alto, California, when engineering graduates David Packard and William Hewlett went into business together during a fellowship. They started out making electronic test and measurement equipment.

A few years later they formalized their business relationship and took a low-key approach to naming the company: the men flipped a coin. It could have been called either Hewlett-Packard or Packard-Hewlett.

It Took 40 Attempts To Invent WD-40

WD-40 for sale
Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images
Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

Although there are conflicting stories about who invented WD-40, the company’s website credits Norman Larsen as the original founder. Larsen’s Rocket Chemical Company wanted to invent a product that would de-grease and rustproof aerospace parts.

It took his team 40 attempts to land on the product that’s sold in stores today. WD stands for “Water Displacement” and the 40 represents that it was the 40th try that worked. The product first appeared on retail shelves in 1958.

‘Sony’ Came From The Latin Word For ‘Sound’

Akio Morita
François DUCASSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
François DUCASSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The company that would eventually become Sony started as a manufacturer of magnetic tape and recording devices called “Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo.” The company’s founders wanted to break into the worldwide market and needed a shorter, easier name to remember.

One of their early products was a brand of tape called “Soni-Tape,” with the “Soni” being derived from the Latin translation of “sound.” Sony co-founder Akio Morita combined this concept with the phrase “sonny-boy” (which he thought conveyed youthfulness), and Sony was born.

Durex Is An Acronym Combining Three Of Its Traits

Durex use the opportunity for some promotion
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Back in 1915, the London Rubber Company needed a brand name that implied “durability,” “reliability,” and “excellence.” These words were very important to the nature of the product they were fabricating.

And so the portmanteau “Durex” was born. From early on, Durex employed rigorous testing of its products and has been able to maintain prominence in the industry with its constant development and devotion to exploring modern manufacturing techniques.

For Coca-Cola, Two Cs Were Better Than Two Ks

Coca-Cola ad
Alain-Patrick NEYRAT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Alain-Patrick NEYRAT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Coca-Cola’s name has a pretty straightforward origin story. The now-ubiquitous brown beverage was simply named for two of its main ingredients. Coca leaf and kola fruits were used to add flavor to the concoction, and creator John Pemberton’s business partner Frank Robinson felt that using the “C” twice would look better than two “Ks” would.

He was right and today, the company’s name and logo are found just about everywhere in the world.

BlackBerry Keys Resembled The Fruit

Blackberry logo
velocitypin/Pinterest
velocitypin/Pinterest

“Blackberry” was originally the name of the most popular handheld device created by Research in Motion (RIM), and eventually became the name for the entire company. The origin of the device name came from Lexicon Branding, a firm hired by RIM to come up with a fun name for the groundbreaking smartphone.

Someone suggested “blackberry” based on the way the tiny keyboard looked and threw it into a list of hundreds of other potential names. Eventually, they chose “blackberry” after eliminatinng all of the other names on the list.