Naming companies is a daunting task, as anyone who does it for a living can attest. “It’s difficult to criticize a name,” says S.B. Master, a Berkeley, Ca.-based founder who has launched two naming companies in her career, one of which is nearly 30 years old. “From choosing a name, to getting a team to agree to it, to clearing that name from a trademark and URL and social media standpoint — it’s a pain.” By “triangulating around these difficulties, people end up someplace, which is better than no place,” she adds sympathetically.
Interestingly, the place where a growing number of startups seems to be landing is on a person’s name that may have nothing to do with their business.
This week, for example, a year-old, L.A.-based company called Dave raised $3 million for an app that predicts upcoming expenses and alerts users if their bank balance is low. Its founders say that people often ask friends or family for short-term loans to cover shortfalls; they want their customers to think of their startup as a pal who’s also looking out for their best interests.
Other companies have taken the same tack in recent years, including an app called Barry that lets users save full-length webpages, the tech-focused health insurance company Oscar and Clara, the virtual assistant company, whose name probably makes the most sense of the bunch, given that assistants have historically been actual people.
Indeed, assigning tech startups human names dates back at least five years. Alex Friedman, president of Ruckus Marketing in New York, points to Casper, the mattress and bedding company whose brand evokes the friendly ghost who helps keep his friends safe while they sleep. There’s also Harry’s, the shaving gear company whose name evokes, of course, hair. And founders have named companies after themselves for as long as anyone can remember, in tech or otherwise. The online education company Lynda.com is named after co-founder Lynda Weinman. Philz Coffee is named after founder Phil Jaber.
Still, assigning companies human names simply to make tech products more approachable is a newer trend, and it’s poised to escalate quickly in the age of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, branding experts can’t quite agree on whether it’s an approach to emulate or avoid.
For his part, Friedman doesn’t think a company’s name is nearly as big a deal as everything else that goes into supporting that brand. “The name itself is not the brand,” he says. “It’s an icon or component of what a company wants to build for itself, a focal point for how it’s building its business. I say this a lot, but the name is a lot less important than the weight that many people give it.”
Whether it’s Bob or Bill or Casper, he says, what’s more important is “what you’re selling, who the customer is and how much money you have behind you. Without money, making a name mean something is difficult. If you don’t have the capital, you won’t get very far.”
The view runs contrary to that of David Placek, a Sausalito, Ca.-based naming expert whose iconic work was profiled years ago in The New Yorker, and who thinks names work best when there’s a great story around them. He points to Tesla, named after inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist Nikola Tesla. “It’s an authentic association and it’s elegant.”
“Compare ‘Tesla’ to ‘Dave’ or ‘Bob,’ ” Placek says, pausing, trying to find something positive to say about the latter brands. “Dave is the stronger idea; that ‘v’ has some energy to it. Bob seems a little informal for an HR function.”
If you were to ask us, we’d say to skip the trend and opt for something original. (Look, we still remember the sentient computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We also recall that things didn’t go so well for the people in HAL’s life.)
Don’t expect the fashion to fade away anytime soon, however. If there’s a consistent trend, says Placek, it’s that “people try to replicate success.” Because Harry’s and Casper are seemingly performing well, other companies will naturally think it’s worth a shot, too.
The good news, says Master, the Berkeley-based pro, is that, “in general, a bad name is not going to kill an intrinsically good product or company. The excellence of the offering can overcome many naming weaknesses. Unless it’s unpronounceable. Or forgettable. Or you get sued. A lot of founders,” she says, “have overcome suboptimal names.”