It’s not just your name, it’s your brand.

Before Amazon was named Amazon, Amazon was named “Cadabra.”

Initially, Jeff Bezos thought the name, short for “abracadabra,” communicated the online marketplace’s most important attribute: that a book would just magically show up – abracadabra! – at your front door.

But Bezos’ lawyer thought “cadabra,” said out loud, sounded too much like “cadaver” – something you’d never want to show up magically at your front door – and Bezos reconsidered.

A great brand name, he decided, would start with an “A” so it appeared first in the alphabetical listing of a web search. Amazon was named after the largest river in the world because it conveyed the idea that the brand was exotic and therefore different from its competition, and because Bezos aspired that it would be the largest bookstore in the world.

“Amazon” wasn’t the only other option for Bezos, apparently. In 1994, he purchased the URL “Relentless.com,” which still redirects to Amazon (try it). Why he was attracted to the name, we don’t quite know, but we’ve heard conjecture that Bezos wanted to be relentless in overtaking markets.

Brand name lessons from Amazon

Amazon’s name origin story offers two important lessons about brand names:

  1. A strategic brand name can set your business up for success.
  2. A terrible name can set you up to fail.

Your name is like your first act of public branding. A great name must go beyond the physical attributes of what your organization, company, product or service offers and be indicative of what it stands for. It establishes an aspirational tone for who you are and what you want to do. It can position you in a saturated market or even de-position your competition.

After Amazon entered the marketplace, independent bookstores could not compete against the retail giant. Smaller stores closed, their employees were laid off, and Amazon dominated the market. It wasn’t the ending we wanted for our favourite independent bookstores, but Amazon became a best-seller.

Naming is part of your brand strategy.

Consider the higher benefits of what your company or product offers and where you envision it years down the road. If you choose a name that’s aspirational and future-oriented, it will carry your brand as it matures, expands, and potentially encounters significant change.

Think about your audience. What message do you want to convey to them? Find a name that communicates your key messages, your position in the marketplace, or your brand promise. Done well, your name should solicit an emotional connection with your target audience.

When you start to brainstorm names, consider all the implications:

  • Are there negative associations or pronunciations?
  • How does it translate into other languages?
  • Is it simple to spell?
  • Is it easy to remember?
  • What domain name is available?
  • Can it be trademarked?

How  we became Honest Agency

In 2009, we went through a lot of changes as an organization. We took on a new partner who brought new expertise, shifted our focus and positioning from a graphic design studio to a branding agency, moved to a larger and more prestigious address, and hired new people. This called for a rebrand and that included changing our name from Neuhaus Design to “name TBD.”

It was a prime opportunity to put our money where our mouths were and take ourselves through the same process through which we guide our clients. We researched, brainstormed and analyzed (and re-analyzed) until we came to a shortlist of about five possible names. The highest ranked name on that list was not Honest: it was actually, “Hello.” We thought Hello was friendly, welcoming, unassuming and easy to say, spell and remember. It felt like it fit our brand and who we were as people, and after some vetting, we couldn’t find any other design or branding agencies who were using that name at the time. It seemed like a slam dunk. The powers that be, however, had a different perspective, and “Hello” was rejected at the Companies Office for reasons we still can’t explain.

So, we looked at the rest of the names on our list and gravitated towards “Honest” as the next viable choice. We loved this name for many of the same reasons as “Hello.” “Honest” was also the standard to which we were going to hold ourselves when working with clients and it was the standard to which we were going to hold our clients when building their brands. In our experience, clients tell themselves stories about themselves that are not always accurate. We encourage them to be honest with themselves so they can present an honest and authentic reflection to their audiences.

Thankfully, second time was the charm, and we were able to secure “Honest Agency” with the Companies Office. “Honest” has served us well over the 13 years and is a constant reminder of the standard we seek to uphold. It also reminds us that branding is rarely obvious and immediate: “A-ha!” moments are often far and few between. Branding is a process with its fair share of setbacks, dips and frustrations, but with perseverance, self-reflection and, yes, even a little honesty, trusting the process will almost always result in a successful outcome.

Start with the right people.

Naming your brand requires bringing the right team into the fold: experienced marketing people, legal personnel and key decision makers are your best players.

Or hire an expert. From stakeholder interviews to naming criteria to tagline and logo creation, we have the experience of helping startups and brands across multiple industries find the right name. We’ll review your brand position, compare your competition, and solicit feedback from your key stakeholders. You’ll also benefit from the fact that we are a neutral third-party without inherent or learned biases about your organization or the industry ecosystem.

However you land on your perfect name, it’s important you choose something that goes beyond the physical attributes of what you offer, forges a connection with your audience, and has enough flexibility to grow and change when you do.

Casey Challes