We're Going to Run Out of Company Names
The news this week that Yahoo! Inc. will be rechristened "Altaba Inc." elicited a lot of groans. "Apparently Yahoo renamed itself after an antihistamine," tweeted New York Times tech reporter Mike Isaac. The name "sounded more like infantile babble than the remnants of a once-promising internet giant," wrote Fortune's Lucinda Shen.
The reason for the renaming is that Yahoo's operating businesses are being sold to Verizon, where they will retain the Yahoo brand. The remaining corporation doesn't do anything but own shares in Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Yahoo! Japan (things were handled this way for tax reasons). The new name, according to somebody who talked to the Washington Post, is a portmanteau of "alternative" and "Alibaba."
Maybe a corporation that exists solely to hold other corporations' shares doesn't need a great name. It definitely didn't get one -- which set me to wondering if there are any great names left to be gotten. I remembered a conversation I had in 1997 with Henry Silverman, who was about to merge his HFS, a franchiser of hotels and real estate brokerages, with direct-marketing firm CUC International to create something called Cendant. The name would later be tainted by one of the biggest accounting scandals of the 1990s, but even at the onset Silverman wasn't thrilled about it:
Every name we liked, either somebody already had it or it wasn't trademarkable or it meant something pornographic in another language.
Around the same time, it turns out, corporate-identity consultant Tony Spaeth was worrying that this could be a larger problem:
There is a numeric limit to the universe of names, the combinations of letters of five syllables or less that are pronounceable, avoid offense in principal languages, and are not someone else’s property. A population explosion of business entities, on top of product proliferation, means we are rapidly depleting the supply. And as more companies think “global,” more seek global name protection, vastly increasing the pool of possible conflicts.
Since then, the number of registered trademarks in the U.S. has more than doubled:
David Placek, the founder and president of Lexicon Branding Inc., the Sausalito, California-based firm responsible for a lot of familiar names in technology and other fields (BlackBerry, Pentium, PowerBook, Swiffer, Dasani), had someone run a search for me of trademarks for just computing hardware and software: 819,934 in the U.S., and 5.5 million in the 30-odd countries that Lexicon tracks. The digital era's explosion of gadgets and apps has gobbled up available names at a voracious pace.
So are we running out? "It is getting harder to find names that are significantly better than something like a Cendant or an Altaba," Placek said. "It's not impossible." At Lexicon, coping with the shrinking number of available names has meant investing ever more in legal and technological resources to screen names, and using artificial intelligence, linguistics research and other tools to pick better ones.
At A Hundred Monkeys, a smaller naming firm across the San Francisco Bay in Berkeley that does a lot of work with startups, the focus is on familiar words. "Actual things that make sense to people in the English language make more sense than trying to get people to align behind a seven-letter word you just invented," said creative director Eli Altman. Altman added that this can mean longer names and internet addresses (although his company still seems to land on a lot of short ones: Buoy, Eero and Hiya, to name three), and that he doesn't think we're running out of those.
One thing that seemed like a big problem for the namers 15 years ago is less significant now: Scarce dot-com internet addresses are no longer must-haves. "We know from research we've done that, for consumers, having a dot-com is way less important than it was in 2000," Placek said. Added Altman: "Almost everyone uses search to get to where they're going. If you have any type of activity on your site and anyone has a modicum of interest in what you're doing, they'll get there." The increased use of voice interfaces such as Apple Inc.'s Siri and Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa ought to make the specifics of URLs even less important.
Still, there is a finite universe of potential names out there. For words of seven letters or fewer, there are 8.4 billion possible letter combinations -- and that includes Aaaaaaa and Zzzzzzz. The number of plausible, pronounceable names is much, much smaller. In pharmaceuticals, where U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency rules aimed at preventing misprescription and consumer confusion sharply limit drug namers' options, there are clear signs of exhaustion. What else would you call Onzetra Xsail, Vemlidy and Taltz (all drugs approved by the FDA last year)?
For the rest of the corporate world, I guess we're not quite there yet. The success of Google and Facebook is evidence that what at first seem like really weird or mundane choices can still become familiar and hugely valuable brands. It might be that longer, stranger, clunkier names could eventually become familiar and valuable, too. I'm a big fan of 1980s Chinese business-naming conventions: How about calling your company Fujian Jinjiang Chendai Xibian’s No. 2 Daily Necessities Factory?
Still, the very existence of consultancies specialized in naming -- Placek started Lexicon in 1982, and he thinks it was one of the first -- is indication that the work has gotten harder. It is surely going to get harder still.
It strikes me that this may be yet another way in which the room to innovate and carve out market space is being crimped. There's been a recent flurry of economic research into the apparent decline in entrepreneurship and business dynamism in the U.S. since 2000. One paper I saw presented at the American Economic Association annual meeting last weekend asked, "Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?" Maybe, maybe not. But names for those ideas definitely are.
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