When Phil Libin was preparing to launch a new company out of his startup lab All Turtles in March of 2020, he wanted to ensure its name stood out.
"My goal was just to come up with a name that's so weird no one's ever going to ask me about why we called it All Turtles," jokes Libin, a serial entrepreneur who's best known as the former CEO of Evernote.
He succeeded. The new brand name for the remote presentation tool: Mmhmm. Yes, Mmhmm, as in the calm murmur of assent.
"One reason that I really liked it is it's very easy to say unintentionally when you're not thinking about it," Libin says, noting that oddly, the word is more difficult to say when you're trying. "It was almost like every time you say the name, it's like a little micro-performance." Because the product was designed to help customers perform on video, Libin slowly began to think the name wasn't silly, but elegant.
Mmhmm is riding a current trend in startup names, something entrepreneurs have long attempted to use to their advantage. During the dot-com boom, there were the "generic dot-com" or "perfect URL" names such as Cars.com and Pets.com. Google started a trend of made-up words while Amazon inspired more metaphorical names. A spate of -ly and -io names, such as bit.ly or Drop.io, made use of the adorable ring of their domain endings. More recently, startups have tried to appear friendly by giving themselves human names. Some examples: Casper (mattresses), Oscar (health insurance), Cora (tampons), and two Olivers (home furnishings and a point-of-sale system).
This particular new naming era in which Mmhmm resides signals a departure that feels more detached than others--but also more lighthearted. The new email service from Basecamp is just called "Hey," a name so remarkably casual it's almost uncomfortable. Other companies use awkward spellings to try to be memorable, such as the cookie-dough brand Doughp (pronounced "Dope"), and MSCHF (pronounced "mischief"), which almost evades description as a company, but, well, makes things. There are also modern phrases such as Meet Cute, a New York City-based podcasting upstart that launched and raised more than $9 million this year.
This bout of twee irreverence isn't unintentional, according to Jonah Fay-Hurvitz, the head of strategy at Red Antler, a branding company based in Brooklyn, New York. "Naming is often a direct reflection of what's happening in the world. You can look at names and see things that reflect consumer desires," he says. "We are in a moment when people are looking for relief, laughter, and positivity."
Meanwhile, some recently launched businesses have followed a parallel trend toward names meant to reflect harmony, simplicity, and a vision for a more open, inclusive community and world. They're mirroring this year's social-justice movement, just as they reject its political divisiveness. There's eco and inclusive loungewear company Everybody and Everyone; personal-care company By Humankind; Our Place, which sells cookware; and the just-launched skin care brand Humanrace.
"We can all recognize that the world has never been more divided. We're seeing brands choosing names that speak to their mission in a way that's really positive," Fay-Hurvitz says. "A brand can show they are built on a sense of community and unity, and they want their community to celebrate each other and celebrate difference."
The inclusive, community-minded brandings aren't likely to slow in 2021, as they happen to have another very beneficial attribute: Many are perfectly tailored to sharing on social sites such as Instagram. How's an influencer to resist putting on a cozy sweatshirt and posting a selfie with a tag like "I love @everybodyandeveryone!"?
Experts say if you're looking for a name, don't get caught in the trap of thinking everything's been exhausted in your category. If you're a cloud-computing company, for example, stay away from "cloud," but consider something related, such as Snowflake (which, incidentally, had a $3.4 billion IPO this year).
The Igor Naming Guide, which Libin's All Turtles uses when launching a new brand, suggests starting out by writing a job description for your ideal name. How can the name fit the brand's personality, or help define it? A suggested requirement: "Go viral, propelling itself through the world on its own, becoming a no-cost, self-sustaining PR vehicle." Also: "Be unforgettable."
"At the end of the day, the name has to be interesting," says Steve Manning, a founder of Igor. "It can be quiet, it can be loud, but it should do something that's not expected."
Manning cites Slack, which helps companies employees achieve the opposite of its name, and Lemonade Insurance, which applied a sunny, positive association to a dry industry, as unexpected choices that worked out perfectly. He predicts next year's naming trends will be a reaction to all the upheaval of 2020.
"So much has been burned to the ground over this past year. When people come out of tragedy, they shed silly things around pride or convention and focus on what's important," he says. "I think you'll see bolder and more interesting names."