The Times of London

September 30, 2006

The new naming game

By David Rowan

When a new online music service declared last month that it would be taking on iTunes, nobody thought about giving it a cogent, relevant name. Instead, pop fans were invited to visit something inexplicably called SpiralFrog. And when Nintendo recently revealed its groundbreaking new games console, someone decided to name it the Wii – pronounced as in the toilet word. Maybe it’s just that all the good names have been taken, but something very strange is going on in the arcane world of strategy brand consulting.

During the first dotcom boom, at least you knew where you stood. If you wanted a trendy name for your startup, you’d just combine two randomly selected words – a fruit and a colour, say – and lo, you were in business as a meaningless Redmango or a YellowGrape. We are all much wiser now, of course, as Web 2.0 has come along with a plethora of online ventures devoted to your digital lifestyle. But eeeuw, what a bizarre set of apparently random letter combinations today’s web gurus are foisting on their businesses.

To anyone weaned on the English language, the latest corporate names are gibberish. A website called Woomp allows you to share online picture galleries, while Gliffy lets you edit diagrams on the web. Then there are Goowy, Skobee, Zlango, Zoozio and Blish – with hundreds more absurd names creating their own long tail of inanity.

"It’s such a bad idea, as these names don’t have any real value and there’s nothing to grab on to mentally," says Steve Manning, who specialises in inventing business names through his San Francisco branding agency, Igor. "Every generation likes having its own language and musical styles, and people who use these names are just trying to associate themselves with a movement." These businesses are also deliberately choosing names that distance them from the failures of the earlier dotbomb generation, Manning says. "So this is just the next wave of banality."

There is also the practical matter of needing an available and relatively short web address, which explains all those strange word combinations – the Bluekangaroos and Fatbrains – we laughed at during Web 1.0. But this time round, the naming has hit such levels of absurdity that one website is running a "Web 2.0 or Star Wars character?" quiz, testing players’ knowledge of terms such as Trumba, Eskobo, Meebo and Qoop. There is also plenty of fun to be had in following the business owners’ strained justifications for their creations. The founders of an online "expert exchange" called Oyogi, for instance, explain that, "The word ‘yogi’ refers to the fact that people who may answer your questions could be considered experts or ‘yogis’… and the ‘0’ is an attempt to capture... [a] cry for knowledge." O, right.

So what should you call your forward-looking online business? "Certainly not a random string of vowels," advises Steve Manning, who has named ventures such as Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas Hotel and MTV’s Urge download service. And do check that your cutting-edge neologism connotes no unforeseen doubles entendres. When Microsoft announced that it would be taking on the iPod with something called Zune, did its branding team realise that the word translated into French slang for genitalia and a Hebrew term meaning getting laid?