Corporate Naming Archaeology: Learning From the Past to Differentiate for the Future

By Alan Brew

In his landmark book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Princeton professor Burton G. Malkiel remembers the “tronics boom” of the time when companies thought investors would be attracted to any name reminiscent of electronics and the space age.

Monsell, a New Jersey-based maker of mechanical equipment, changed its name to K-Tron International in 1964 hoping to escape the gravitational pull of its founder’s name. Others followed. Malkiel writes:

“There were a host of ‘trons’ such as Astron, Dutron, Vulcatron, and Transitron, and a number of ‘onics’ such as Circuitronics, Supronics, Videotronics, and several Electrosonics companies.. Leaving nothing to chance, one group put together the winning combination of Powertron Ultrasonics.”

Various technologies and company naming trends come and go. In a desperate attempt to associate themselves with a new, sexy technology, companies begin to sound alike and eventually become indistinguishable from each other. Then a newer, sexier technology springs up, an older technology is displaced and with it go the companies that staked their future on that technology.

It’s thus possible to undertake an archaeological dig through layers of technology civilizations and corporate naming trends and unearth the fossilized remains of companies that once strode the earth like dinosaurs, only to die like them.

The advent of wireless technology gave rise to thousands of soundalike companies with either ‘com’, ‘tel’ or ‘cel’ in their names. It was calculated at one point that there were more than 3,000 tel-somethings, 7,300 com-somethings and an astonishing 10,000 cels, cells and cellulars floating around.

Today, we are over our infatuation with wireless and cellular and people are more than happy to buy mobile services from Verizon, Sprint and Cricket. Oh yes, there’s poor old AT&T out there, still trying to get past its old technology glory days when it was American Telephone & Telegraph.

Now we have the solar companies, all of them desperate to get ‘sol’ or ‘solar’ in their names. Hence, we have Solexa, Solexant, Soliant, Solaris, Solarmer, Solarwatt, etc, etc.

And two of the most recent and biggest trends in computing – open-source software and cloud computing – have been accompanied by some of the most generic naming conventions ever.

For open source, as Matt Asay points out in CNET News, it has become a requirement to include “source” in the company name – XenSource, MuleSource, SpringSource, SourceSense, Sourcefire, etc.

Already, there’s a telling shift in the market. As open source goes mainstream, companies don’t seem to be appending source to their names as much anymore. Instead, it’s cloud-computing companies that are eager to tack a “cloud” badge to their name – Cloudant, Cloudkick, Cloudshore, Cloudswitch, CloudSource. This too shall pass very quickly.

Technologies soon become commodities. Yesterday’s breakthrough becomes today’s industry standard. Sub-categories are created and they are dominated by companies such as Apple, Amazon, Verizon, Cisco and Oracle. You know – brands.

Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, once said: “People don’t buy technology. They don’t say ‘fill ‘er up, I’ll take 10 pounds of technology’. They buy what technology can do for them.” In other words – focus on the value you deliver, not the technology you use to deliver it.

Technology companies that want a chance of survival after the initial flurry of investor interest would do well to bear Scott Cook’s words in mind when naming their next company.