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What's in a Name? How 7 Cornerstone American Companies Got Their Names

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By , dealnews contributor

When it comes to chains like Walgreens, Macy's, or McDonald's, you don't have to be a genius to figure out the establishments were named after someone who got the enterprise off the ground, but wherefore Target? What inspired Pizza Hut? Does Starbucks have its roots in mariner lore, marketing smarts, or both?

You can keep imagining what the story behind Apple Computers is, too, or we can talk about how the tech company and six other major national brands chose their names.

Apple Computer: Love at First Byte

If you think Apple Computers pays homage to a certain record label run by The Beatles, you'd echo the fears of one of Apple's co-founders. Steve Wozniak's 2006 memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon, recounts the tale of Steve Jobs suggesting the name Apple after a trip to an Oregon commune called "The Apple Orchard." Wozniak's reply: "What about Apple Records?" The two brainstormed for untold hours: "We both tried to come up with technical-sounding names that were better, but we couldn't think of any good ones. Apple was so much better than any other name we could think of," Wozniak wrote. So they dubbed their company Apple, and The Beatles indeed sued the company in 1989. But everything worked out for all parties in the end: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Target: A Blurt Hits the Bullseye

Let's face it: Target sounds much catchier than the Dayton Dry Goods Company, the business that spawned it. That company became Dayton Hudson, which became Target Corp. in 2000, but the name itself originated from countless brainstorm sessions between Dayton's Director of Publicity Stewart K. Widdess and his staff. While the 200 unadopted names are lost to history, the store's name was chosen just months before the first Target opened in Roseville, MN. on May 1, 1962. Why Target? Widden recounts: "As a marksman's goal is to hit the center bulls-eye, the new store would do much the same in terms of retail goods, services, commitment to the community, price, value, and overall experience."

Pizza Hut: A Sign of Ingenuity

The prospects couldn't have been more dubious for Dan and Frank Carney. They were two guys sharing a very non-Italian last name opening a pizza joint in the very non-Italian place of Wichita, Kansas. But at least they had a complimentary sign provided by a local Coca-Cola distributor when they set up shop in 1958. That sign "was wide at the top and tapered down at the bottom and there was room for only five letters on the top line and three letters on the bottom line. 'Pizza' obviously had to be on top. But Pizza what? Pizza Pad? Pizza Inn? Pizza Pan? Pizza Jug? Dan's wife, Beverly, mentioned that she thought the building looked like a hut. The decision was made. The name of the pizzeria would be Pizza Hut, and it made enough money for the Carneys that they could well have renamed it Pizza Bank Vault.

Amazon: A River Runs Through It

There are lots of stories about the pluck that Jeff Bezos displayed when starting his online retail operation. Doors and caution horses were fashioned into the first makeshift Amazon office desks, but who thought up that name and why? Originally called "Cadabra"and in 1994, "Abracadabra," Bezos changed direction "after he heard his lawyer call it 'cadaver' by mistake." Bezos quickly renamed the company after the Amazon River for two reasons: "One, to suggest scale (Amazon.com was launched with the tagline 'Earth's biggest book store') and two, back then website listings were often alphabetical." The arrow that runs beneath A to Z in the logo was introduced in 2000, representing that the mega retailer carry every product from A to Z.

Starbucks: Starts with an "S-T"

It's a long way from the Pike Place Market in Seattle to global coffee domination, but how did Starbucks become a name immortalized in song and adored by caffeine cravers everywhere? Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker's ad agency partner urged him to think of names that began with "st," since powerful words start with that phoneme. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Bowker's team went from looking at "an old mining map of the Cascades and Mount Rainier, and there was an old mining town called Starbo." As soon as he saw Starbo, he jumped to Melville’s first mate named Starbuck in Moby-Dick. "But Moby-Dick didn’t have anything to do with Starbucks directly," nor did the awful-sounding runner-up name: "Cargo House." Imagine the repercussions: "I'll have a Mocha Cookie Crumble Cargochino."

eBay: Buy It Now

In the mid-1990s, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar wanted to name his fledgling auction site after his computer consulting company, Echo Bay, but unfortunately that URL was already taken. But Omidyar didn't sit around and mope for long. He shortened the name to eBay, did a quick check and found the domain name available. He bought it, and we're pretty sure that eBay.com is not up for auction at any price. By the way, EchoBay.com still exists: It is the home of Echobay Partners, LLC "a private fund management company, specializing in the trading of fundamental, discretionary, diversified commodity intensive portfolios."

The Gap: It's in the Jeans

The San Francisco-based chain generated its name in the early 1970s and earned its place in apparel history with its far-out TV commercials and sales on Levi's jeans. The first Gap opened up in 1969, named as such "to emphasize the youthful ambiance ... an allusion to a then hot topic, the generation gap." Interestingly enough The Gap sold records as well as pants when it first opened, but founder Donald Fisher almost went bankrupt on this idea until he took out ads selling four tons of jeans at bargain-basement prices. The Gap moniker hardly fits now, though, as you can shop for adults, kids, babies, and probably some cool grandparents who bought hippie clothes at the very first Gap stores.

So what's in a retail name? Whether inspired by desperation, inspiration, or simplification, there's no exact formula to pin down what makes a label stick. Maybe it's the repetition involved. Maybe it's a question of a powerful image: An apple, after all, is easier to visualize than a "microsoft," whatever that is. Just remember that every name carries with it a story, and almost always, that story speaks to a founder or entrepreneur who took an inventive step into the unknown.



Lou Carlozo is a dealnews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the managing editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

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