Iconic Tour

The hidden stories behind 9 iconic company names

Sarah Chandler, special to CNBC.com
Andia | UIG | Getty Images

There are many routes to an iconic brand name, whether it be blind luck, mere functionality or a clever hidden meaning.

Disney and Bloomberg reached billions hitching their ideas to nothing more than the name they were born with. Physicians at the University of Florida who were given the task of concocting an energy-reviving drink for tired Gator football players ended up creating Gatorade.

A contest can do the trick as well: Kraft held one among its employees when it was spinning off its snack business. The company received more than 1,000 entries, with two separate employee entries happening upon a similar combination of words denoting "delicious world": Mondelez.

Today, the biggest difficulty for most companies seeking a name that works is finding one that hasn't legally been spoken for already. Learning the origins of some of America's biggest brands may put you on the road to finding one that stands the test of time and won't be vetoed by lawyers. Here are nine of the most famous names that have become a part of our everyday culture.

1. Cadillac

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Utter the word "Cadillac" and people expect great things, whether you're talking about cars or using the term as shorthand to say that something is at the top of its class. If you claim a hamburger to be the "Cadillac of hamburgers" or a vacuum cleaner to be the "Cadillac of vacuum cleaners," be prepared to deliver serious quality. It even carries over, with some baggage, to politics: think "Cadillac" health insurance plans.

So what exactly are the origins of this luxury-defining word? Unsurprisingly, Cadillac is French, historically a language wielded as a signifier of elegance and class. In 1701 a French explorer named Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac just happened to found Detroit, a city that would become forever synonymous with cars.

The first Cadillac, which had a one-cylinder engine, debuted in 1902. The engine was upgraded to a four-cylinder until 1914, when the first V-8 engines came into use. Currently, Cadillac is considered General Motors' "prestige" brand, for good reason. Historically, many U.S. presidents have favored the model for their motorcades, including President Obama's 2009 Cadillac limousine, nicknamed The Beast.

Lesson learned: You can get lucky with your surroundings, so look around. Maybe there's a story of discovery waiting to be rediscovered.

(Sources: GM; The Canadian Encyclopedia; Popular Mechanics; Detroit Historical Society)

2. Nike

Nicole O'Hara | CNBC

Americans — and legions of sneaker-wearing folks across the globe –– are so familiar with the Nike brand that its etymology likely goes unquestioned. Even diehard fans of Air Jordans probably know far more about their slam-dunking namesake (Michael Jordan, in case you never turned on the television in the 1980s or '90s) than they do about the Greek goddess who inspired the eponymous brand.

In Greek mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory. She is commonly depicted with outstretched wings, carrying a wreath or palm branch as a symbol of her triumph. The Ancient Greeks would probably not be surprised to find out that Nike beat out brands like Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren to become 2015's most valuable apparel brand.

Nike didn't always have a victorious name nor the telltale swoosh. When the company was founded in 1964, it was called Blue Ribbon Sports — which was probably too long to neatly fit a swoosh underneath. The catalyst for the name change was Blue Ribbon's first full-time employee, Jeff Johnson, who convinced his team that successful brand names had two essential qualities. First, they were short. Second, they contained an "exotic" letter, such as an X, K or Z.

Where did Mr. Johnson gain this latter piece of marketing wisdom? An airline magazine.

Lesson learned: Keep it short — and a little exotic.

(Sources: Britannica.com; New York Times; Wall Street Journal)

3. Google

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It may be one of the most profitable setups in history: On their first meeting at Stanford University, prospective grad student Larry Page was assigned to Sergey Brin so that Brin could show him around the school. The eventual result of this seemingly fated encounter was Alphabet's Google, the search engine that Brin and Page co-founded in 1997. The initially nonsensical-sounding domain name, first registered in 1997, riffed off the word "googol," an obscure term used in mathematics to describe the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.

But years before Google became so ubiquitous it gained status as a verb, Brin and Page launched their first search engine, Backrub. Just imagine the infinite number of awkward moments and misunderstandings that would have followed if the name had stuck. Instead of spending countless misspent hours of the 21st century Googling, we might have spent them Backrubbing.

Lesson learned: For all the weighty and clever thought you put into a name search, a word that barely exists to most of the world can end up as one of the most valuable words of all.

(Source: Google)

4. Pizza Hut

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It's hard to fathom that one of America's most ubiquitous foods was, in the 1950s, an exotic menu item to most Americans. While attending the University of Kansas at Wichita, brothers Frank and Dan Carney launched the first Pizza Hut with a $600 loan from their mother. The easy-to-remember brand name was born from two facts: First, the diminutive brick building resembled a hut. Second, the cramped sign only had room for nine letters, thus sealing Pizza Hut, now part of Yum! Brands, into restaurant history.

Lesson learned: Work within your limitations. In this case, physical limitations that might have seemed to some like negatives turned out to be essential to the creation of an iconic brand.

(Source: Pizza Hut)

5. Apple

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While Steve Jobs may have been a notoriously complicated man to his co-workers and friends, his design choices were all about streamlined simplicity, even down to the name of the computer company he co-founded with Steve Wozniak in 1976.

While Jobs was a longtime fan of Japanese tech companies like Sony, the catalyst for Apple's namesake was hardly high tech. During Jobs' fruitarian period, in which he consumed an all-fruit diet, he visited an apple farm and inspiration struck.

Lesson learned: Many erroneous versions of the Apple name origin have been around, including one that links the genius of Isaac Newton and the apple falling on his head to Jobs. But the true story shows that geniuses don't get too caught up on names; they've got more important things to think about.

(Source: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson)

6. Starbucks

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Double-tailed mermaids. Sixteenth-century Norse woodcuts.

Does either of these images come to mind as you sidle up to the Starbucks counter and order your grande caramel latte, no whip? Perhaps they should: The Starbucks logo — inspired by an old woodcut of a mythical siren –– was born from the rich marine history of Seattle, where rugged seafaring was a way of life long before grunge bands made the city forever cool.

The story behind the Starbucks name also has maritime roots: It hails from Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick." In the novel, which chronicles a doomed whaling expedition from the coast of Nantucket, Starbuck is Captain Ahab's first mate aboard a ship called the Pequod.

Lesson learned: Sure, the novel is dead and no one reads anymore, but that doesn't mean you can't base a company name on a classic tale.

(Source: Starbucks)

7. Amazon

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That near-mystical website that delivers everything from Swedish novels to yoga pants to diapers to your front door? Before he created Amazon in 1996, founder Jeff Bezos christened his company Cadabra. That was short for Abracadabra, or the word he felt best conjured the idea that a book would magically appear —Abracadabra! — on a customer's doorstep.

After Bezos' lawyer thought "cadabra" sounded like "cadaver," Bezos reconsidered. His perfect name would begin with an A, thus appearing first in the alphabetical listing of a web search. As the largest river in the world –– strong, swift and exotic –– the Amazon proved to be his ultimate inspiration.

Lesson learned: Founders can be wrong. In fact, Bezos has said himself that leaders who are right a lot are "people who often changed their minds." It's clear that's a Bezos wisdom that applies to naming a company.

(Source: Forbes; "Jeff Bezos: The Founder of Amazon" by Ann Byers)

8. Facebook

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If you've seen Aaron Sorkin's masterful film, "The Social Network," you know that before Facebook was Facebook, it was "the Facebook": a social networking website inspired by Harvard's annual paper guide, distributed to first-year students, which profiled staff and students. Launched in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg's original site was intended solely for Harvard students but quickly spread to other U.S. universities. By 2005, Zuckerberg dropped the "the" and Facebook was born.

Lesson learned: In architecture there's a classic principle that dictates form should follow function, meaning a physical structure should be designed based on its intended purpose. That can go for names as well. Today Facebook does much more than its original college iteration, but the original name did match its original function pretty well.

(Source: The Guardian; "Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook" by Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo)

9. Budweiser

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Anheuser-Busch InBev dominates the U.S. beer market, mostly thanks to Bud Light drinkers. For every five beers sold across America, one is a Bud Light. And Europeans love to make fun of Americans as beer lightweights, but there's a bigger battle between the Old World and New World over the Budweiser trademark that has roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In most of Europe, drinking a Budweiser means something very different; in fact, it means you're drinking an altogether different beer. If you order a Budweiser in Prague, Athens or Rome, you'll be served a Czech lager that many beer aficionados might claim is the "real" Budweiser, manufactured by the Budejovický Budvar brewery in a pretty little city called Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic. Under Habsburg rule during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the town was part of the German-speaking province of Bohemia. "Budejovicky" is the Czech translation of the German "Budweiser," which means "from Budweis."

To make things more confusing, the trademark dispute means that if you want a Czech Budweiser in the United States, you'll have to ask for a Czechvar. Conversely, if you want the American brand in Europe, don't ask for a Budweiser. In the EU it's legally sold as Bud.

Lesson learned: History is written by the winners, even brands that use history inaccurately.

(Sources: MarketWatch; Time)

By Sarah Chandler, special to CNBC.com