Thumbs up … or down on Facebook’s name change? We asked a pro.
Nov 2, 2021

Thumbs up … or down on Facebook’s name change? We asked a pro.

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As Facebook morphs into Meta, linguist Anthony Shore talks about what's in a name.

Google introduced Alphabet six years ago, and it seems to have worked out. Netflix tried to introduce Qwikster a decade ago, and it definitely didn’t.

Now, Facebook is taking on Meta as its new corporate name.

Anthony Shore is a linguist who founded the company Operative Words to name companies and products. Think names like Yum Brands, Accenture and home gym maker Tonal.

He said that when it comes to a corporate rebrand, Meta pretty much works. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Anthony Shore: I think it’s actually, on the whole, a pretty good name. It’s short. It’s easy to say. It’ll be pronounced roughly the same way worldwide. And it was available as a trademark to them. That’s important. It also is laden with good meanings as a prefix that means “beyond” or “above.” As a standalone word, it often is used as a mirror to talk about something that you’re talking about. And that makes a lot of sense in the vision that [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg has put forward. The metaverse is going to be where people congregate digitally and is intended to be a reflection of the real world.

Kimberly Adams: Do you notice a difference in the way that the names of companies sound today, when it is a lot of tech companies announcing new names, compared to maybe in the past, when things were more consumer goods and more hands-on, hard-item focused?

Anthony Shore smiles for his headshot.
Anthony Shore (courtesy Shore)

Shore: I think that there is a style to names currently, especially in technology. They tend to be shorter and punchier. They embrace real words, or taking real words and clipping them a little bit, so they sound punchy in the way that “meta” was a prefix, and now it’s kind of a standalone word. So I do see some differences there. You’re seeing companies that are a little bit more bold, names which have a stance or have a lot of personality. I mean, look at Google. That’s a name that really, if you look at it, honestly, it’s kind of a silly word. It’s almost like baby talk, right? And yet, look at who they are.

Adams: A lot of people are kind of teasing this name change right now. How do you think all of this will play out in terms of how widely accepted this new name will be?

Shore: I think by and large, the name will be widely accepted. It’s not a word that is intrinsically bothersome. And to that end, it’s not a particularly emotive name. But that’s OK. I mean, look where the name came from. It’s not like the founder is really known for being terribly effusive. But a key lesson here is that a great name does not a great company make. Just because the name Meta is good doesn’t make the company good, right? It’s going to come down to their behavior, and that’s where we’ll see whether or not they’ve been able to change their colors.

Adams: Other tech companies have changed their names. Can you give some examples of when it worked well, and when it didn’t?

Shore: Sure. Back in 2000, Andersen Consulting was compelled legally to change their name because they were separating from Arthur Andersen. And they ultimately adopted the new name Accenture. That was a project I actually was lucky enough to direct back in 2000. And by most metrics, that was a very successful name change.

Adams: Right. I’m thinking about Google expanded to include Alphabet, and then you had Netflix, which tried to introduce Qwickster a decade ago.

Shore: Yes, that’s exactly right. Google changing its name to Alphabet was absolutely successful. And the Alphabet name is absolutely terrific. So kudos to them for that. The Qwikster name was very short-lived, thankfully. And that went away. Another name that also failed miserably, and deservedly, was Tronc, which was a short-lived name, I believe, of the Chicago Tribune holding company. And I’m so glad that that died quickly. It’s not a name anyone should have foisted on them.

Adams: So then why did Accenture work but Tronc fails so miserably?

Shore: Well, for one, the Tronc name was intrinsically terrible. It has a really awful sound. The way the word ends on that “onc” ending, I don’t think those sounds work at all, at least in English. It sounds like “honk” and “bonk,” and just it has sounds that remind us of something short and abrupt, like you’re getting clobbered over the head with something in addition to being meaningless, right? Look, you can have a meaningless word if it sounds OK, right? You’ve got Kodak is a meaningless word. The telecom company Avaya is a meaningless word, but at least they sound good. Tronc did not. It was a cacophonous name. Accenture had the benefit of being a pleasant-sounding word and having a legitimate story behind it being derived from “accent on the future.”

Adams: In advance of this, you looked at other names that Facebook trademarked. What were some of the ones that company owned but didn’t go for ultimately, or at least not for now?

Shore: Well, I was surprised in what I found in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records. Facebook clearly did their work in trying to keep this name a secret. And as it turns out, it’s not even registered to Facebook per se, but it’s registered to a nonprofit division [Chan Zuckerberg Initiative], and there it’s been sitting in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for years as a fully registered mark. The word “meta” is there, it has the right goods and services. And so there it’s been, hiding in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for all to find, but you had to know where to look, and that was specifically not looking for Facebook, but looking for [Chan Zuckerberg Initiative].

Note: Anthony Shore referred to the patents belonging to “Zuckerberg Chan.” The patents are registered to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Speaking of tech names, gaming company Roblox may have a catchy name, but it’s having a rough time at the moment. It had a three-day outage over the very important Halloween weekend. Roblox said more than 46 million people use the platform daily.

So, according to MarketWatch, that outage probably cost Roblox about $15 million in lost revenue.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Sridhar Ramaswamy on the show. He worked in ads at Google for 15 years before he decided to launch a competitor: an ad-free, subscription-based search engine called Neeva. My colleague Amy Scott asked him how he came up with the name.

“Oh, I wish I had a clever story to tell you about Neeva. It’s really hard to find a name,” he said. “And so, we made a list of syllables whose names we liked, and I literally wrote a program to generate all two-syllable names and Neeva is the best one that we could manage. It took, like, a year and a half to get ‘Neeva.com’ after that.”

Proving Shore’s point that both a pleasant sound and an available domain name are key for any company.

And in case you were wondering what happened with Tronc, well, it didn’t stick around, of course. In 2018, they changed it back to Tribune Publishing. The Verge has a piece on that.

Sometimes it’s best to just stick with a classic.

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