What’s in a Name? For Yahoo, Too Much and Not Enough

It never became the verb it wanted to be

Once the dust settles from last week's news of the final nail in the coffin for Yahoo, one of the web's original pioneers, we'll undoubtedly have a thousand reasons to consider why Big Purple failed.

Julia Beardwood

Chief among them are surely: failure to properly capitalize on and monetize advertising and search, failure to purchase Google when it had the chance, failure to accept Microsoft's buyout offer when it had the chance, failure to decide whether it was a media company or a technology company, and failure to chart a clear direction when the whole world shifted from desktop to mobile—and then once again to social. However, we branding folks can't help but think the company's poor choice of name might have also been a contributor to Yahoo's downfall.

I'm not saying Yahoo could never have succeeded with that name, but when I hear the name, I can't help but think about the Johnny Cash hit, "A Boy Named Sue." In the song, the father names the boy Sue, then leaves. Sue endures years of taunts about his feminine name before finally locating his dad and beating him up. The father's explanation is that he knew the name would bring Sue grief but would make him "get tough or die," something Yahoo was never able to manage in the long run.

The stark difference between "Sue" and Yahoo is when the company was launched with that crazy name and logo, which even included an exclamation point at the end [editor's note: we dropped it years ago], the world was turning upside down with the promise of the World Wide Web, and the name and brand put it right at the center of the action. It made perfect sense. It was 1994, and Jerry Yang and David Filo transformed "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web" into a search engine site with an acronym for a rambunctious "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle." Yang and Filo also liked the actual definition of a yahoo, meaning "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth."

However, it was very much of the moment and lacked the timelessness sustainable brand names need. And it ultimately helped doom the company.

The word yahoo is literally an interjection of a moment of joy—fulfilling an early promise of the internet and web search in general. However, it can also mean yokel or lout, and it potentially weighed the brand down forever with a great big negative.

The name itself is also a bit childish, but you could also say the same thing about Google. The first time I heard that name, it sounded a lot like "giggle." But the massive difference between the two names is that behind the word Google, there's a story. It's a play on the word "googol," a mathematical term to describe 10 raised to the power of 100 or a 1 with 100 zeros following it—reflecting Larry Page and Sergey Brin's overall mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web. By contrast, Yahoo! quite simply lacked an interesting backstory beyond a rebellious, silly and dated acronym.

A mediocre name cannot alone stand in the way of a well-run company that's a runaway success with customers, but a well-crafted, timeless name can certainly help matters. Last week, Brand Keys released its 2016 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, an examination of customers' relationships with 635 leading brands in 72 categories. I find it fascinating that such a disproportionate number of brands that top these categories begin with only a small handful of letters of the alphabet. Several begin with the letter A—including (no surprise) wildly successful tech giants Alphabet, Apple and Amazon. None of these sound childish or make us think of a negative. Rather, each of them connects to a powerful brand story behind the name. The letter S is also well represented in the rankings, with Salesforce, Square and Samsung all making the top 20.

But there's one name among the S brands that stands out: Slack. To older generations, the word slack has several negative connotations, such as loose, a lack of work, unprofessional, a slacker. In contrast, it may mean something entirely different to millennials—pick up the slack, easygoing, or dare I say, cool.

About a decade ago, Yahoo! Marketing released the campaign slogan "Do You Yahoo!?" trying desperately to make Yahoo a verb. It obviously never caught on. The other day I heard a group of millennials, unaided by any marketing campaign, as a natural part of their conversation actually saying to each other, "Slack me that."

Yahoo has certainly reached the end of its wild ride, where Slack's has only just begun. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes the next Yahoo or the next Google.

Julia Beardwood (@juliabeardwood) is Partner at Beardwood&Co, a New York-based strategy and branding firm, which she founded in 2004.