What’s In A Name?
In the early days, Jason Keck, CEO of Broker Buddha, came across it often: “Oh! I’ve heard of you! I have no idea what you do. But I love the name.”
It didn’t bother him one bit.
“As a startup, brand awareness is your biggest problem,” Keck says. “Nobody knows who you are. But even getting the tip of the spear in there, being able to stick in their minds, is super important.”
Naming a company can be a fairly rigorous process that takes leadership to the core of what it hopes to accomplish.
Events of recent years have taught us that even lofty institutions with names built to inspire trust may not be so trustworthy.
It’s a romantic idea to think the ideal company name will emerge from notes scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin.
These days, the insurance technology (insurtech) space is chock-full of creative names aiming to inspire, evoke, excite, convey, connect and, above all, stick. There are animals (Ask Kodiak, Bold Penguin and Goose, for a start); whimsical objects and references (Thimble, Slice, Pickle, Lemonade, Anorak, Blink, Ladder); and words of less-than-certain origin that still manage to communicate a message, function or emotion (Embroker, Insurify, Matic, Reposit, Vericred, Waggel).
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Keck says. “The people who work in insurance are just very normal, laid back and real, with a good sense of humor. When you think of a broker or account manager, you think of someone who is personable and engaging and can have a conversation with anybody.”
There is, perhaps, a bit more: Laurel Sutton, a linguist, strategist and co-founder of the naming agency Catchword, points out that recent years—and recent recessions—have taught us that even lofty institutions with names built to inspire trust for generations are not necessarily more trustworthy than anyone else. Those of millennial age and younger have grown up in a time when the perception of friendliness, accessibility and a dose of fun are equally—if not more—important.
“It’s entirely a generational thing,” she says. “Over the last 30 years, people have really played on that idea of, ‘Hey, don’t trust the big institutions. Trust the friendly, small entrepreneurs. We’ll take care of you. We’re real people.’” Why not, then, engage with a financial services app called Albert or a protection plan platform named Clyde?
And while you’re at it, why not find a new place of “Zen” with Broker Buddha?
“There were hundreds of names we batted around,” Keck says. “But it’s good if it can be a little provocative. It creates a bit of staying power, if you will.” Besides, it relates to the “enlightenment” the company attempts to create for its customers. Broker Buddha simplifies applications and renewals by converting PDFs into user-friendly interactive smart forms.
“Everybody comments on the name,” he says. “In the beginning, there were some strong opinions, but we held firm and stuck with it. And it’s become a huge branding point for us.”
A Bit Like Therapy
It’s a romantic idea to think the ideal company name will emerge from notes scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin. It might have happened that way 40 years ago, but today there are other elements to consider. First, Sutton says, a lot of names people might come up with are already taken. And second, it’s important to make sure ownership measures, such as domain names and trademarks, are available, too.
Naming a company or product, then, can be a fairly rigorous process and one that takes leadership to the core of what it hopes to accomplish. It’s why companies engage firms like Catchword—and discover the evolution can be a bit like therapy.
“Naming is super emotional for people,” says Sutton, who has worked in the field for 20 years. “As much as we try to make the naming process objective and say it’s going to be a strategic project from beginning to end, names are emotionally engaging. As humans, we name things: our pets, our cars, our babies, our houses. People always get emotionally invested in names, and it can be heartbreaking for someone to think they have the name and then it’s not available. Everything else seems like it’s second best to the one that got away, and they feel like they’ll never find anything else as good. But, in reality, there are probably lots of names that are just as good as the one they fell in love with.”
The truth, she says, is that there aren’t that many “bad” names. (Unless you count that athletic shoe in the 1990s that a company unwittingly named after a mythological demon that sexually harasses women. “Now that was a bad name,” she quipped. “Don’t do that.”) What makes a name good is often the massive amount of money put behind marketing it. Here, she points to Google, a name nobody liked at the outset but is now a household word, even used as a verb.
At Broker Buddha, the name made some early salespeople “a little bit skittish” when prospects didn’t recognize it—and perhaps didn’t take them seriously, Keck says. There also was the challenge of introducing a foreign philosophy/religion into a fairly conservative industry. But overcoming the objections actually served the company in surprising ways. Keck tells the tale of a couple of Christian brokerages that enjoyed the functionality of the Broker Buddha app, but he says they felt uncomfortable with the floating Buddha icon used as a transition between screens. “So we built a premium feature that allows you to customize the transition image,” Keck says. “And it has been incredibly popular. It just goes to show how important branding is as a platform. We have a lot of companies that use their own brand logos there. And one of those agencies, I want to say they now use a floating cross. It’s great for them, and it works for us.”
Sometimes a name starts with one idea and is adapted as the company changes. Pie Insurance is one such example, though the initial experience of naming it was “brutal,” according to co-founder and CEO John Swigart.
The name was an attempt to marry the idiom of being “easy as pie” with pi, the mathematical constant.
“The concept was that we’re using analytics and hard science to create a much easier process for customers,” Swigart says. “If you look at our logo, you can see it. It’s ‘pi,’ and the ‘e’ is offset from that. But that’s a mouthful to explain in a marketing message. So we’ve been paring that down. We’re just making insurance easy as pie.”
And on that level, he says, the name resonates. It’s helpful that the company name also includes the word Insurance. Without such a clear descriptor, Sutton says, companies may find themselves telling the story “pretty much every time you engage with a customer who doesn’t know who you are.” But when the company has a very specific target audience, she says, it can work well. “When the people in that audience understand it, they can feel like they’re part of a select, elite group.”
Pie Insurance provides small-business workers compensation insurance and delivers it directly to consumers in addition to selling through agents and brokers. Policies are algorithmically priced to deliver increased fairness and accuracy. “And we deliver it through a system that is digitally enabled and much more aligned with how they’re managing their overall business in the real world already,” Swigart says. “It’s real-time, it’s responsive, and it’s faster, better and cheaper for them.” In other words, there’s direct alignment: it’s easy as pie.
Swigart will happily explain his company’s name, but he’s not one to “throw stones in the glass name house” by commenting on others. “I recognize that it’s hard,” he says. Besides, “it’s not about what you actually name your business. It’s about the experience you create for your customers and the meaning you put behind that name.”
Mike Ferber, CEO of Dovetail, is of a like mind. “We believe a company name and brand is only as good as the business behind it. It’s less about a name and more about how well you meet your customers’ needs through product offering and service.”
The Dovetail name, incidentally, arose from a love of woodworking by one of the company’s founders.
“It’s a type of woodworking joint used as a refined and elegant way to connect pieces of wood together and build something new,” Ferber says. “It seemed like a natural fit for what the founders were trying to accomplish: build a company that connects carriers and agents through technology.
“When we look back on our history, it’s interesting that the Dovetail name has had an influence on how we’ve developed. Just like a dovetail joint, we’ve dovetailed our business into new areas and technology to meet the needs of our customers and the insurance industry. It’s also a name that doesn’t pigeonhole us into one type of service or technology.”
That last point is key. One of the most common reasons companies engage naming agencies, Sutton says, is that they’ve expanded into new or different business models and the original name has become confining or irrelevant.
Consider Cake & Arrow. It formerly was known as Alexander Interactive, founded in the early 2000s when strong legacy names were more popular. “When we started, it was enough to say we were an interactive design agency,” says Josh Levine, the co-founder and CEO. “‘Interaction design’ was new enough that it was the brand, but the industry has matured and we’ve evolved. It didn’t convey anything about our value.”
A few years back, the company went through a name change and rebranding, and Levine says the self-exploration was an amazing experience. “It really did help connect us with the work that we do,” he says. So much so, in fact, that Levine says he wishes the same for many others in the industry: the opportunity to consider the value your company provides to the world. “It’s worth the effort,” he says.
At Cake & Arrow, the value for customers is the creation of award-winning digital customer product design. The company works with organizations in the insurance industry to design products and services that are grounded in real customer needs. And what of the name?
The “cake” part represents the emotional component of the business and understanding what people want and why. The “arrow” part refers to research, analytics and hard science. It’s the combination of empathy and logic, then, the ability to both surprise and delight end users as well as be strategic and targeted—that is core to who they are and what the company is.
Earning Your Brand
It’s true that the insurtech industry has provided fertile ground for creative, disruptive, inspirational and sometimes quirky names. But hopefully—and more importantly—it’s also fertile ground for creative approaches to industry challenges. That’s the word from Mike Albert, co-founder of Ask Kodiak. Easy for him to say; the naming of his own company was decidedly less arduous than for many others.
“When we started the business in 2015, we knew we wanted to build a brand that didn’t feel like a typical insurance software company,” Albert says. “We had been kicking around ideas at the same time Allan [Egbert, Ask Kodiak’s co-founder] was visiting with his dad, helping him digitize old rolls of film from his time researching brown bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska in the ’70s. The question, ‘What about Kodiak?’ was uttered exactly once, followed by a ‘Yes!’ At the time, the domain name was available for six figures, so we bolted ‘ask’ on the front, spent $12.95 on the domain and we were off to the races. With all the animal-themed insurance tech companies that have come since, we’re pretty sure we were on to something.”
The founding team has been part of other corporate naming efforts since. “Truth be told,” Albert says, “as long as the name is reasonably memorable, easy to spell, and the domain is available, that’s all you need to get started. Making the name great—building a brand—by working your ass off to exceed the expectations of customers, partners and employees? That’s the hard part. A name is assigned. A brand is earned.”
Diane Beecher, CEO and senior strategist at The Brand Consultancy, admits that finding a market-distinctive name that truly reflects the brand requires “a lot of creativity and research.” She doesn’t believe a name should be fun just for the sake of fun, especially if that’s not the image the brand needs to convey to gain trust with its stakeholders. “This is especially true with startups that don’t have a heritage of strength and stability,” she says.
Market research is important in ensuring the name is understood in the way it was intended and that it supports the reputation the brand wants to earn. But it’s also important, Beecher says, to remember that no brand name ever stands alone. “It’s surrounded by context,” she says. “A brand has a logo, visual identity, messaging and a brand voice that all help to infuse the name with meaning as well.”
Chisel AI might agree about the challenge of naming. For the company’s leaders, the process was excruciating. Long story short, the company was founded as Knote, an app that used artificial intelligence to help students study more efficiently and effectively. Founder and CEO Ron Glozman gave a talk on natural language processing, which unexpectedly opened a door to applications in the insurance industry. But as the company doubled down to raise seed funding, investors encouraged a name change. “And boy,” Glozman says, “was that a journey I did not imagine I would embark on.”
He hired a naming agency, and the three-month process included 120 names and six iterations. Chisel AI eventually rose to the top, beating out suggestions such as Bloodhound and Red Tractor (sounding somewhat like “redactor,” inspired by the process of removing sensitive information from documents).
“The thinking was that we help companies unlock data that is trapped,” Glozman says. “If you look at a rock, at a statue, it’s about taking an ugly rock and making it beautiful and unlocking its value.”
Chisel AI automates the laborious process of checking policies, reducing the task from hours to minutes, helping brokers work smarter and more efficiently, he says. And the beautiful part? More time with their families and opportunities away from the office. “I’d say we take a human approach to the process, even though it’s AI,” he says.
And speaking of processes, it took longer to settle on the name than it did to switch the trajectory of the company.
Entrepreneur Ilya Bodner, in the meantime, was watching a nature documentary. He saw a large group of penguins—a “waddle”—on an iceberg, all looking at the water. There were sharks in the water, but if the penguins stayed where they were, they’d eventually starve. One finally jumped in, and when the others noticed that the trailblazer was safe, they followed suit. “Ilya was thinking, ‘That is one bold penguin,’” says Amber Wuollet, director of marketing for the company that would become Bold Penguin. “Someone’s got to do it. Someone has to be the one that jumps into the unknown water and tests it out and then creates safety for the rest of the waddle. We try to be that bold penguin.”
Over time, other parallels have become apparent, she says. Penguins are friendly and approachable. But they’re also fast and nimble, and they work well in teams. The idea of that bold penguin, then, has been a touchstone to keep returning to, even as the startup has grown to roughly 150 team members, engaged one million small businesses, and become the world’s largest commercial insurance platform exchange. Founded by two agents challenged by the painstaking process of writing small-commercial policies, Bold Penguin jumped into the unknown waters of solving the problems with technology. The mission has always been more about uniting the industry and moving commercial forward rather than disruption or displacement, Wuollet says.
The inherent challenge that comes with a name that includes “bold” is that the ante continues to rise on what’s considered bold and daring.
During the InsureTech Connect conference in 2018, Wuollet says, the main feedback Bold Penguin received was that agencies needed a platform to help them identify the more than 19,000 codes of the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). “We knew it was an ambitious goal and that it would be a lot,” she says. “But it aligned with our mission. So we doubled down and invested. At the last InsureTech Connect, we launched our terminal, and the business class selector had already been live by that point. It was pretty significant progress for a less than 12-month turnaround time.”
Significant, yes. Some might even say bold.
As for the “penguin” side of the name, that’s a bit more playful; just for kicks, the company has been known to put someone in a penguin suit at industry events. At InsureTech Connect that penguin roamed the floor with vouchers for a rehydration bar, making a functional—and memorable—splash for tired and potentially dehydrated attendees.
“We’re apt to do fun things like that, to connect, start conversations and build relationships in a way that we probably couldn’t if our name was, like, Platform Creation Co.,” she says.
So what’s in a name? Insurtech companies would likely say, quite a bit.