The stories behind smartphone brand names: Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, Xiaomi, and more

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The stories behind smartphone brand names: Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, Xiaomi, and more
There are millions of companies globally, and therefore, it's getting increasingly harder to find a good and suitable brand name. There are some huge companies like Apple and Google and smaller ones made of a handful of people, or even just one person (a sole trader).

However, some may argue that the brand name doesn't even matter all that much - they believe the brand name becomes a brand name only when the company becomes successful. That's not a baseless theory. Think about it: Apple!? You wouldn't necessarily say that's a great name for an organization if it wasn't associated with the highest-valued company in the world.

Furthermore, Apple sounds incredibly different to native English speakers than it does to non-native English speakers (who are the majority). If you've been brought up thinking of fruit when hearing the word "apple", you'll associate the brand with the fruit, not the other way around. It's a natural cognitive function.

However, for those who learn English as a foreign language, the received meaning can be somewhat unrelated to the original connotation, especially if the brand's influence is so prominent.

For example, in Bulgarian, "apple" is "ya-bŭl-ka", and the brand name "Apple" sounds like, well… simply “apple” (апъл). So, the point is - for a foreigner who doesn't speak English, Apple might not be a fruit but a tech brand. But... That’s enough linguistic enlightenment.

Some types of brand names:


  • Eponymous/surname (e.g. Disney, Adidas, Tesla)
  • Descriptive (e.g., American Airlines, The Home Depot)
  • Acronymic (e.g., GE, BP, KFC, HSBC)
  • Suggestive (e.g., Uber, Slack, Facebook, Pinterest)
  • Associative (e.g., SiriusXM, Red Bull, Amazon)
  • Non-English (e.g., Samsung, Lego, Hulu)
  • Abstract (e.g., Rolex, Kodak)

Now, let's take a trip around the world and find out where some of the most popular smartphone/tech brand names come from.


Nokia: From making paper to getting paper

Nokia's paper mill

Nokia is obviously a non-English name, but completely associative for Finnish folks. As you might know, Nokia is a Finnish brand from Finland, Europe. What you probably don't know is that Nokia wasn't always a smartphone or telecommunications company.

Its first operation was a paper mill - a large industrial facility for converting timber, and wood chips into other products. Your grocery bag, cereal box, or even the paper towels you use in the kitchen all start as wood pulp.

The year is 1896, when in search of a better water flow necessary for the operation of the paper mill, the company opens another mill a couple of miles away from the town of Nokia. That's right on the banks of the Nokianvirta river, which becomes the inspiration behind what we know today as Nokia.

Frankly, Nokia's history deserves an article of its own, so let's Finnish things here.

Google: "Just BackRub it!"


A deliberate misspelling, "Google," was created from a twist on Larry Page's original planned name, "Googol" - a mathematical term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes, which technically makes Google an associative name. Rather nerdy... Unlike the original name for the search engine!

While the above is a famous story, did you know that we could be saying "just BackRub it", instead of "Google it"? That's because Page and Sergey Brin's 1996 search engine adventure was initially called "BackRub" - since it analyzed the web's "backlinks" to understand how important a website was and what other sites it had links to.

Apple: Who said money doesn't grow on (apple) trees


Since we're already in Silicon Valley, let's talk about Steve Jobs' fruit story. Because… that's literally what it was. The name is, again, associative. The legend (also, his biography) says that Steve Jobs was on a fruit diet, driving away from an apple farm (not an Apple farm!), and thought the name sounded "fun, spirited, and not intimidating."

Today, Apple is "rich, richer, and very intimidating" for the competition. That might be why so many companies are suing the Cupertino-based tech giant.

It's safe to say Steve Jobs forever changed the way we think of an apple. The company’s gotten so big that kids in 2030 may guess the fruit came second. We can’t blame them, if they get to play with an iPad before they get to eat an actual apple. At least the “chicken vs egg” debate won’t be the only one of its kind!

Samsung: Shooting for the stars

Samsung's logo through the years (including the "three stars" element)

It only makes sense to jump onto Apple's biggest competitor in the smartphone world. I don't know about Apple, but I give Samsung three stars! The name, as you probably figured, is non-English (also, associative for Korean-speakers). Samsung means "three stars" in Korean! This also explains why their flagship lineup carries the "Galaxy" tag and spirit!

If Jobs was obsessed with apples, Lee Jae-Yong must have been into astrology. The name is supposed to represent something "big, numerous, powerful, and everlasting". You know - like stars in the sky.

Sony: Named after a young boy

1986 View of Times Square, NYC, USA

Sailing away from Korea to the island of Japan, we've got ourselves into a bit of a weird one. The name Sony was chosen for the brand as a blend of two words (also know as portmanteau) -  one was the Latin word "sonus"(root of sonic & sound), and the other was "sonny", a slang for "a young boy" 1950s America.

The company dates back to 1946 when it first came into existence under the name of Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K - The Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, or simply Totsuko. It was focused on research.

As you might have noticed, the original name was too long, so the Japanese decided to bring it down to TTK. However, they ended up giving it up, as it belonged to the railway company Tokyo Kyuko. So, Sony jumped on the Sony wagon. It wasn't until 1955 when the company started using the Sony name on actual products. 

LG: Life's… Lucky

An old "LUCKY GOLDSTAR" (LG) cassette tape

LG's smartphone business might be dead, but the name is very much still with us. Some may think it means "Life's Good", since that's the famous tagline that runs through all of LG's ads, but - not quite.

GoldStar was founded five years after the end of the Korean War. Unlike Nokia, it was always meant to be an electronics company. GoldStar had a sister (company) - Lak-Hui, or "Lucky", and that's how LG, or "Lucky Goldstar" came to be. Sounds like a fairytale.

Today, LG doesn't really associate its name with the above-mentioned words - it's just... LG. This means the name remains an acronym of... nothing.

Asus: My Big Fat Greek... Naming

Pegasus

Asus is relatively new to the smartphone market, but it's managed to make a name for itself - both literally and figuratively. While the company was founded in Taiwan by former Acer employees, the name is foreign. It comes from the mythological Greek divine winged horse, Pegasus (hence the Zenfone Pegasus series). This makes it a non-English, but also eponymous, and even an associative name.

Asus says the name "embodies the strength, purity (Pegasus is depicted as "pure white"), and adventurous spirit of this fantastic creature". The myth says that Pegasus, the horse, was transformed by Zeus into the Pegasus constellation, which is still recognized today. The more you know.

Huawei: It's your way, or the Huawei

Shenzhen, China: Huawei's first office - an old apartment building

Huawei stays loyal to the "started from the bottom" cliche, just like Apple, for example. The company was founded in a small apartment in Shenzhen and sold telecoms equipment to the rural Chinese market.

Later, Huawei started developing and producing the equipment itself until at some point in the early 90s it won a government contract to provide telecom equipment for the People's Liberation Army. The rest is history.

According to the company's founder, Ren Zhengfei, the name Huawei was inspired by a slogan he saw on a wall in China - "Zhonghua youwei", which roughly translates into "promising China" or "China is able". This, of course, makes the name non-English, and descriptive for Mandarin-speakers.

We are looking forward to seeing if Huawei is still able to carry on, despite the US trade ban. The Huawei P50 series launch is said to take place as early as this month, bringing the new and long-awaited, Harmony OS.

Xiaomi: Yes, it's corn(y)

Xiaomi's Mi Rice Cooker (sold on mi.com)

Frankly, I'm not sure if Lei Jun himself knows what the name means. Xiaomi stands for "millet" - a cereal (corn) plant used for making flour and alcoholic beverages. However, the company's CEO links the "Xiao" part to the Buddhist concept that "a single grain of rice of a Buddhist is as great as a mountain", suggesting that the small (back in 2011) company can grow to become as big as the rest.

At some point he was quoted saying that the "mi" is an acronym for "mobile Internet" but also "mission impossible", referencing the movie and the difficulties he encountered at the beginning of Xiaomi's story.

Regardless of what Xiaomi really means, Jun has surely managed to turn this "single grain of rice" into a very big mountain (which somehow ended up on the back of the Mi 11 Ultra).
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