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‘New, different, and easy to say’: How fintechs go about choosing their names

  • Standing out as a company in an industry as fast-growing as fintech is no easy task.
  • Finding the right brand name can be a make-or-break for a lot of aspiring startups.
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‘New, different, and easy to say’: How fintechs go about choosing their names

On October 28, Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta. According to Mark Zuckerberg, the goal of the new name is to better encompass the company’s broadening moves into virtual reality. 

The rebrand announcement also came following the negative coverage on the company brought about by leaked documents from an ex-employee. 

In other words, it could be the company’s way of tiptoeing into some more flattering lighting.

While brand names matter for every company, fintechs have the added pressure of standing out in a market that continues to grow. 

They also may have some unique boxes they need to fill with their names. A lot of times, these companies make their way into the financial industry with catchphrases like ‘disruptor’ and ‘innovator’. The names they choose play a role in reflecting these sentiments.

A lot of fintechs, for example, present themselves as alternatives to the brick-and-mortar institution, outdated and weighed down by legacy systems. One trend then is for the name to reflect a sense of beating the system or going against the grain.

UnBanked is a fintech company that offers banking solutions built through blockchain. According to co-founder Ian Kane, the idea was to take a word that has a negative connotation and re-present it with a positive spin.

“If you're doing your banking from your mobile phone, and you're spending on a credit card or debit card, and you don't have a personal relationship with your banker anymore, then what is the bank really doing for you,” said Kane. “You are essentially getting un-banked.”

Anthony Shore is a brand naming expert who’s been naming things for thirty years. Throughout his career, Shore has come up with over 200 names for products and companies, including Fortune 500 company Accenture and several Fitbits products like Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Ionic.  

According to him, using names of heroes or important historical figures is another way to reflect a sense of going against the grain. One example he gives is Robinhood, which of course brings to mind the retold story of the heroic outlaw that takes from the rich and gives to the poor. The idea sort of falls in line with the mission Robinhood likes to emphasize, which is making investing accessible to everyone.

Meanwhile one company Shore himself has named is Ampleforth, a digital asset protocol. The idea came to him from George Orwell’s novel 1984. Shore wanted to use language as a metaphor for currency. In the novel, there is Newspeak, the language used to maintain totalitarian dominance. Shore used the fictional language as a symbolic basis to represent fiat currency. There is also the character of Ampleforth, who’s job is to translate existing poems into Newspeak. Ampleforth ends up going to jail for refusing to destroy a poem, by leaving the word ‘God’ untranslated.

“I [saw him] as an appropriate hero, and a symbol for standing up against the destructive powers of fiat currency,” said Shore. “And ultimately he’s kind of a champion for what is right.”

A bonus for choosing this name, said Shore, is that even if someone is not familiar with the novel, they can still relate to the meaning of ‘ample’.

But it’s not always about reflecting a disruptoresque identity. For fintechs that work with banks and other fintechs, it may be important to shy away from names that express disruption within the industry, and instead go for those that express improvement.

Galileo is one example. The company provides APIs to fintechs that lets them create bank accounts and physical and digital cards. The company is named after Galileo Galilei. But the goal of the name is to reflect the expanding of knowledge, rather than going against the system.

“The famed astronomer, mathematician and philosopher Galileo Galilei was not satisfied with the answers his contemporaries accepted as truths,” said Sheri Chin, CMO at Galileo, which was acquired by SoFi last year. “His commitment to expanding knowledge and understanding through constant innovation resonated with founder Clay Wilkes, who wanted to bring that same spirit of creativity and problem-solving to payments and fintech.”

Another example is Zelle, which allows for easy bank transfers between a variety of different U.S. bank accounts, as well as P2P payments. The inspiration for the name was drawn from gazelle, an animal a Zelle spokesperson said is social, fast, and graceful -- all attributes the company wants to reflect within its products. 

Because of it being named after an animal the company said is known for being social, Zelle seems to give off more of a collaborative vibe than a competitive one.

Zelle is also what Shore says a trademark attorney would call a fanciful word.

“[The company] liked the idea of speed, and that's certainly understandable. But because it may [had led to trademark problems,] they couldn't choose Gazelle per se,” said Shore. “But they found a clipping of the word itself.”

Shore isn’t behind the name Zelle but he went through a similar process when naming the landlord-focused financial service provider Azibo. Shore wanted a word that brought to mind gazebo, because of its ‘homy and aspirational’ feel.

“You can take an existing word, clip it, and come up with something [that’s] new, different, and easy to say,” said Shore. 

One trap that a fintech company can fall into is choosing a name that doesn’t give them room to expand their services in the future.

Subscription company Recharge, for instance, changed the capitalization in its name -- going from ReCharge to Recharge -- simply as a way to escape focusing on the literal meaning behind what it does. The change could hint at the company’s plans to add newer tools going forward.

“Our original branding spoke just to the literal nature of recurring transactions,” said Shan Miller, creative director of Recharge.  “Recharge enables more than that – we help turn those transactions into valuable long-term customer relationships.”

One way to allow for flexibility and future expansion is to go for words that tend to be shorter and more abstract in terms of associations, said Shore. Square and Stripe are two examples he gives.

Wise, previously known as TransferWise, changed its name in line with its expanding services, going past just transferring money abroad.

“Our founders started with this journey of basically solving the problem of transferring money between countries. And hence, the company was called transferwise. That was basically the only product we had in the beginning,” said Harsh Sinha, CTO at Wise. “But over the last few years we realized our customers have other international finance needs.”

But abstract meanings may not always be the answer. Zeroing in on emotional components may become even more important as personalization takes on new significance in the financial industry. 

This seems to be especially true for a lot of challenger banks.

One trend that’s popped up, said Shore, is choosing names of people, which could be a way to build trust in an industry where trust tends to be lacking. 

“We see financial services building on avatars and digital assistants like Siri [as a way to] humanize the institutions of banks,” said Shore.

Even though Dave was named after the story of David and Goliath, the vibe it seems to give off is that of something friendly and approachable. 

Goldman Sachs may have been aiming for a similar effect when it chose to name its digital bank Marcus after the bank’s founder, rather than the bank itself.

Personalization comes in other forms, as well. GoHenry, a teen banking app, also involves a name, for example, but the ‘Go’ bit comes from the fact that the founders of the company wanted something that would feel motivational to kids using the app.

“We really wanted something active, something that was empowering to kids and was about them going out and exploring the world and the role that money can play in their lives,” said Dean Brauer, co-founder of the company. 

GoHenry also allows consumers to personalize the product -- kids can change the name on the card to reflect their own -- GoSara, instead of GoHenry, let’s say.

Then there are challenger banks that choose names that help them better identify with the communities they want to serve. Black and Latino-focused challenger bank Greenwood is named after the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma, which was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Before the massacre, Greenwood was known as one of the wealthiest Black communities and was referred to as Black Wall Street. 

Another example is Jefa, a challenger bank that aims to serve women in Latin America. Jefa is the feminine noun for boss in Spanish.

Sometimes there may also just be the goal to choose a name that consumers are more likely to identify with something non-threatening and fun.

Cheese is a challenger bank that zeroes in on the Asian-American community. The name of the company is sort of a double entendre -- playing both on the use of the word ‘cheese’ to mean dollars and the word’s role in making people smile for a picture.

“We wanted to put a smile on people’s faces when they think of Cheese, to show that money can be joyful, not just stressful,” said Ken Lian, co-founder and CEO of the company.

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