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Apple. Coca-Cola. Nike. Xerox. Google. JetBlue. Starbucks.

It’s one of the first key decisions a company founder must make: selecting a name that sticks in a customer’s head, stands the test of time and is straightforward to spell and pronounce.

“That’s not always easy to do,” said Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo.

For example, Research in Motion, the once high-flying Canadian high-tech company, has a generic, vanilla name, according to William M. Collins, a veteran of the local advertising and public relations industry who now serves as a senior consultant to the Martin Group.

Far more people know, and use, the appealing name of the firm’s leading product, BlackBerry, Collins said. There’s a lesson there for founders of companies seeking the perfect name.

“It should stand out from competition. It should be brief, so that people can remember it and use it easily,” Collins said. “It needs to be appropriate, so that it’s descriptive of the company.”

Businesses can spend thousands of dollars on professional branding consultants to name a startup company – or to rename a multimillion-dollar corporation. Contenders can be tested in customer surveys, or focus groups, before a finalist is selected.

A bad, or so-so, moniker can make it that much harder for a company to find its footing in the marketplace.

“I think if the substance is there, you can certainly overcome a ‘meh’ name,” Lindsey said. But, he added, “You’re leaving money on the table.”

Some entrepreneurs simply put their last name on the business. But inspiration can strike in the oddest places, too: A fortuitously located street sign, an envelope pulled out of that day’s mail or a misheard exclamation of pain from a friend rolling off a couch. (More on that later.)

The Buffalo News asked executives from a handful of area companies, large and small, to describe how the businesses ended up with their names. Here are their stories.

ATTO Technology

Systems engineers Timothy J. Klein and David A. Snell founded the company, which connects computers to devices that store vast amounts of data, 25 years ago in Klein’s family room.

Klein said they wanted a name that conveyed the high speed at which their interconnection technology worked. “We were thinking about a millisecond or a nanosecond,” Klein said. They wanted something that was different, but had a meaning and would stick.

Klein and Snell looked through an engineering dictionary for prefixes that measured an extremely brief period of time, such as “pico” and “femto,” but Klein didn’t like the sound of Femto Tech.

They ultimately selected “atto,” which is 10 to the minus 18th, and is written like this: 0.000000000000000001. “It’s a millionth of a millionth of a millionth,” Klein said.

“It has a good ring to it. Starts with an ‘A.’ Nothing overly complex,” he added.

Delaware North Cos.

The privately held hospitality and concessions giant can trace its history back to 1915, when the three founding Jacobs brothers started peddling peanuts and candy.

They, and their successors, moved into selling food at ballparks, airports and horse tracks; operating restaurants and parking lots and serving meals on planes; buying the Boston Bruins and the team’s arena; and unrelated industries such as typography, smelting and publishing.

The company and its divisions operated under a variety of names, such as Sportsystems, Sportservice and Emprise. But by the late 1970s, company executives sought a unifying name for the parent corporation.

The company hired a consulting firm that, after considerable study, met to go over its findings with Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr., the chairman and CEO, in the company’s headquarters at the time: the former Butler mansion, at Delaware Avenue and North Street.

Jerry Jacobs Jr., a Delaware North principal, said the consultants made a thorough presentation and recommended this name: The Myriad Group, to reflect the conglomerate’s broad array of interests.

The younger Jacobs said his father didn’t respond favorably to this suggestion. “He looked out his window and said, ‘We’ll call it Delaware North,’ ” Jacobs Jr. said.

The name has stuck, despite the occasional confusion with the Democratic National Committee (the same initials), the DeLorean Motor Company (the logos are strikingly similar) and from people who think the company is based in the State of Delaware.

Delaware North is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, and is moving from the Key Center into a new downtown Buffalo headquarters. But the name, with its origin story now part of company lore, isn’t going anywhere, Jacobs Jr. said.

“The story’s good – we wouldn’t want to lose the story,” he said.

E3 Communications

Advertising, public relations and law firms all tend to be named after the founding partners, and E3 Communications is no exception.

Earl Wells III had intended to call his firm The Wells Group, but his wife, Lucy, offered some constructive criticism as the couple sat at the kitchen table one day.

“My wife said, ‘That is so boring.’ So she is the one – I give her credit – she came up with the name,” Wells said.

E3 plays off his first initial and his standing as the third in the line of Earl Wellses, without hitting people over the head with his actual name.

Wells was sold, and he liked the price of his wife’s advice. “I didn’t have to hire a consultant, or do research,” he said.

Flying Bison Brewing Co.

Tim Herzog, one of the founders of the brewery, said he and his partners had a hard time getting the needed state and federal approvals for the brewery name. The problem is, once a brewery registers its name, that name can’t be used by anyone else unless it’s unregistered.

Between all of the breweries this city used to have, and active breweries and brew pubs in other states, their options with “Buffalo,” “Bison” and “Nickel City” were limited.

Around this time, Herzog and his partners traveled to Virginia to pick up some brewing tanks and to tour local brew pubs for “research” purposes. (“You’d have to put ‘research’ in quotes,” Herzog said dryly.)

The following morning, as they woke up at the house where they were staying, partner Dave Todenhagen rolled off the couch. Herzog swears he heard Todenhagen say, “Flying bison,” as he hit his head on a coffee table.

When Herzog later suggested “Flying Bison” as the company name, Todenhagen asked where Herzog came up with the idea.

“I said, ‘You said that,’ ” Herzog recalled. “Dave said, ‘I never said that.’ ”

His true outcry is unprintable, Herzog said, but the oddly inspired name grew on the founders. And they liked the connection to the area’s rich aviation history.

“So it made sense, to me anyway,” Herzog said, and they never came up with anything they liked more.

Gibraltar Industries

The former Gibraltar Steel Corp. was founded in the mid-1950s by Jack Lyons.

He submitted several names for approval by the state as part of the incorporation process, but all were rejected, according to Brian J. Lipke, the chairman and CEO, whose late father, Ken, a chiropractor, bought the firm in 1972.

That left a frustrated Lyons in search of inspiration, when he happened to check his mail one day.

“So, that day, he got an insurance policy from the Prudential. And the Prudential logo, then and now, was the rock of Gibraltar. So, he said, ‘Why not?’ The state came back and said, ‘OK,’ ” Lipke said.

Gibraltar changed from “Steel” to “Industries” after expanding its business line, but Lipke said the company never considered changing “Gibraltar.” (The company’s ticker symbol on the NASDAQ exchange is ROCK.)

As a side note, Lipke said his father, in the early days of owning the company, visited Gibraltar, a tiny British territory that sits in the Mediterranean just off the Spanish mainland. “My dad ended up breaking off a fairly big chunk of the rock,” Lipke said. “I never asked him how he got it.”

Ken Lipke had that roughly 40-pound chunk broken into much smaller pieces, enclosed them in Lucite and gave them away as gifts to visitors, a practice that Brian Lipke continues to this day.

Liazon

The Buffalo-based company, launched seven years ago, operates private health insurance exchanges.

CEO Ashok Subramanian, a co-founder, said the core of the company’s business was connecting consumers to the right benefits solution. The founders wanted a name that reflected this concept of offering advice, guidance and expertise to consumers.

A consulting firm hired by the company helped generate several names, including one that played off the company’s role as a “liaison.”

Subramanian and the others liked the idea of changing the spelling slightly, as the websites Tumblr and Flickr had done.

“When we went through the process, Liazon popped right to the top,” Subramanian said.

The only downside is the name occasionally is misspelled, and pronunciation can be dicey. (It’s supposed to be Lee-A-zahn.)

Still, Subramanian thinks the name Liazon does a good job of introducing what the company does. If Liazon instead was “SGC Solutions,” using the initials of the three co-founders, “I think it would be a dramatic difference,” Subramanian said.

Kaleida Health

When Buffalo General, Children’s, Millard Fillmore Gates Circle and Suburban and DeGraff Memorial hospitals began planning their 1998 merger, they took the temporary name of CGF Health System.

The new system formed a 25-member committee, working with a branding consultant, to select a permanent moniker, according to Michael Shaw, who was then the system’s public relations director.

They narrowed it down to three or four possibilities before voting to select “Kaleida,” taken from “kaleidoscope,” the tube filled with mirrors and brightly colored bits of stone or glass. It’s meant to reflect how the new system pulled together the various hospitals, and employees, into a new vision, Shaw recalled.

The name doesn’t have a geographic reference, but it also represented a fresh start and avoided words such as “Buffalo,” “General,” “Fillmore” or “Memorial” that could seem to favor one institution over another among the new partners.

Tops Friendly Markets

The grocery store chain dates to 1962, and the original team of owners included Al DiMino.

“It was his idea. Back then, in the language of the day, if you were tops, you know, you were the top of the heap. Top of the pile. You weren’t on the bottom,” said Jack Barrett, senior vice president of human resources, who’s been with Tops since 1968. “So it was a little pride, a little hubris, if you will.”

When did Tops become “Friendly?”

Barrett said that by 1976, Armand Castellani, the chairman of the board and the face of the company, decided it was important to emphasize the role store employees played in Tops’ success.

Castellani felt that “without our people, we were really nothing,” Barrett said, and he added “Friendly” to the name.

Uncle Bob’s Self Storage

So where did the name come from? The story starts with Sovran Self Storage, a real estate investment trust that in the 1980s began buying up self-storage properties throughout the East Coast.

At first, the Amherst company kept the original names of the units. But by the 1990s, as the company continued to grow, Sovran officials decided to come up with an umbrella name.

“We wanted something out of the norm that was different, that was user-friendly and memorable,” said Diane Piegza, vice president for corporate communications for Sovran and a 24-year employee.

“Bob” was part of the zeitgeist at the time, she said. Nissan had come out with a commercial for its Sentra SE-R sports sedan that featured a guy named Bob zipping around, passing through toll areas and finding a parking space – all personalized for him.

And Microsoft was promoting its “BOB” user interface program (now ridiculed as a failed experiment).

But why “Uncle Bob?” “Everybody’s got an Uncle Bob, and Uncle Bob is always the favorite,” Piegza said.

The company tested the name with customers, taking out billboards in select markets that announced, “Guess who’s coming to town?”

Employees in the field didn’t always love the name, Piegza said, “But they agreed it was a great ice breaker.”

“I’d be at the counter. Customers would come in. ‘Are you Aunt Diane? Where’s Uncle Bob?’ ” she recalled.

email: swatson@buffnews.com