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What’s in an Ed-Tech Name? Here’s All U Need 2Gnō

The name of the company was 2gnōME.

2gnōME is pronounced “to know me,” according to the company’s website (although in my head it sounds more like a vinyl recording of some actual word playing in reverse). It is a pun on the word “gnōme,” which means “thought” in Greek. There’s a “2” in the mix as well because we live in The Future now.

The company’s product is a “feedback platform with novel methodologies that assess ‘soft’ skills and qualities, based on situations and behavior,” according to its website. A Pennsylvania State University professor was using 2gnōME in his courses to raise the interpersonal skills of his students, explained the marketing person who pitched me on the company in April. The experiment was going quite well, she said, and did I want to talk to the company’s chief executive?

2gnōME is not alone in its efforts to sell education products by strategically bastardizing language, but much of the blame goes to the ed-tech boom. It has blurred the borders between higher education and the higher-education industry, and perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the many company names that have wriggled into the lexicons of college administrators, professors, and students.

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The list of registered attendees at May’s ASU+GSV Education Innovation Summit, for instance, offered a variety of examples—from the charmlessly corporate (Edgenuity, Ednovate) to the whimsical (Grockit, Smarterer) to the borderline unpronounceable (Qlovi, Xlibrio).

“The names are almost universally terrible,” says John Katzman, who has named several education companies of his own, including the Princeton Review, 2tor (now 2U), and Noodle.

What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. In many ways a name is the most superficial thing about a company. But first impressions matter, especially if you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with skeptical academics.

Most colleges were named, almost by default, after either their locations or the dead white guys who founded them. But education companies sometimes spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a few syllables’ worth of marketing.

Impressing potential customers is only part of the equation. A company name has to be defensible from an intellectual-property standpoint. The relevant trademark and web domain need to be available. Less obviously, the company’s name must not translate to anything offensive or embarrassing in any of the countries where it wants to do business.

Danny Altman is someone companies pay to think about that kind of stuff. Mr. Altman is a founder of A Hundred Monkeys, a branding agency that has worked with clients in and around higher education. His agency named Inkling, a digital-textbook publishing platform. It was also involved in naming Ithaka, the education-technology nonprofit, and its digital-preservation service, Portico.

Mr. Altman despises coinages and nonsense, preferring to name companies with words that already exist. He speaks of naming companies and their products as an art form, one that involves subtlety and emotional intelligence—and comes at a price.

Three or four people are typically assigned to a naming job, says Mr. Altman. The team spends time with the leaders of a company and tries to interpret the essence of the company’s “identity.” Mr. Altman declines to go into detail about the techniques his company uses to come up with names, as they are secrets of the trade, but by the end there are usually 25 to 30 possibilities.

Mr. Altman’s company whittles down from there and unveils the winner in a carefully choreographed exercise during which “we present the names in a very interesting way that gives people a lot of context and that explains how a name translates into a brand,” he says. The naming process usually costs a client $35,000 to $50,000, he says.

Mr. Katzman did not shell out for consultants when naming his companies. He named 2tor, a company that builds online programs for universities, after his dog, Gigantor, whose nickname was “Tor.” That, plus the pun on “tutor” (using “2” because, again, it’s The Future), was enough to satisfy Mr. Katzman.

For his latest company, which helps match prospective students with colleges, he picked Noodle. “When you Noodle on something, you’re thinking on something,” he says. Also, he adds, double-o names are considered lucky in the start-up world (see: Google, Yahoo!).

“I’ve learned the sexual and all the other definitions of Noodle” since then, he says. But Mr. Katzman loves the name anyway, so much so that he ended up paying six figures for the “Noodle.com” domain.

One of the biggest new companies in higher-education technology formed in 2011, when two major vendors of operations software, Sungard Higher Education and Datatel, merged. The new company was running mission-critical systems for 2,400 clients, including many universities, around the world. It was collecting hundreds of millions in annual revenue. But nobody knew what to call it.

The company assembled a team of about 15 of its staff members, from different parts of the business, and hired a branding firm. The firm promptly came up with 2,000 potential names, according to Toby Williams, senior vice president for corporate development. The list then went through a phased screening process—first for duplication of other company names, then for trademarks, then for cultural problems, and finally for the personal preferences of company leaders. The list shrank to 500, then 150, then 20, then four.

The top brass convened in a boardroom on the third floor of the company’s headquarters, in Fairfax, Va. Michelle Reed, then the chief marketing officer, gave a PowerPoint presentation culminating in the unveiling of the final four candidates.

In the end the choice was almost unanimous: Ellucian, a combination of “elucidate” and “academician,” according to Mr. Williams. The naming process took three months and cost the company around $50,000, according to Camilla Sullivan, head of content marketing and public relations.

Mr. Williams says Ellucian considers that money well spent. “We definitely needed professional help to do it,” he says. “We couldn’t sit around and throw names at the wall.” The stakes were too high.

In other cases the value of involving a branding firm is less apparent.

In 2003, William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, was building a new arm of JSTOR, the electronic-journal archive he founded as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1995. The new organization needed a name, so it hired Mr. Altman and A Hundred Monkeys. But it was Mr. Bowen who suggested “Ithaka,” the title of an old poem by Constantine P. Cavafy.

Mr. Bowen’s idea “sort of got put in the pile and dismissed,” says Mr. Altman. The firm went through its paces. “And then, when we were looking near the end of the process, we pulled that one out.”

In the end, A Hundred Monkeys decided that “Ithaka” was fitting. The poem, the way Mr. Altman reads it, “has to do with the whole journey and ending up where you started, but with a whole different set of understandings.”

Update (7/24/2014, 12:58 p.m.): An earlier version of this post quoted Toby Williams, a senior vice president at Ellucian, as saying the total cost of renaming the company was close to $1-million. The company now says the renaming cost was closer to $50,000, while the cost of the larger rebranding effort around that name was significantly higher. The post has been updated to reflect this new information.

Correction (7/24/2014, 12:19 p.m.): This post originally gave an incorrect first name for a businessman who has named the Princeton Review, 2tor, and Noodle. He is John Katzman, not Jonathan. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.

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