Would a Pepsi by any other name taste as sweet? Although many of the world’s most famous brands may seem inseparable from their current names, a number started out with very different labels. Read on for some of the strange and surprising stories behind the names of your favorite products and companies, from Google’s slightly uncomfortable former moniker to the household salve originally called “Wonder Jelly.”
Pepsi Used to Be “Brad’s Drink”
If you love Pepsi, you have a North Carolina pharmacist named Caleb Davis Bradham to thank. Bradham created the dark, fizzy delight at his Bradham's Drug Store in downtown New Bern, North Carolina, in 1893. The drink contained a medley of sugar, water, caramel, lemon oil, kola nuts, nutmeg, and other ingredients — and it was a huge hit. At first, the brew was simply called “Brad’s Drink.” But in 1898, Bradham rechristened it “Pepsi-Cola." Some say it was because his elixir contained pepsin, an enzyme in gastric juice. They’re wrong. According to the Pepsi Store — the original location of Bradham's pharmacy, now a shop dedicated to the soft drink and its history there — the bubbly brew never contained gastric enzymes, but it was meant to aid digestion. The brand name “Pepsi-Cola” came in part from “dyspepsia,” once a popular term for indigestion. In other words, if your stomach was acting up, Pepsi-Cola was supposed to be the drink to reach for.
Pepsi is far from the only soft drink that started out with a funny name, though. 7-Up was first called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” The “bib label” part was a reference to the paper labels that hung over the necks of the bottles, while “lithiated” was a reference to the inclusion of lithia, a natural substance often found in small quantities in underground springs. You might know it better as the source for the mood stabilizer medication lithium.
Google Was Originally “Back Rub”
Search engines and massage therapy are usually separate spheres. But when Larry Page and Sergey Brin started working together from their dorm rooms at Stanford in the mid-1990s, they built a search engine that used “back links” to determine the relative importance of pages on the web. Thus, they called the search engine BackRub.
To the relief of everyone who uses the internet today, the name didn’t last long. It was soon switched to Google, a riff on the mathematical term "googol,” which refers to the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. According to the company, their new moniker reflected the team’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The term “googol” itself was coined by the American mathematician Edward Kasner, who used it in a 1940 book as an example of a number so large it baffles the imagination. Kasner came up with the term around 1920 with the help of his 9-year-old nephew, who told him that such a silly number required a suitably silly name.
Nike Started Out as “Blue Ribbon Sports”
Nike was founded on a 1964 handshake between Bill Bowerman, then a University of Oregon track-and-field coach, and his former student Phil Knight. At first, they named themselves Blue Ribbon Sports, and served only as the U.S. distributor for Japanese running shoes made by Onitsuka Tiger (now known as Asics).
Then, in 1971, Bowerman and Knight decided to make their own shoes. Their famous swoosh logo actually came first, designed by Portland State University graphic design student Carolyn Davidson. The name choice didn’t happen until the eleventh hour, just before the first shipment of shoes was set to go out. Earlier options included “Dimension Six” (possibly a play on Knight’s love for the music group The 5th Dimension), “Peregrine” (a type of falcon), and “Bengal” (inspired by the brand Puma). But Jeff Johnson, the company’s first employee, had read a magazine article noting that successful brand names were often short with punchy or “exotic” letters like “Z,” “X,” or “K.” He came up with Nike, as in the Greek winged goddess of victory. Knight went with it begrudgingly — but it stuck.
Amazon Was Almost “Relentless”
When Jeff Bezos moved to the Seattle area in 1994 to start an online bookstore, he wanted to call the company “Relentless.” In fact, to this day, typing Relentless.com into your browser will take you to Amazon’s site. Another option he considered was Cadabra, as in “Abracadabra,” an idea that was squashed when Bezos’ lawyer misheard it as “Cadaver.”
The name was changed to “Amazon” in part because the world’s largest river (by volume) suggested a sense of scale; the company’s initial tagline was "Earth's biggest bookstore." It was also handy to have a name that began with “A,” because back then, websites were often listed alphabetically on search engines.
Snapple Was Once “Unadulterated Food Products”
Unadulterated Food Products doesn’t have quite the same ring to it that Snapple has, but when the company started out in 1970s New York, it originally sold juice to health food stores. Presumably, the name was a nod to their purity and wholesomeness. The company’s current moniker came about in 1980, inspired by a carbonated apple juice that had a “snappy apple taste.”
Eggo Waffles Used to Be Called “Froffles”
The name Eggo has nothing to do with protein-packed waffle ingredients, and everything to do with the company's original venture: mayonnaise. In 1932, the Dorsa brothers of San Jose, California, launched a brand of mayo that touted its use of “100% fresh ranch eggs.” Their product was a hit, and the enterprising trio soon turned their attention to waffle batter, then powdered waffle mix. But postwar Americans wanted frozen convenience foods, so in the 1950s, the company set their sights on creating a frozen waffle.
The name? Froffles, a portmanteau of “frozen” and “waffles.” Within just a few years, Froffles were a favorite on the West Coast, and then across the nation. The name changed to Eggo Waffles in 1955, which is good, because “Leggo my Froffles” isn't quite as catchy.
Starburst’s Original Name Was “Opal Fruits”
This chewy, fruity candy originated in the United Kingdom as “Opal Fruits.” A few years later, in 1967, the treats debuted in the United States as Starburst, supposedly because they’re “unexplainably juicy.” The reason for the “star” reference isn’t entirely clear, although it may have been an attempt to capitalize on the Space Race of the time, when anything otherworldly was cool. (The U.K. name changed to Starburst in 1998, although it changed back temporarily for a nostalgia-tinged reissue of Opal Fruits in 2020.)
Vaseline Was Originally “Wonder Jelly”
Vaseline has numerous uses, from soothing chapped lips to preventing diaper rash, so it may not be a surprise that it was originally called “Wonder Jelly.” The company got its start in 1859, when a chemist named Robert Chesebrough traveled to Titusville, Pennsylvania, and noticed that oil workers were using rod wax (unrefined petroleum jelly) on their burns and abrasions. After a series of experiments, the young chemist produced a lighter, clearer jelly suitable for household use. The product debuted in 1870 as Wonder Jelly. But in 1872 it was rebranded as Vaseline, a combination of the German word “wasser” (water) and the Greek word “oleon” (oil).