– Nancy Friedman, Wordworking

A few years ago I began tracking a trend in startup naming: names that ended in -ly. Adly, Chirply, Letter.ly, Planely, Shoply, Weebly—my first list included 29 such names, some of them dot-coms and some that used the .ly domain (the Libyan country code).

My initial impression was that this was a flavor-of-the-month phenomenon that soon would be displaced by a new fad. To my surprise, the -ly naming trend proved to be astonishingly robust and persistent. I kept discovering new examples, and eventually I created a Pinterest board with logos of -ly names. Not a week has gone by without a few additions to the board, which now displays 193 names that end in -ly.

The -ly epidemic is an extreme example of the copycat-branding mentality that can infect businesses, especially but not exclusively technology startups. My colleague Christopher Johnson has tracked a parallel naming trend, names that end in -ify, on his Name Inspector blog. Another naming formula, the X + Y name, is currently popular among fashion brands and retailers. There are also clusters of “box” brands, “zen” brands, and cutesy-sounding brands whose names end in -sy, -sie, or -zee.

Name developers and trademark lawyers alike know the perils of a copycat naming strategy. Distinctiveness, not imitation, is our goal. Why, we wonder, would a company founder choose a name that looks and sounds like 100 other names?

I’ve analyzed the phenomenon and come up with a few answers:

• Lack of awareness. Many startups are named by their founders without professional naming assistance. In my experience, founders tend not to be familiar with the bigger naming picture or with naming trends; when searching for a name, they often focus exclusively on a short name or an available domain.

• Comfort in numbers. Some founders place little value on distinctiveness and feel safer following the herd—much as a teenage girl prefers to wear “what everyone’s wearing” rather than define her own style. Confronted with the evidence—my Pinterest boards—these founders have responded along the lines of “We’re in good company!” They see no downside in having an easily confusable name; rather, they see the crowded namescape as evidence that they have their metaphorical finger on a hypothetical pulse—or that they’ve gained entrance to a cozy club.

• Wishful thinking. Some copycat namers apparently hope that a copycat name will translate to copycat success. Christopher Johnson makes a compelling case that the music-streaming service Spotify was the -ify name that launched a thousand (OK, 186) imitators: founded in 2006, it launched in the U.S. in 2011 and made Business Insider’s list of the top private tech companies for 2011 and 2012—the years when “the number of -ify names took off into the stratosphere,” Johnson writes. (The Spotify name itself resulted from a mis-hearing. For more on Spotify, see my 2011 column for the Visual Thesaurus.) For -ly names, the influencers may have been the link-shortening services Bit.ly and Ow.ly, both of which launched in 2008 and became ubiquitous thanks to Twitter’s 140-character limit. The craft-sales website Etsy—a coined name that may or may not have a Latin meaning—launched in 2005 and has amassed more than $91 million in funding; companies like Mallzee, Keepsy, and Scoutzie have no doubt taken notice.

• Denial. Once you’ve settled on a name—or at least an “available” domain—it can be painful to admit that you’ve erred and more palatable to deny that the name is imitative. “We’re a dot-com, not a dot-ly!” one company said in response to my query. “Our name is cute!” was another’s defense. “Oh, we should be there! :)” tweeted a spokesperson for one -ify name after s/he saw Christopher Johnson’s Pinterest Wall of Namifying (118 -ify names).

What does all of this mean for naming professionals and trademark lawyers? Clearly, there’s a need for education about the value of distinctiveness and the importance of distinguishing an “available” domain from a desirable brand name. Talking about it—to company founders; in business presentations; to venture capitalists and other startup funders—may help. Visual representations of the trends, like my Pinterest boards and Christopher Johnson’s -ify infographic, may be even more effective.

And if those tactics fail, we can take faint hope in the assurance that this trend will, sooner or later, be trendified into oblivion.

  • About a year ago, Yahoo purchased a news-summarizing app called “Summly.” It soon disappeared. Then, a few weeks ago, Yahoo announced its return as . . . Yahoo News Digest.

    DeWitt Wallace would be so proud – his Reader’s Digest is probably the most famous brand from the “digest” naming trend, which dates back to at least the 1920s. For a summary of the TTAB’s view on “digest” trademarks, take a look here: http://ipmall.info/hosted_resources/TTAB_Decisions/TTAB_Appeal_73-696567.asp.

  • Aht

    Nancy, I looked at your .ly Pinterest board and would add “DriveSafe.ly”. I like this example of “country-code” branding because it follow real language on both sides of the dot.

    • Nancy Friedman

      rlene: But that one actually makes sense! I focus on the preposterous ones. (Thanks just the same!)

  • S0ldier

    This trend is so annoying… It makes me think the founders of those sites didn’t even try to be original. And the resulting names are cringey.