Apple Computer, Inc., humbly founded in 1976, now ranks twelfth on the 2015 list of the world’s biggest public companies (compiled by Forbes). But naming a company after a piece of fruit is actually pretty strange.
In fact it begs the question: how has the company’s name affected it’s success? More specifically, did blind luck, relentless ambition and/or prudent planning impact the way Apple’s name influenced the company’s accomplishments, fortune and, importantly, it’s image? Even more specifically, would (or could) Apple still be adored by hordes of fans if it had been named after another type of fruit, like, say, a banana? No, really. Would Banana Computer, Inc. have been as successful and as cool as Apple Computer, Inc.?
On the surface these questions might be easily dismissed as trivial, but if you dig a bit deeper they are actually quite interesting (not to mention kind of fun to think about). Perhaps thinking them over may change the perspective of entrepreneurs struggling with the task of choosing a name for their company.
Next stop? Rabbit hole.
Comparing Apples To Bananas…
My gut reaction is that a company named Banana would never become famous enough to make a dent in the universe. But, and this is a big but (because I like big buts and I cannot lie), what if we weren’t talking about just any random computer company?
What if we were talking about the very same computer company we know today as Apple — down to the last molecule? What if that company with all of it’s svelte aluminum, obsessive thinness, Force Touch, Siri, Retina displays and especially Sir Jony Ive, Tim Cook and other essential executives — what if THAT company was, in fact, named Banana? Would you buy a Banana iPad or a Banana Watch? Would anybody? Would Banana be equal to Apple?
Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.
The Argument For
Clearly the word apple has nothing to do with computers. That’s one of the reasons why Steve Jobs liked it (after fiddling around with names like Executex and Matrix Electronics). On an elementary level, bananas also happen to be types of fruit that have nothing to do with computers. That being the case, why couldn’t the Steves Jobs and Wozniak have struck upon the same level of success under the name and symbolism of another fruit?
Well, for one thing, there’s no inherent coolness in “Banana.” But then again, the same holds true for “Apple.” Today there’s no denying that Apple, as a company, has a certain cachet, but the Apple of 1976 was starting from scratch. Back before the hit products and high-powered marketing, the word apple just described a piece of fruit. And as I think about it, turning a company named after a piece of fruit into a household name actually sounds pretty hard. But it happened for Apple, and here’s why it could happen for Banana…
A good product is a good product — regardless of it’s name. Just look at Google and it’s domination of the search market. People bought the Apple I and Apple II because of what they could do — despite the machines being named after a piece of fruit. I see no reason why machines named Banana I and Banana II (or maybe Nana I or Nana II) wouldn’t have been treated similarly. I think they would’ve sold just as well had they been named the Zebra I and Zebra II. As long as the names didn’t contain obscenities, why wouldn’t sales have followed the same path as the Apple I and Apple II?
If nothing but the name had changed, the “i” era of the company, which started when the iMac was born, would’ve taken off for Banana just as it actually did for Apple. The iMac (though it’s name would’ve necessarily been different), still would’ve been a breakthrough device. Same goes for the success of the iPod (and, of course, the iPod Nana), iPhone, iPad and MacBooks of various lineage.
Speaking of the iPad, do you remember how much fun people made of it’s name when it was announced? In the end the jokes didn’t damped the tablet’s success. In just the first quarter of 2015, Apple sold 21.4 million iPads. It’s certainly safe to say that people got over the name.
On top of this, Steve Jobs was the ultimate salesman (we’ve all heard about his famous distortion field). He was good enough to sell Mike Markkula on his ideas and, in turn, Mike proceeded to pump $250,000 into the company.
But here’s the thing about the Markkula encounter, a pivotal time in Apple’s history: Mike probably thought Apple was a somewhat bizarre, and perhaps unprofessional, name for a computer company. And yet he wasn’t scared off. Markkula obviously bit into the juicy Apple Jobs was selling (maybe that’s where the missing chunk in the logo ended up). With Jobs’ sales skills and vision, and Woz’s technical wizardry, Markkula wouldn’t have gotten stuck on a name like Banana if he didn’t get hung up on a name like Apple.
And visionary Jobs was. He had an innate sense of what people wanted before they knew themselves. He practically invented new markets out of thin air. With Jobs playing the exact same role at Banana as he did at Apple, there’s no reason to believe that he would’ve steered Banana Computer, Inc. down the drain.
If Apple were Banana, we’d still have OS X El Capitan and iOS 9. The iPhone 6S or 7 would still be coming down the pipeline and people would still be frothing at the mouth to get their hands on one. Samsung would still be trying to copy and outdo Apple’s every mobile move. Siri would still misunderstand simple words at the most frustrating of times (but quickly be forgiven after working well most of the rest of the time).
If Apple were Banana, Tim Cook would still have taken the helm after Jobs passed away and the company would still have realized the same incredible stock growth.
Now let me point out that it’s not impossible for a company to find success with the word banana in it’s title. Case in point: Banana Republic. It’s a brand that’s known as an upscale retailer. It sells products for a premium price and people lighten their wallets more than they would at cheaper stores because they like what they think it says about them to be associated with the brand. It really reminds me of another company I know…
To seal the deal, consider the numerous tech startups with zany names pulling in large amounts of venture funding. Since all of the best top level domain names are taken these days, we, as consumers, have had to get used to startups with nonsensical names like Zynga and Hulu (which probably don’t sound all that weird to you know that you’ve encountered them hundred or thousands of times). Add to that all of the startups trying to fashion names out of suffixes like “ly” (.ly is the top level domain name for Libya) or “io”, Banana really doesn’t seem all that weird after all. At least it’s a real word.
Plus, bananas (like apples) are healthy — and that’s an affiliation worth cultivating.
Anyway you peel it, if Apple Computer, Inc. had actually been named Banana Computer, Inc., the level of success would be one and the same: astounding.
The Argument Against
The word Banana, as a business name, sounds dumb; it just doesn’t sit right. Apple, more than Banana, seems more sophisticated. It rolls off the tongue better.
And then there are the word associations. When I hear the word banana, the words that come to mind first are banana bread, Banana Boat and banana split… Hmm. What else? We’ve all been exposed to the stereotype that monkeys eat bananas (which isn’t exactly what you want customers thinking about, even subconsciously, while contemplating your product). In cartoons people slip on banana peels. The term banana hammock is unsavory (thank you, Princess Consuela). Plus, when Day O gets stuck in your head and plays on repeat, it can drive you… bananas: “Come, Mister Tally Man, tally me banana. Daylight come and me wanna go home.”
Now how familiar are you with the notion that a name may have some sway over a person’s destiny? An article in The Week has this to say about the potential power of a person’s name to influence their behavior and perceptions:
“Research indicates that people are unconsciously drawn to things, people, and places that sound like their own names. Psychologists call this phenomenon “implicit egotism.” The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung noted that his colleague Sigmund Freud (German for “joy”) advocated the pleasure principle, Alfred Adler (“eagle”) the will to power, and he himself (“young”) the “idea of rebirth.” A controversial 2007 study cited implicit egotism as the reason why students whose names began with a C or a D had lower grade point averages than those with names beginning with an A or a B; students gravitate to grades, the study argued, that reflect their own beloved initials.”
And while the author goes on to conclude that names may have some measure of sway over the way people end up behaving (and probably not quite enough to dramatically alter their ultimate existence), I can’t help but wonder whether or not there may be a similar phenomenon of implicit egotism at work in branding.
If there were, a company named Apple may indeed be better than one named Banana. That is certainly the case in at least one small, but tangible, way. Steve Jobs liked the name Apple for the simple reason that an “A” word would show up sooner in the phone book than companies whose names started with “H” or “M” (such as Hewlett Packard or Microsoft). At a time when phone books were more important, a detail as small as the first letter of a name may have been enough to have a real impact on sales. I wonder what other subtleties, real or imagined, might make a difference?
Along those same lanes, the word apple has one less syllable than banana. Maybe the word’s simplicity makes it easier to remember? Maybe, psychologically speaking, the word’s simplicity is a core part of the appeal, character or ethos of the brand?
Moving on here’s some significant food for thought. For Banana to even have been included in the pool of potential names that Steve Jobs considered for the fledgling company, it’s entirely plausible that he would’ve had to have spent some time at a banana plantation (banana commune?) rather than an apple farm. That means that his life may well have led him to Ecuador or Colombia (if this alternate history were to parallel his actual history of visiting a place where fruit was grown).
The implications of such a visit (or visits) may have been profound. Maybe a trip to South America would’ve taken the place of traveling to India, which most likely would’ve meant missing out on the spiritual experiences which would have eventually nudged him toward Buddhism. Maybe he wouldn’t have developed an appreciation for simplicity and minimalism. Maybe Banana’s products would’ve, in turn, been bloated, un-focused and more difficult to use.
And then there’s this famous quote from Steve Jobs:
”You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life and karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Steve’s gut led him to pick Apple as a name for his company. Not anything else (and certainly not banana). And the dots connected.
It’s a tough call. My mind is swayed back and forth one minute to the next. On the one hand I think the name is significantly less significant than the products. I actually think that given the same culture and design impetus and personnel, pulling off a name like Banana would be doable.
On the other hand I feel like the events that may have needed to occur in order for Jobs to feel connected to a name like Banana would’ve meant that the guy who co-founded and named the company would’ve been a fundamentally different person than the one who picked the name Apple. And I’m not sure that person would’ve been able to think differently enough to win in the same way.
So I’ll end by saying that I’d like to think that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — and later Jony Ive and Tim Cook and the rest of the gang — would’ve been capable of making Banana as great of a company as Apple. I guess that’s the nature of the spell such an awesome company has cast over this fan.