Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from?

October 15, 2007 in Names/Naming by snark

AlibabaEarlier this year, the International Herald Tribune put the spotlight on Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba.com:

“I’m a normal guy,” he said during a recent interview in Singapore. “I feel ashamed because I feel I’m stealing the contribution of my team. They made it; my job is more, ‘Let’s go do it.’”

Started in 1999, Alibaba International is now the world’s largest online business-to-business marketplace, with more than 500,000 people visiting the site every day and 2.5 million registered users from more than 200 countries. By targeting small and midsize companies, the site, for example, allows a mom-and-pop toy maker in China to sell directly to a shopkeeper in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, Alibaba China has become the largest Chinese-language business-to-business marketplace with around 14 million registered users. The privately held company does not reveal its financial data. However, Alibaba’s deals with Yahoo in 2005 — in which Yahoo took a 40 percent stake in Alibaba, while folding its own China business into Alibaba’s — valued the Chinese company at about $3 billion at the time, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

Today, it was announced that Alibaba.com Ltd., operator of China’s largest trading Web site for companies, and its parent may raise as much as HK$10.3 billion ($1.3 billion) in a Hong Kong initial public offering that attracted investors including Yahoo! Inc., according to this Bloomberg article.

So, you might be asking, “Is this where the forty thieves come in?” alluding to the tale of The Thousand and One Nights. We’ll leave that for the financial analysts to consider. But what of the brand? Is it not counter-intuitive for a trading company to choose a name that might be associated with thieves? More about that later, but first: where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from? On a company forum on the Internet, we found this discussion quoting an interview with Alibaba.com’s CEO, Jack Ma:

LH – Now Alibaba… Fancy name, catchy too! But it conjures up, at least to me, something to do with thieves, not legitimate business. Why Alibaba?

JM – One day I was in San Francisco in a coffee shop, and I was thinking Alibaba is a good name. And then a waitress came, and I said do you know about Alibaba? And she said yes. I said what do you know about Alibaba, and she said ‘Open Sesame.’ And I said yes, this is the name! Then I went onto the street and found 30 people and asked them, ‘Do you know Alilbaba’? People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China… They all knew about Alibaba. Alibaba — open sesame. Alibaba — 40 thieves. Alibaba is not a thief. Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So…easy to spell, and global know. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name AliMama, in case someone wants to marry us!

Alibaba is a provocation.

Many of the best names are provocations: Virgin, Yahoo, Caterpillar, Fannie Mae, Gap, Banana Republic, Crossfire. To qualify as a provocation, a name must contain what most people would call “negative messages” for the goods and services the name is to represent.

Fortunately, consumers process these negative messages positively. As long as the name maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just give it greater depth.

Nothing is more powerful than taking a word with a strong, specific connotation, grabbing a slice of it, mapping that slice to a portion of your positioning, and therefore redefining it. This naming strategy is without question the most powerful one of all.