Inventing a surname as a brand name

A great brand name tells a story, even if it’s a bit of a make-believe one


Let’s call it a professional quirk. Those in marketing have a keen interest in words that suggest things. Our company is especially intrigued when it comes to brand names. Take Häagen Dazs, for example. Did you know it’s not a Scandinavian ice cream but a made-in-the-USA delight?

The name was created by a local ice cream shop in New York called Mattus. Yes, they consciously added a Scandinavian touch to influence your subconscious with a name that suggests an origin. A bit like scent marketing, where perfumes are used in stores, cars and packaging to create a unique atmosphere. Only Häagen Dazs uses letters.

And you could think it’s all just hot air, but Häagen Dazs ice cream has always been top-notch. What you pay for perfectly aligns with the expectations that the name has already quietly planted in your mind.

But here’s the scoop—the brand’s Nordic origin was all made up. Back in 1961.

Brand names dropping hints

If a brand name sounds like a person or a place, it often is connected to that person or place. Heineken, Heinz, Ferrari, Chanel – they’re all tied to their founders or roots. But you will also find plenty of brand names that you might not have expected that, instead of referring to the brand’s origins, they were invented as part of the brand concept.

A case in point: Pickwick, the tea brand from Frisian D.E. It suggests a classic British origin, but surprise –  it’s not. The name was stumbled upon by the wife of Douwe Egberts’ director in a Charles Dickens book.

Seemingly random, yet these names subtly suggest an origin, creating expectations in the users’ minds. And the brilliance? It works because you don’t actively think about it.

The Häagen Dazs recipe

Knowing the story behind Häagen Dazs, the name almost looks like a caricature. It feels like discovering an inside joke. Reuben Mattus, the creator, strategically placed a map of Denmark on the packaging, amping up the Scandinavian storytelling.

The name itself seemed to drop from north of Lapland, even ignoring Danish language rules. According to his daughter, he spent hours at the kitchen table muttering nonsense words until he found a combination that he liked.

Ice cold strategy

Why such a strange name? It all boils down to brand strategy. Back when major ice cream producers launched a price war, Mattus’s ice cream business faced a meltdown.

He hoped to survive that by creating a more exclusive, extra high-quality ice cream brand. A Danish brand because Mattus associated Denmark with milk and cream, but also as a tribute to the country that had behaved so exemplarily towards the Jews during WWII.

Suggesting an origin with your brand name: you can do it, too

If you’re on the lookout for a special yet straightforward brand name, it seems pretty simple: just Google local maps or surname lists, and voila! But there are two things to keep in mind: brand identity and distinctiveness.

Brand identity

Much like Mattus, start with a plan. What expectations do you want to create? If style and taste are key, think Italian because, in Italy, taste is everything. Dolmio sauces actually come from Australia; Senseo is a name born here in the Netherlands, and Fashionista is a Canadian magazine.

French works, too – look at the Dutch design agency Fabrique and the American Vasque. Or, even at Japanese fashion brands like Pas de Calais and Comme des Carçons.

For that touch of classic British heritage, we have names like Pickwick and Ace & Tate, both from the Netherlands.

German-sounding names evoke a sense of cutting-edge and functional solidity. Take Über from California or the design agency Wunder, which not only communicates German virtues but also sparks the imagination.


Almost all places and surnames are already trademarked. That’s why Mattus spent hours at his kitchen table: he needed something familiar – yet refreshingly new.

Instead of copying a regional name directly, it’s better to look for patterns. Combine them to create genuinely new names. Consider VanMoof, a bicycle startup. They faced potential legal issues with a name too close to ‘move.’ Their solution? Add the typical Dutch name part ‘Van’ in front of it. And just like that, it became the much better VanMoof.

Names tell stories, and it doesn’t really matter if they’re made-up ones. In fact, it’s these unique, slightly quirky names that make you think: ‘Why didn’t I come up with that one!’