In 1955, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Felt Its Name Was Too Complicated to Reach Foreign Markets, So It Changed It to 'Sony'

A good name is essential for a company. Sony learned this the hard way (although it fixed it quickly).

Sony's name history
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A good name is essential. When we need to create a new username in an app or choose the name for our character in a game, we often spend a few minutes thinking about which one suits us best. In the case of a company, it’s even more critical because if it’s going to launch a product that bears its name, it has be powerful and land well with the public. It’s marketing 101, more or less.

Nintendo, Apple, Microsoft, and acronyms like IBM are influential and recognizable. Another name on this list is Sony. Interestingly, the Japanese giant presented itself to the world with a quite different name, which it was forced to change shortly after its founding.

TTK. A few months after World War II, Masaru Ibuka, an Imperial Japanese Navy veteran and electronics enthusiast, set up a radio repair shop in a Tokyo department store. In May of that year, Akio Morita, his friend from the army came across an article about Ibuka’s business in a local outlet and decided to join his former comrade in his venture. Using family funds, they founded the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K. (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation).

In addition to repairing radios, Ibuka and Morita were intent on innovating and creating products. The company’s first product was a failed electric rice cooker, which featured a wooden vat with aluminum electrodes that produced undercooked or overcooked rice. It never made it to market. Despite that failure, in the company's early years, Ibuka and Morita managed to obtain important transistor licenses from Bell Labs to design radios for non-military use.

The failed rice cooker. The failed rice cooker.

Something doesn’t work. Their innovative spirit led them to launch Japan’s first magnetic tape recorder—the Type G—and Japan’s first transistor radio—the TR-55—in 1947. Audio was Sony’s specialty in its early years, and it developed products for government agencies and home use. However, what matters in this story is that the name on the product identification labels was "Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo."

Try saying “Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo” aloud and imagine going to the store to buy the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo PlayStation 5 or, in the future, the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo PlayStation 6. It may have been a “simple” name in Japan, but outside the country... things got complicated. In the late 1950s, as the company was trying to break into other markets, it discovered that its original name wasn’t very commercial. As such, it began to explore different options.

Controversy and globalization. You might think that the simple solution to this problem was using an acronym. ‘TTK’, for example, would have been much easier to remember. However, the problem was that there was already a company known as TTK: the Tokyo Kyuko Railway Company. Therefore, using the acronym wasn’t an option. During a trip to the U.S. to obtain their license, Ibuka and Morita tried using ‘Totsuko,’ but that didn't work, either. Morita realized that Americans couldn't pronounce that name very well, and knew that to become a world-class company, they had to try another name.

The Type-G has the original company name on the front label The Type-G has the company's original name on the front label.

In 1958, Ibuka and Morita chose the term "Sony" as a play on the words sonus—the Latin word for sound—and sonny—a term for young Japanese innovators. It was a short and memorable name, but it had two problems. The first was traditional. In Japanese culture, it was strange for a company to use Roman characters instead of conventional kanji—for example, 東京通信工業株式会社 stands for Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K. The second was that nobody would be clear on what "Sony" meant.

Sony TR-610

The company’s bank, its primary funding source, then tried to get them to change the name to "Sony Teletech" or "Sony Electronic Industries," which indicated the company’s field of expertise. However, Morita didn’t want the name to limit the number of industries his company could be involved in, so he didn’t accept the suggestion.

TR-610. Fortunately, he didn’t. Sony has shown that it has a lot to say in different fields over the years. Most are related to technology and “electronic industries,” including image, sound, computing, and video games. Today, Sony is one of the most important electronics companies worldwide.

Interestingly, after crucial launching crucial products like the TR-55 and TTR-63 radios, the company launched the TR-610 in 1958, which coincided with its name change. It was a success in the West, and for the first time, the large SONY label appeared on the front, a hallmark of the company for generations.

Images | Sony/2, cjchunt

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