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Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from? 3 replies,4320 views


Earlier this year, the International Herald Tribune put the spotlight on Jack Ma, co-founder of

“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 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 counterintuitive 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’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.

All the best names are provocations: Virgin, Yahoo, Caterpillar, Fannie Mae, Gap, Banana Republic, Crossfire, Igor. 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.

Read more about provocative names and Igor’s theory of negativity in successful naming and branding here.

Posted by John on October 15th, 2007 - 9:10pm | Igor + because why? + branding + company names + industry insider + powerful names |
2 Comments so far:
This is interesting as is all the financial information that is being published in relation to the forthcoming IPO… I agree that the name is catchy, and that the association with the 40 thieves could be to their advantage. But wait a second, there is something else you or else the potential Alibaba shareholders should know - there is one line of business that is quite unsavoury and indeed smacks of thieves: is not only China’s biggest e-commerce firm but also the world’s largest online  trader. And Yahoo! don’t seem to mind. They already have a US-$ 1 billion stake in Alibaba, representing a 40% shareholding, and will soon increase their investment in Alibaba by another 10%.

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Re: Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from?
Replying to [ogie]:

Quote: "Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from?"

Answer: From "Alibaba and the forty thieves" of course. Have you never read the complaints against their business practices? [em2]
Re: Re: Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from?
ReplyinAli Baba
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves)

Ali Baba by Maxfield Parrish (1909).Ali Baba (Arabic: 9DJ ('(') is a fictional character based in Ancient Arabia. He is described in the adventure tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, part of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Some critics believe that this story was added to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights by one of its European transcribers, Antoine Galland, an 18th-century French orientalist who may have heard it in oral form from an Arab story-teller from Aleppo. However, Richard F. Burton claimed it to be part of the original Book of One Thousand and One Nights. This story has also been used as a popular pantomime plot—perhaps most famously in the pantomime/musical Chu Chin Chow (1916)

Re: Re: Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from?
Replying to [germex]:
I did but its unethecal to post it here .
I love the movie.

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