What's in a (business) name?

by Michael Woodhouse

The task of naming (or renaming) a business often consumes huge amounts of corporate time and energy, sometimes paralysing a business –€“ and still coming up with a solution that doesn't satisfy everyone.

The name of your business is important, especially in the beginning when your business has no identity in the public mind and people may infer things about you from your name. Later it becomes less important, when your customers know who you are and they imbue your name with meaning based on experience.

Usually when a naming exercise gets bogged down in frustration it's because the bar has been set unrealistically high; the objectives are not achievable.

So what's most important in choosing a business name? Not what you might at first think.

Core functions of a business name

A good business name will be:

  • memorable
  • distinctive (isn't easily confused with other names)
  • easy to spell without errors (and thus to look up in the phone book)
  • easy to say
  • short (or else it will get abbreviated)

So a name is primarily a peg for customers to hang a memory on. It's a tool to help them find you. To be effective, a name must serve this function.

Desirable additional functions of a business name

An excellent business name will also:

  • have meaning; preferably saying something about the company or the product (eg, Chokeby Road, Reliance Insurance)
  • embody the company promise (eg, Action Couriers)

So an excellent name is also an advertising statement. Unfortunately, this is not often achievable. There are lots of businesses and only so many words, which in most industries have already been picked over by thousands of competitors over decades.

There is also a risk, as Kentucky Fried Chicken have recently found, that the emotional value of specific facts can change over time. The specific meaning you lock in may come back to haunt you.

Getting hung up on finding a name that has immediate meaning can often be a futile waste of energy.

Once a name has become a brand it will also:

  • Acquire emotional value (eg, Mercedes for prestige)
  • Symbolise characteristics of its users (eg, Nike aggressive determination)
  • Add value to any product it is added to (eg, Versace).
  • These powers are added to the original name, they were not inherent in it. Mercedes, for example, was simply a young girl's name.

An additional criteria for small businesses

In owner operated businesses there will often be an additional criteria for choosing a name: that the owner of the business identifies with the name and is pleased with it.

In a small business, if the owner (or the staff) are indifferent or hostile to the name it will be a negative to the business, no matter how good a name it is in all other respects.

Depending on the owners, this may be the most important consideration in choosing a name.

In reality

There are millions of companies looking for names which carry meaning in their industry. In most situations the ground you are picking over has probably been picked over a thousand times before and the best names have been taken.

This means that in most cases the two characteristics of an excellent business name (meaning and promise) are not available.

Too often there's a compulsion to keep searching for such a name, which consumes endless energy. Often, it is unlikely that you will stumble across an "aha!" name that is available.

Fortunately the excellent name is not a necessary stepping stone to the real marketing asset, a brand. Some of our biggest brands were once meaningless or even negative words ("McDonald's" has come to "mean" young trendy lifestyle –€“ not "old MacDonalds farm").

Beware of gimmicks and trendiness

Sometimes people get hung up on gimmick names, for example a smart play on words or a reference to something trendy at the time.

This is almost always a mistake.

  • Not everyone gets it. What seems blindingly obvious to you may be missed by half the population.
  • It's frivolous. Not everyone who gets it will be impressed.
  • It ages. Will you still be telling the same joke in 10 years? A good name grows in value, rather than becoming progressively flatter and more tired.
  • The original meaning is lost. Hip references become arcane trivia.

Beware of consensus

Often everyone in a business is involved in the selection of a name. This can be a good morale exercise, but it has pitfalls. People become attached to their suggestions and won't accept any other. Any name that is proposed, someone will have a criticism and not everyone will agree.

If you set up a group process, be careful to spell out the criteria by which you will judge names. Consider having a "progressive election" where the choice of names is progressively narrowed down, but everyone is involved in the choice (even if "their" name has been eliminated).

Impossible objectives

A name is an identifier, not in itself an advertisement.

Aiming for a name which "stands out" is usually a recipe for frustration. Very few major brands have a name which stood out before it was grown into a brand via added emotional meaning.

Coke, Levis, Toyota: in the beginning these were just words.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule: Opium perfume and the style house FCUK are stand-out names. These are however rare and risky, and almost always dependent on an element of sensation that alienates some people.

Practical objectives

Achievable goals in most cases are:

  • Memorable
  • Distinctive
  • Easy

Any implied benefit to the client is a bonus. Consider using a slogan to add meaning to a name which is memorable, distinctive and easy.