“Wow, it’s actually pretty hard to come up with a name”
What’s a good name and what’s a bad name for a business?
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s face facts – better covers sell more books. A good business name is like a good book cover – it does a better job of communicating what’s inside. This means that if you want to attract the right business, communication is essential and the first and most important part of your communication is, by far, your name.
A company name is so central to brand recognition that changing it can alter an identity so much that you could argue that identity doesn’t even exist anymore and that a new name is the start of a new identity. Everything you offer might be the same after renaming – but customers simply don’t understand that. So get the name right the first time and don’t change it – or it’ll cost you all the goodwill you’ve already established. Names have permanence, meaning that the time and resources that you invest in a good one will help you avoid the costs associated with a bad one.
So, what makes a name good and what makes a name bad? It’s difficult to understand what’s wrong with a name until you start seeing how people respond to it. Common issues can be categorized into three areas:
- It’s hard to remember (weak memorability)
- Narrows your options (poor flexibility)
- Confusing or unprofessional (lacks clarity)
As you start to list out options, you’ll quickly notice how difficult it is to balance the flexibility and clarity of a name. You can make it obvious what you offer with a name like ‘Toys R Us’ but you’ll seriously limit your potential to start selling products that are not toys. On the other hand, if ‘Toys R Us’ had decided to keep the company’s original name, Lazarus, they’d struggle to catch the attention of customers looking for toys in the critical early stages of your business.
The memorability of a name is also quite tricky. What’s really memorable to one person, might be really forgettable to another. Then there are names like ‘What’s App’ that do a really good job of getting people to remember it using a simple trick – the first time you read it, you think about it.
“What’s App?” -> “Oh! I get it.”
That extra 2 seconds spent thinking about a name is everything in branding, because the more time you spend focused on anything the more likely you are to remember it – even if it’s lame. Memorability is especially relevant when differentiation is minimal, like with messaging apps. In a perfectly competitive market where market share is everything, being noticed and remembered is essential.
As a branding agency, that’s essentially what we do – build memorable identities. You can spend huge sums of money trying to get a few seconds of time from a customer in order to get your message across. However, if you can get a customer to think about an idea, your message can run in their head all day.
Is it possible to make a name that’s really memorable, very clear and very flexible? Yes, however, it will be difficult and more importantly not really necessary. For certain businesses, memorability is more valuable than flexibility but if you know that future strategic change is likely, then flexibility may be more essential. Remember, your name won’t determine your success, but it can hinder it, so the first step of the naming process needs to be the strategic alignment of a name with a central message. Only when you have a message can you decide which metrics do you need to prioritize and measure up against when naming.
What is your message?
If your message isn’t clear to you and your team, then how are you going to get anyone else to understand it? Start with making your message simple, airtight and absolutely focused on what you want to get across. Don’t hope to find the perfect name by simply just writing a list of random names and then looking at it waiting for a spark. If you had the opportunity to tell everyone in the world only one thing about your business, what would it be?
Separate your story from your message
This is usually the most common pitfall of smaller businesses – they want to talk about their business, usually because it’s personal. Your message and name don’t have to tell your whole story or even create an accurate understanding of what you do. Your message should, however, be relevant to what your customer wants. Why should someone buy your products or services?
Walmart – Save money. Live Better.
Walmart doesn’t have the best business name, but Walmart’s messaging has always been one of the clearest. They sell so much stuff that you could probably get by if they were the only store left. They practically wrote the book on supply chain management and reinvented customer service to a lot of people. However, their message doesn’t include anything about product variety, customer service, or their strategic advantages – it talks about what’s relevant to you the customer.
Every tagline they’ve ever written was built around those same two ideas – savings and quality of life. Whether it came through the “put on a happy face” campaign, or “always low prices”, the central message has been the same: you’ll live better when you save more.
How do you want people to respond to your name?
The reality is that the message you say and the message people hear may be two completely different things. You may feel that a specific word perfectly elaborates what you do and how you do it, but if most people don’t understand that word, what does it matter? People are emotional, they have preconceived ideas about your business and expect certain things in the context of your competitors. Don’t build your name or message from your perspective, but internalize the wants and needs of a client or customer and craft something that will get a response out of them.
One of the best ways to get a customer’s perspective on how they might respond to your name is to review the competition. Remember, they might already be familiar with competitors and that has framed their mindset for what’s good and what’s not good in your industry. Take a look at this mobile device industry lineup:
Apple, Google, Samsung, Huawaei, Xiaomi, OnePlus, LG, Motorola
Picture how you might launch a new mobile device brand, would you try to fit in or stand out? What would people assume about your name? A strategy based on clarity might try to craft a name that fits into this list, but a strategy based on differentiation might do the opposite. How clear does a name need to be and how much does it need to stand out?
Industry distinction is another balancing act that you’ll have to tackle. Most businesses try to differentiate themselves from competitors as much as possible. Differentiation is good, but fitting in has its advantages.
Car dealers that locate themselves next to competitors are more likely to make a sale because they are where the customer expects them to be. By the same principle, making it easier for the customers to understand what you are, by naming yourself the way customers expect puts one less obstacle between you and the customer.
Map Out Your Name’s Presentation
After deciding what important metrics you should use to judge potential names and finalizing the message you want to align with, your next step is to decide the boundaries of an acceptable name. Start by considering the application and execution of the name. This step helps ensure that you think everything through so you don’t end up with a name that’s great in theory but creates a problem in practice.
Where will your name be read first? Take into consideration the customer’s first exposure to a name and what problems might arise from certain names. For example, if customers will probably read your name on a product package for the first time, will it be hard to pronounce? Will it be clear which part is the product name and which is the brand name? Is it possible for consumers to confuse your product with something else that belongs in the same store aisle?
A lot of placement is very specific to your business case. For example, if you’re a wholesaler and you want to get customers to submit orders on your website, avoid names that are hard to understand on the phone or difficult to spell. Regardless of what your business is like, write out the different introductions customers will have to the name and mock-up an exercise to run through that experience and flesh out potential issues.
Where industry competitors take customers away from you, name competitors steal from your brand clout. They may be in a far-off land, selling something that none of your customers want – but when someone looks you up, name competitors may get in the way.
The obvious ways to look for name competitors are doing a URL search, checking the social channels you might use and of course, just googling the name you want. Your first reaction might be that a name or URL is already taken so it’s no good. While it’s really annoying to invest in an advertising campaign and then have a name competitor’s traffic increase, the reality is that it doesn’t really negatively affect you if your customers are only looking for you.
It may present an additional branding obstacle, however, the value of a name should not be sunk by a URL or Twitter handle. Remember that your name is made to last a long time, while a competitor or a web address may change at any time. See if there is a way to work around that URL and maybe evaluate if it’s worth trying to purchase it outright. Regardless, always approach short-term problems with short-term solutions.
Trademarking and Registration
While a name competitor in a different industry may present an obstacle to you, a name competitor in a similar industry is a line that you simply shouldn’t cross. Not only do you open yourself up to legal issues, but it’s just bad business to try to imitate or deceive. The reputation of your products and services is something that you want to use to bring clients back, so make it easy for them to understand what belongs to you and what doesn’t.
If you know that you want to cross the border into another country, make sure you check the business registration and trademark databases there as well.
After you’ve chosen that name you want to go with, run a focus group and ask them to pronounce the name. Get them to try to spell it. Ask them what they think it means and what they think you might offer. Asking people questions is a great way to make sure you haven’t missed anything as their first and final reactions will indicate some of the things that your customers will think. However, expect a few bad reactions with any naming option.
Note that public opinion polling should be your last step and not your first step. When names and logos are chosen by committees and contests, the individuals that vote do so based on a personal or emotional response to the options. Unless each individual is well educated on the central message, placement and performance measurement – you’ll end up missing the target on naming. Your entire brand strategy should be part of a bigger picture, and only naming options based on this bigger picture should be considered.
Things not to do
It’d be easy for us to mention hard rules like ‘never use a dash’ or ‘never start with a number’ but naming a business is a creative process, so don’t start by limiting your creative options. Write down whatever ideas you can come up with and then decide the best way to go. Generally speaking, if you haven’t ever come across a business with that naming strategy before, it’s probably not worth the risk.
However, if you decide you want to take a big risk and go against convention, be absolutely sure about the payoff. When you go to launch with a name that customers are not expecting you’re starting off with a big obstacle.
Breaking Down Typical Naming Strategies
A metaphor is great for conjuring up a mental image. On its own, it’ll create something that’s easy to remember. Once people connect the metaphor’s meaning to your business, you get that ‘aha’ moment and it sticks even better – as people spend more time thinking about it.
“The shoe brand with the big cat on it”
Puma, Oracle, Quartz, Caterpillar, Patagonia, Jaguar
Attitude names give people a little insight into the experience of using your products. Including positivity in the name is almost a shortcut to creating a positive experience. It’s like smiling when you’re introducing yourself – and that first positive impression goes a long way.
HelloFresh, Everready, Kicking Horse, LeapFrog
Personality names focus on building a relationship with a customer from the very beginning. These names are great if your focus is to establish loyalty to what you are, not necessarily what you do.
Smart Car, Teavana, JetBlue, Ollie
Descriptive names make it really clear what you offer. Sometimes it’s just best not to create obstacles in communication if you don’t need to and try to build memorability in other ways.
QuickBooks, eBay, Snapchat, Mini
These names are just made up words but they are not random and meaningless. The phonetics behind them impact what people think they represent, as people tend to associate certain syllables and sounds with other things they’ve heard. Swiffer isn’t a word. But it sounds like one, and somehow it sounds exactly like what it does.
Kodak, Xerox, Google, Dasani
Mashup names are an attempt to make it clear what your organization is about but still have a unique and memorable name. It’s an easy way to describe what you are without being too simple and boring about it.
Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, Netflix, Ameritrade
Evocative names try to capture a feeling and express that to the consumer. It’s a great way to make people feel a certain way by touching on something they care about.
Pampers, Whole Foods, Dawn, Hidden Valley
Disruptive names are designed to capture attention. They’re usually very different from competitors’ names and that is reflected in the brand’s offering.
“Expect something different from us”
Bing, Uber, RobinHood, Pilot, Slack
Clever names try to capture memorability through play on words, or some self-aware humour. By injecting a little humour into your name, you can get people to pay a little more attention to it. If and when they figure it out, they appreciate it and remember it so much more.
What’s App, The Boring Company, No Name Brand, Groupon
Lexical names rely on people’s ability to remember something better when there’s a noticeable rhyme. It almost begs to be read out loud which makes it harder to forget than ‘call me maybe’.
Fitbit, Krispy Kreme, Coca Cola, Bed Bath & Beyond