It’s Just A Name, Right? Why a good brand name can be your Startups competitive advantage.
Naming your business can be a tricky proposition. Get it right, and your brand is on its way to becoming a verb and working its way into the general lexicon of everyday life like Xerox, Google, Band-Aid, or Kleenex. Get it wrong, and you may be doomed from the start.
Sounds dramatic, I know, but names carry power.
Much like a personal name, a company name is extremely important in establishing identity and shaping first impressions. But while most people put a lot of thought into what they name their child, not every startup founder puts the same level of care into naming their business.
After all, most founders have way more important things to think about when starting a new company than the name. Unfortunately, that can be a big mistake.
Your company name is often the first thing potential customers will encounter, and if it’s not immediately appealing or memorable, it may not hold their attention long enough for them to act.
Of course, there’s no surefire formula for picking the perfect name. But there are some common pitfalls to avoid and some general principles that can help guide your decision. Here are a few things to keep in mind when naming your startup:
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Don’t Be Too Clever.
No one likes a smart ass. It can be tempting to want to come up with a clever or pun-filled name. But while a clever name may be fun and make you and your friends laugh, it might also be confusing or hard to pronounce for potential customers, who might not get the joke.
Your business name should be easy to pronounce and spell, so people can find you and talk about you without feeling tongue-tied or stupid. Save the clever wordplay for your marketing campaigns, where it can be a welcome levity.
If in doubt, do the phone test, call someone, and tell them your company name; if you have to spell it out, repeat it or say it slowly to ensure they get it correct. It does not work. Go back to the whiteboard.
Avoid Trends, This Ain’t No Catwalk Show.
Another tempting naming strategy is to jump on the latest trends. But just like fashion trends, business name trends come and go quickly. And what’s hot today may be passé tomorrow.
For example, trend following, and a general lack of creativity have spawned many startups ending in ly and ify over the last few years. Weebly, Quibly, Bitly, Fastly, Spotify, Rentify, Shopify, Blockify. You get the idea.
Rather than trying to be trendy, focus on picking a name that will stand the test of time. A timeless name will be more likely to help you build a lasting brand. Try and make it ageless.
Consider Your Target Audience.
Yeah, you remember them, right? When naming your startup, you must consider whom you want to attract as a customer. After all, they will be the ones wearing, using, hiring, or renting your product or service. Your name should be appealing and relevant to your target audience. For example, if you’re selling products or services to businesses, you’ll want to avoid a cutesy or childish name. But if you’re targeting families with young children, a playful name could be just the thing.
Keep It Simple.
As a general rule, shorter names are better. A short name is easier to remember; it will look better on your marketing materials, be easier to use, and be seen in digital formats such as social media. If you have a longer name that you’re attached to, consider using a nickname or abbreviated version. For example, “Development” can be shortened to “Dev,” and “Statistical” can be shortened to “Stat.”
Warning: don’t go too simple. Avoid simplifying a name to its initials. Although this has worked in the past for companies like IBM (International Business Machines), ABC (American Broadcast Company), AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and GE (General Electric). It has required much time and marketing dollars to establish these names in the hearts and minds of the consumer.
Keep it short, keep it simple.
Don’t Get Too Specific With Your Name.
When you’re in the early stages of starting a business, you might have a specific idea or niche you want to fill. However, it’s important not to get too specific when picking a name for your startup. Assume that you will pivot.
The startup landscape is filled with founders that have stories about how their initial idea never made it to market intact, or when it did; it was met with unexpected results which caused them to change direction.
Assume that you will pivot in some way, shape or form, or your business might change and evolve over time. You don’t want to be stuck with a name that no longer fits what you do. It’s also important to consider the future when choosing a name for your business. You might want to expand into new markets or product categories as your company grows, and you don’t want a name that will limit your growth. Amazon is one of the best examples of this. Imagine if Jeff Bezos had named his company “Books R us.” or “Books Online”. Would they be the global online consumer goods marketplace they are today?
Instead, try to choose a name that is general enough to apply to a wide range of businesses.
Don’t Get Personal.
Don’t use your personal name in the business name. This happens less often these days compared to the historic brand landscape where founders might have been mom-and-pop ventures that became successful and scaled. A great example of this is McDonald’s, which was started in 1940 by Richard and Maurice McDonald in San Bernardino, California. It worked for them, I guess, but the world of brand naming was a lot less crowded back then, they did however spend 32 years in a legal battle with a Ronald McDonald from Illinois, who owns and runs a Restaurant called the McDonald’s Family Restaurant. They were unable to stop him from using his own name, and the restaurant still goes by that name today — much to the dislike of the Fast-Food giant.
When starting out, it can be tempting to use your personal name in the business name. However, this is generally not a good idea. First, it can make it challenging to sell the business in the future if you ever decide to do so. Second, it can limit the growth of the company if it becomes too closely associated with the owner.
Like McDonald’s, there are other examples of founder-named companies succeeding, especially in industries like fashion when an individual personality is the face of the company and lead visionary but even these brands have faced challenges when the founder looks to step down or retire.
General rule… Don’t.
Side Note: I have always loved the comic value in some of the great law firms or advertising agency names where they add a name every time someone makes partner. The best example of this is the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman, Cook, Johnson, Lande & Wolf, and YES, this is a real company. Google it!
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Flattery ― Oscar Wilde.
But where naming your company is concerned, Imitation can get you into the worst type of legal trouble. Don’t be tempted to choose a name that is too similar to another business, no matter how much you like the name.
When choosing a name, you need to ensure that it is not too similar to another company. Otherwise, you could run into legal trouble down the road. A simple no brainer, first step to avoiding this is to do a quick search online to see if there are any other businesses with a similar name. You should also search for trademarked names similar to the one you’re considering. If you find any companies or trademarks that are too similar to your proposed name, you should choose a different one. It is just not worth the long-term pain and distraction.
Pay attention to legal. As much as you don’t want to throw money at lawyers, ensuring you are not encroaching on anyone else’s trademarks is important. Not so much when you are small and flying under the radar, but if and hopefully when your startup gets traction, you can bet that someone will come after you either to get you to stop or for a quick payday.
There are ways around trademarks if you really want the name. Especially if you are in a different vertical but remember, growing companies evolve and pivot. What might not be your focus today, maybe in the future.
Apple Music is a great example. Who would have thought back when Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak were in their garage building the first Mac computers that they would eventually evolve to dominate the music industry and encroach on the Beatles, Apple Studios trademark.
Spend a few minutes and do a quick search on Google or use a tool like the USPTO Trademark Database. If the name is already in use, you’ll need to keep looking or run the risk of expensive lawsuits, settlements, or rebranding processes down the line.
Don’t Get Too Generic.
In the same way, you shouldn’t get too specific; you should also be wary of getting too generic when choosing a name. A generic name might be forgettable, and it might also be difficult to trademark. Instead, try to choose a unique name that is ownable. That way, you stand less chance of disappearing into a sea of sameness and having to spend large marketing budgets on establishing a presence and building brand awareness. Save the $ for R&D.
Make Sure the Domain Name Is Available.
This sounds obvious, right? But it’s important to ensure your startup’s name doesn’t offend anyone. Avoid any potentially controversial or polarizing topics, like politics or religion. It’s also important to be aware of different cultural sensitivities. You may start out with a focus on one market demographic or region, but as you grow and become successful, a natural progression is to expand into different regions or countries. What may seem like an innocent name to your ear or in your culture could be considered offensive in another. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
Create a Positive Association.
When choosing a name for your startup, you want something that creates a positive association with your brand.
Words and sounds can be a force for good, a source of strength and comfort. In fact, studies have shown that words with positive associations can have a real and tangible impact on our well-being and, by association, your brand. One study found that participants exposed to positive words experienced a boost in mood and increased happiness levels.
For me, Google is a great example of an upbeat-sounding word with positive associations. I never feel like googling a subject is a negative experience, even if my search is on a negative topic. It feels like a positive discovery process that can enlighten and help me further my knowledge.
All this from one six-letter word.
Consider using words that evoke positive emotions or images. For example, if your company deals with eco-friendly products, you might want to use word associations like “green” or “sustainable” in your company name. Alternatively, if your startup is known for providing excellent customer service, you might want to use word associations like “reliable” or “trusted” in your company name. These are all positive upbeat sounding words that can add value to your brand. Avoid any negative connotations that could turn potential customers away.
Side Note: This positive association strategy should continue throughout your marketing mix, not just your naming process. In a study by advertising agency Isobel in association with Cog Research. Cadbury was found to be the happiest brand in the UK, but this did not happen overnight. It took years of positive brand association to build this response. It also helps that they sell Chocolate!
As you start the naming process, there are a few key steps you can take to set yourself up for success.
- Set clear objectives:
When naming your startup, it is essential to set clear objectives. Before starting the process, define what you want to achieve with your business venture in the short and long term. Consider factors such as values, recognition, growth potentials, target audience and overall tone of voice.
- Define your core identity:
Your company’s core identity is the foundation for all your decisions, processes, and strategies. It defines who you are as a business and serves as a guide in determining how you should act moving forward. A strong core identity can help differentiate you from your competition and provide an anchor point when making decisions about your long-term vision.
Defining a solid core identity is essential for creating meaningful connections with customers. By taking time to go through the process of creating an effective core business narrative, it will not only help you with the naming process but will serve as a guide to all actions moving forward, such as the branding process, marketing strategy, customer communications and product development.
This will help ensure that everyone understands what sets your apart from others in the space -and why customers should care!
- Know your customer:
It’s no secret that understanding your customers is essential to the success of any business. But in today’s competitive landscape, it’s not enough to know who your customers are — you need to truly understand them to stay ahead of the game. That means going beyond basic demographic information and delving into the motivations and behaviors behind customer decisions.
Talk directly to your customers and foster an open and honest dialogue; don’t rely on secondary data or third-party assumptions.
By gathering direct first-hand data from your customers and analyzing it through a non-bias lens, you can gain valuable insight into who they are and what drives them when making decisions about naming, products, or services. Once you understand their needs better, segmenting them into categories will also allow you to customize marketing messages for each customer segment so that everyone receives relevant information tailored specifically to their needs!
With all this knowledge at hand, no one has an excuse not to use it!
- Start Brainstorming:
Combine your company objectives, core identity outline and customer insights into one concise briefing document to kick-start your brainstorming session. There are numerous brainstorming techniques you can use during this stage of the process, but the most important thing is to create an environment that fosters creativity and is non-judgmental. It’s a cliché, but there are no bad ideas at this stage and fear of failure can stifle creative thinking.
Once the brainstorming session has finished, it is now time to narrow down your selection. Again, there are numerous ways this can be done, so find one that best suits your team and needs, but a simple first step is to check your list of names against the objectives outlined in the briefing document and the dos and don’ts checklist above.
Once you have your shortlist down to a handful of names, 5 to 10 is a good range. It’s time to reach out to your potential customers again and gauge their initial response. Be sure not to give them too many options, as too much choice can prove paralyzing. Please keep an open mind at this stage and don’t let any-one, overly vocal individual lead your decisions; remember, this is a subjective process, and different people have formed different associations with words based on their past personal experiences.
To sum up, picking the perfect name for your startup can be challenging. But a strong, unique brand name can be one of your most valuable assets. It can be the key to differentiating yourself from the competition and can help you win more business. As you consider what steps to take next in developing your startup, make sure that finding the right brand name is at the top of your list.
But remember, a brand name is only as good as the product or service it represents. Yes, A strong and catchy name can help to support and grow your company, but the end-user experience and the value they derive from your product or service will ultimately define your brand.