Naming your business is arguably the single most crucial step in developing your brand. To be effective, your carefully chosen business name needs to make a great first impression and must stand the test of time.
A good name will serve as a mental hook that builds recognition and brand awareness. Once established, changing it can cause confusion, so it's best to get it right the first time.
Looking to name a new product or service for an already-established company? This post will help you, too!
If you find the whole naming process a bit daunting, take a deep breath and keep reading. This post will give you pointers on where to start, what to consider, and how to avoid common mistakes. You'll also find links to helpful tools, printable exercises, and valuable resources.
- Naming vs. Branding
- What's in a Name
- Brainstorming Basics
- Expert Tips & Resource Links
- Things to Consider
- Naming Mistakes to Avoid
- Top Takeaways
- Free Resources for New Business Owners
Definitions: Name vs. Brand
The legal name of a firm; included in or on nearly everything your business puts out into the world - including business cards, legal paperwork, marketing materials, and more.
The American Marketing Association defines brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” The term encompasses many elements that, together, represent your company and make it recognizable to consumers.
Let’s take a look at a real-life example of branding at work.
The word ‘apple’ most likely causes you to visualize a round fruit. But with a simple capitalization...
The word ‘Apple’ conjures up associative words, like technology and innovation; products like iPhones, iPads, and Macbooks; specific traits, like clean design and sleek packaging; affiliated people, like Steve Jobs… the list goes on. You also likely think about how the brand makes you feel. Good or bad, that’s part of your perception of the company.
That’s the power of effective branding - and your company name is a crucial piece of that puzzle. But it doesn’t stand alone.
A brand includes the following identity elements:
- company name
- mission statement, brand promise, and/or motto
- company voice guidelines (formal or informal, what to say and what not to say, etc)
- logo colors, sizing guides, and trademark (™) usage
- email signature templates and guidelines
- website URL and tagline
- brand design color palettes, codes (hex, RGB, Pantone) and typography (fonts)
- information on size, colors, and margins for web and print
- details on what types of visuals to use or avoid (photos vs. illustrations, types of textures, etc)
While not required, many companies create a brand style guide (aka brand bible) that includes details on some or all of the things listed above. Here’s a great example from Skype.
Whether you're a certified public accountant or a custom t-shirt screen printing shop, it's essential to build a compelling brand for your business.
Taking the time to build a style guide helps in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, it gives employees and creatives who create content or graphics that represent your company a set of basic guidelines to follow. This helps establish consistency across marketing channels. Here's a quick how-to.
Now enough about brands - let’s talk names!
Naming 101: Where to Start
Trying to come up with a business name out of thin air can feel like standing at the bottom of a mountain, looking up at the very out of reach snow-covered peak. Before you put on your climbing gear, it's important to understand what you need to do to efficiently work your way to the top. So before we get into the how, let’s define your goals.
What’s in a Name?
The perfect company, product, or service name will effectively do the following:
Give a clear idea of what your company, product, or service has to offer:
A name doesn't have to be literal, but it should some indication of what industry you're in, pain points you solve, services you provide, or benefits you offer to potential customers. If you opt to go with a more abstract name, use your logo and slogan to fill in any gaps.
Promote your brand’s personality:
If your company was a person, what would they be like? Playful? Fun? Serious? Techy? If you decide your company would be a put together, successful executive with a million and one things to do, consider using a name that’s easy to interpret, clear visuals, and a direct communication style that favors brevity.
PRO TIP: As you embark on your naming journey, take tons of notes! Brainstorming ideas, words, and feelings that jive with your company goals will give you a great jumping off point as you work to define your overall brand strategy
If you’re doing it right, having a brainstorming session should be the first step in any early-stage creative process. Here’s how it’s done.
Brainstorming is defined as "a process for generating creative ideas and solutions through intensive and freewheeling group discussion." In essence, your goal is to create a storm of ideas - none of which are considered bad or outlandish at this stage. Analysis and discussion come in during phase two of the brainstorming process when you evaluate the list of ideas generated in phase one. Here's how it's done.
The 5 W’s of Brainstorming:
1. WHO should participate?
When it comes to early brainstorming, the more people you have involved in the process, the better. Ask for willing volunteers and be sure to include any stakeholders and investors who are interested in participating. Just be sure to let them know that this is an equal opportunity session and that it’s a starting point, not a “get-it-done-now” session. If you’re a one or two person team, get friends and family involved.
Try to gather an eclectic combination of analytical thinkers, creative thinkers, and people of different ages and backgrounds to get more perspectives. It’s also a good idea to include one or two people who could be your ideal customer, as they’ll throw out words and ideas that will help you speak to others like them.
2. WHAT should you do first?
There are several ways to go about this, but every single one starts with giving all your “brains” a notebook or pad of post-it notes and something to write with.
Though it may be tempting, don’t use a computer. It’s important to be free of distractions and using physical pieces of paper makes it easier to categorize and sort ideas.
Before you start, emphasize that there are absolutely no bad ideas. The goal at this stage is to come up with lots of options that inspire even more options.
When you’re ready to get started, do one (or more!) of the following:
- Set a time limit and set your creative thinkers loose with their ideas. Encourage them to write down any words that come to mind that jive with your existing product or service offering.
- Write an inspiration word on a whiteboard and ask everyone to write down everything they can think of that fits with that term.
- Use a downloadable brainstorming explainer or worksheet as a guide for your session and choose the approach that resonates with you. Here’s an excellent PDF download from Mind Tools to get you started. It covers seven different brainstorming techniques and explains how to do each one.
3. WHEN should you brainstorm?
Monday morning, when the inbox is full and Sunday blues are lingering may not be the best choice. Try to pick a time when spirits are high and people are motivated - perhaps after an all-hands meeting that gets people excited about being involved in the creative process. Offering snacks and beverages as bribery, er… incentive... never hurts either.
For best results, make your "when" just as important as the who, where, why, and how.
4. WHERE should the brainstorm take place?
The answer to this question depends a little bit on the personalities of the people involved in your brainstorm and on your logistics. The only physical thing you’ll need for this step is some kind of surface (could be a clipboard!) to write on.
- If you work in an office but are able to go outside or sit somewhere that’s more thought-provoking than a drab conference room, do it!
- If you're part of a remote cross-country team with no shared office to call home - use technology to your advantage. Ask participants to do the "storm" part on their own, then schedule a video call everyone can join in to discuss your individual lists.
- If you have a couple of business partners to brainstorm with, sit down at someone’s house and share a bottle of wine to help get the creative juices flowing.
5. WHY is brainstorming a vital step?
Coming up with the perfect name can be daunting, but brainstorming will give you the foundation you need to start defining your brand. Ultimately, your goal is to choose a name complements your business, but the benefits of brainstorming stretch far and wide.
Brainstorming is a fantastic springboard exercise. Even if the perfect name doesn’t jump out at you right off the bat (spoiler alert: it probably won't), you can identify words and ideas you love, those don't care for, and figure out ways to verbalize and illustrate how you can differentiate yourself from competitors.
Inviting everyone on your team to participate in creative brainstorming sessions also opens the door to future collaboration and helps your team develop stronger communication skills.
Expert Tips & Resources to Guide You
Fast Company is a leading business editorial site with content “written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders.” The site prides itself on inspiring leaders to “think beyond traditional boundaries… and create the future of business."
In January 2018, serial entrepreneurs Willem Van Lancker and Greg Leppert co-wrote an article titled 2017’s Best and Worst Brand Names—And 3 Naming Trends For 2018 to share their insight on this exact topic. They said:
“Too often, naming is an informal exercise. Startup founders who spend months meticulously developing products have been known to go with a name that just “feels good,” without bothering to examine cultural contexts, competitive landscapes, or even simple pronunciation.
It has also become harder to choose a good name amid a booming startup scene. How do you find a unique-sounding name when it seems like everything is taken, or leverage familiarity without sounding derivative? The answers often surface in trends, where Flickr begets Tumblr (Domain taken? Drop a vowel.) and Birchbox begets Barkbox (Nothing says “subscription service” like -box).”
The duo is so passionate about the topic that they actually created an entire website called Onym that serves as a comprehensive naming toolbox.
The site’s homepage contains a brief intro letter that explains what inspired Greg and Willem to create this resource.
"Naming is hard. Names, after all, are perhaps the most indelible artifacts of the product creation process. Brands are redesigned with a lustrum regularity and codebases are continually rewritten and replaced but a name, for better or worse, usually sticks.
That’s because a good name is a hook that sets itself into a person’s mind, linking their brain back to your idea – try to reset the hook and you risk losing the connection.
So what tools do we use for naming? What methodology? Many of us practice it informally, doing our best with thesauruses and domain name searches, never stopping to formalize an approach because it seems so devilishly simple – all you really need is a word or two in a language you’ve probably been using your entire life.
But like any art form, naming benefits from rich tools and processes, and this site is meant to help you discover them – to provide a starting point for anyone who needs to name something. That is: everyone, because every idea benefits from a good name."
Onym provides links to hundreds of exercises, etymology studies, examples of what not to do, and more. And it’s all organized in a colorful, easy to navigate accordion menu that’s fun to explore.
Entrepreneurs and business owners can use the many tools and resources found on the Onym site to help them identify the perfect name for their company.
Considerations You May MissIn addition to effectively describing your brand benefits and company persona, there are a handful of other things you need to consider before you decide on a name. Here are a few that are often missed.
Phonetics and Spelling
Do you roll your eyes every time you're talking to someone on the phone, and they butcher your last name? Are you sick of spelling out your name using the phoenetic alphabet? Don't let your company suffer the same annoying fate! Make sure the name you choose to represent your business is easy to spell and is reasonably easy to pronounce to avoid this persistent and unpleasant pitfall.
SEO and Rankability
If you own a neighborhood restaurant in a high foot traffic area, paid ads may not be a huge consideration for you. However, if you’re a web-based business competing for clicks, consider how much it’ll cost you to generate web traffic using tools like Google AdWords. Read this post to learn how to estimate your cost. As a general rule of thumb, the more competitive your market is, the harder it’ll be to reach quality leads without spending a big chunk of change. But, if you’re thoughtful about keywords and know where you fit into your competitive landscape, this information will help you identify affordable bid opportunities as you narrow down name options.
TIP: Learning your competitive landscape, researching CPC estimates, and going into the narrowing down phase of the naming process with a revenue goal in mind can save you lot of time, money, and hassle in the long run. Here are a few tips to get you started.
- Implications of Initials
Ample Sound Studios may seem like a fantastic business name... until you realize the initials are less than desirable. Now, you can use this to your advantage, if your company has a sassy personality and is willing to own funny initials. Just make sure you avoid anything that could be misconstrued, seen as offensive, or looked at in a negative light.
TIP: Run your top few names through the free slang dictionaries and translators on the Onym site before you pick a winner.
Modern marketing complicates logo design tremendously because your logo needs to look good in a variety of different sizes, on different devices, on screens with different color and light settings, and in print. For example - in some cases, a small, square profile image is all you get to introduce new leads to your brand. Generally, that means lots of words, small text, and similar colors won't work well. As you work to narrow down your brainstorm list, make sure your favorite names can be incorporated into a logo design that can stand alone and one that can be scaled many-a-way without losing its legibility. Not the artsy type? Consider using a site like 99designs or hiring a freelance graphic designer to help you create your logo.
Trademark and Domain Availability
If you’ve ever watched Shark Tank, you know one of the first things the Sharks ask a presenter they're excited about is, “Do you have a patent on this?” A patent protects your creative ideas by allowing you to stake claim to a never-before-seen tool, idea, or concept. Trademarking proprietary tools, ideas, products and more can help you protect your brand. It can also help you make sure that you're not infringing on someone else's trademarked idea. Search existing US patents here.
You also need to find an available domain name, a task that gets more difficult by the day. It may feel like all the good ones are taken, either by legitimate sites or by squatters looking to make money on a future sale. The web has gotten so crowded that in recent years, a swath of new domain extensions were released help new businesses secure a unique URL for their corner of the web.
Site hosts and domain registrars like GoDaddy offer free domain search tools you can use to help identify viable web addresses.
If there are a few names you like, use these guidelines to determine which related domains to purchase. Buying early and in bulk can save you a lot of money and frustration in the long run, and you can always allow domains you don't end up finding a use for expire. You can also set up redirects from similar keyword domains to help generate more organic traffic or can use additional URLs to host landing pages for ads and promotions.
5 Common Naming Mistakes to Avoid
In addition to considering often-missed factors, there are a number of mistakes brands have made throughout the years that can be easily avoided with a little foresight. Here are the top five most damaging naming mistakes you should avoid.
1. Going Too Narrow
Neglecting to give yourself room to grow by pigeonholing your brand into a neat little product or service box (a la IHOP running IHOB commercials because they serve burgers now).
2. Getting Too Clever
Making up a word to represent your company may seem like a good call if you get stuck on a name, but this approach rarely pans out. Customers will misspell your brand or forget the name and will be unable to refer you to other potential customers.
An unusual name can also make collecting testimonials a challenge, as customers often refer to companies by name - but if your name is frequently misspelled, reviews seem less legitimate. And the bottom line is, if you can't afford to explain it, simple is best. As the proclaimed 'father of modern advertising' (David Ogilvy) once said, "It’s useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create."
3. Glossing Over Language
Inaccurate translations and unfortunate slang meanings can be embarrassing. Though this is rarely an issue, it’s never a bad idea to run a quick search to make sure your name doesn’t translate to anything offensive or awkward. Looking at you, Mercedes "rush to die" Bensi.
4. Neglecting to Take a Step Back
Entrepreneurs and business owners often struggle to relinquish control, but doing so can really help you think outside the box - especially when it comes to naming your company. While you should get the final say, overthinking the naming and branding process and being unwilling to budge can be your enemy. Ask outsiders (friends or family) for initial reactions or feedback to get an unbiased opinion.
5. Naming All The Things
When you’re a service provider, coming up with multiple names for products, service tiers, support tools, and so on can make things very confusing for your leads and customers. Unless you use a consistent, simple naming convention that has a clear hierarchy (ie 1.0 vs 2.0), less is more when it comes to naming every little thing.
The goal of a brainstorm is quite literal - get lots of diverse "brains" to "storm" ideas. Doing so allows for quality input from all players and also helps build camaraderie and encourages future collaboration.
Use Free Resources
There are literally hundreds of high-quality free resources available to small business owners - from affordable logo design tools to name generators and more, take advantage!
Avoid Common Mistakes
Keep your name broad enough to encompass future growth, resist the urge to get too clever with made up words and spelling, encourage key stakeholders to think outside the box during the brainstorming process, and don't forget to check for awkward or offensive translations.
As you work to identify your perfect company, product, or service name, don't forget to consider phonetics, spelling, SEO cost and rankability, implications of initials, layout logistics, and trademark, patent, and domain availability.
Phew! That was a lot of information but we sure hope it was helpful in giving you a place to start and that you find the resources we provided above valuable as you work to imagine up your ideal name. Once you’ve made a selection you’re happy with; it’s time to design your logo, purchase your domain, build a website, and define your brand. Never mind setting up software and managing taxes… but those are posts for another day!