How to name your business

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Your company name is the first thing a customer hears about you, so it had better make a good first impression. The selection of a name for your business is a crucial decision that can make a profound difference to the cost of building your corporate brand and the success of your venture. Your business name should be something that customers can quickly and easily connect with, a name that inspires confidence and positive associations, and (unless you have a large marketing budget or existing customer base) provides a good idea of your product or service offering. A poorly chosen name can doom your startup from the get go. Here we take a look at some of the most important factors to consider when naming your company.

1) Your business name should match its purpose, unless…

It is very difficult to sum up your company’s purpose in just a few words or letters. Yet, this is a challenge every business founder must face when choosing a name to live up to the image they want to project and stand the test of time. The first (rather obvious) point to make about name selection is that you should avoid deliberately obscuring your purpose, or selecting a name that is contradictory to your offering. For example, the common historical method of using a series of last names (e.g. Murray & Roberts) is outdated and not recommended for startups, as such a generic title will give you a huge disadvantage versus your competitors with coherent, industry-specific names. Names based on acronyms (e.g. IBM, AOL, FIM) suffer from the same problem, as well as being very dull. An example of a contradictory name is Cruella De Vil Babycare, since no one wants an evil dog murderer looking after their baby! Note that there are some exceptions to this rule, such as the use of clever puns and irony to create a funny, memorable first impression (e.g. New Beginnings Funeral Home), or use of counter-society names for rebellious subcultures like teenagers, hipsters and death metal groupies (e.g. Death Skull Soaps).

There are several schools of thought with regards to purpose-matched name selection. The first method is a generic name that clearly describes your products or services, along with a unique modifier (usually a person or place name). Examples include Freddie’s Fried Fish, Cape Town Limos or Lancaster Legal Services. Such names benefit from an “exact match” advantage, whereby a customer immediately has a clear idea of your product or service offering, and sometimes the location of your business as well. It also provides some advantages for search engine optimization, since it typically includes terms that people might use in searching for your business. The main disadvantage of this naming technique is that it lacks individuality, which makes it more difficult to stand out from the crowd, especially since it is such a widely used method. However, this may be the best naming technique to use if you are starting out and don’t have a large marketing budget.

The second method of purpose-matched naming uses transformed keywords as a basis for the name – i.e. appropriate industry-related keywords or recognizable parts thereof are used as the root to form a brandable name. Examples of keyword-based names include Friendster, Fiverr, Coursera, Costco, SpaceX, Insurian, Wikia, Codify and Coinaro. This method has the advantage of framing your business in the correct industry, which helps to provide customers an idea of what you offer, and creates a strong association between your name and your target market. The best keyword based names are typically short, pithy and easy to pronounce. They typically use a simple prefix or suffix attached to the root word. A variation on this is the “misspelled keywords” name, such as Digg, Flickr, Google, Topix, Reddit and Kat, which often diverge from the realm of purpose-matched naming.

A third method, often employed for purpose-matched naming is the so-called “combo name”, where an industry keyword is combined with another word to create an appealing name. Examples include IPhone, Paypal, Facebook, SnapChat, BuzzFeed, MailChimp, Photobucket, Salesforce, YouTube, Fitbit, and ThinkGeek. Examples of non-industry-specific combo names include Foursquare, Firefox, NewEgg, and EBay. These combo names often provide a strong visual image, and often have rhyming, assonance or alliterative structure. In most cases, both words in a combo name are nouns and the emphasis is on the first word. Although they are usually longer than other types of names, two-syllable names are popular, impactful and easy to remember. Compounds are a very simple way to create new words and are common in the English language. This combined with the almost limitless number of potential combinations goes a long way to explaining their popularity as names for startups. They can be used to create delightful new ideas that catch people’s attention.

A special category of combination names is the portmanteau, whereby two or more separable aspects or qualities are combined to form a single, pronounceable word. Examples include Groupon (from group and coupon), Intel (from integrated and electronics), Accenture (from accent  on the future), Kinect (from kinetic and connect), Microsoft (from microcomputer and software), Pinterest (from pin and interest), Travelocity (from travel and velocity), Wikipedia (from wiki and encyclopedia), Instagram (from instant and telegram) and Funimation (from fun and animation). Business names based on portmanteaus are particularly effective when they focus the scope of your business offering or enhance a normal concept by intensifying it or approaching it from a novel angle.

Another take on this concept is the phrase-based name, where two or more words are put together following normal rules for putting words together to make phrases. Examples include Linkedin, MySpace, SecondLife, StumbleUpon, and BestBuy. These names sound linguistically natural and have clear meanings because they follow regular rules. Phrase names can be long, however, and they can also sound awkward when used in conversation. They tend to straddle the line between purpose-matched names and names that “break the mold”.

Names that break the mold and create their own niche are those that are only loosely related or completely unrelated to their company’s purpose, such as re-purposed dictionary words or made-up words. These have become quite common among startups since the turn of the century. They are quite effective if your business is in a new market space, or one where competition is limited (since a name can then become the norm for its niche), or if you have a substantial marketing budget to build a brand around them.

Many of the top startups that have risen to fame in recent decades have names that are simply re-purposed dictionary words or the names of famous individuals from history and mythology. Examples include Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Pandora, Uber, Yahoo, Indeed, and Tesla. Such names can’t be generically descriptive, because they would then not be enforceable as trademarks. These types of names usually work through metaphor or indirect association, but sometimes have virtually no link to the actual product offering. Such names can be exceptionally powerful, firstly because they already exist in the consciousness of consumers which makes them uniquely memorable, and secondly, because they can easily be used to create an authoritative space within an industry that provides enormous room for innovation and expansion. These names are usually very expensive to acquire in the first place, and often require a very large marketing budget to build a brand around (it may be very expensive to move the consumer away from preconceived meanings).

Invented words are the next category of company names that have gained immense popularity among startups. Examples include Diply, Etsy, Moz, Tumblr, Wix, Yoox, Canva, Wanelo, Strava, Hulu, Fedex and Zillow. The main reason for their popularity is that they have no predefined meaning, and can easily be imbued with their own meaning – the so-called “empty vessel” that can be filled as you please. These made-up names form a blank slate for your business, which creates the potential for new categories of business. This is ideal for startups offering novel products and services. Again, such invented names typically require substantially larger marketing budgets to create an identity and brand awareness, although this is somewhat mitigated by the advent of keyword-based search engine marketing.

Names that seem to fall into the category of invented names are foreign words and names. Examples include Renkoo (Japanese renku, a type of poetry), Kijiji (Swahili for ‘village’), Rojo (Spanish for ‘red’), Vox (Latin for ‘voice’). Such names may or may not be associated with their business offering in the underlying language, but are typically meaningless or only vaguely associated in the language of the target audience. These names are great if you can find them, since they can often carry meaning and positive associations across from their original language, and they provide a nice story to tell your customers.

2) Your name should be simple. Simple = memorable

The reason for keeping your business name simple is obvious. People are bombarded with an enormous amount of information all the time, so the simpler your message, the easier it is to retain. Here are the rules for creating a simple name.

i) Shorter is better – both in terms of the number of characters and the number of syllables. Try to have a maximum of 4 syllables.

ii) Easy to pronounce. Use the “radio test” to say the name out loud to decide whether or not it sounds good. If a name has any awkward parts, or you have to stop to think how to pronounce it, reject it.

iii) Easy to spell. Follow up the radio test by asking a few friends to write it down without seeing it. Lots of different spellings is bad. Try to minimize the number of ambiguous sounds. If you have a variation / misspelling on a common word or phrase – try to keep it to a maximum of a single letter change – e.g. Quik, Compuder, Gokart.

iv) No strange characters. No hyphens, internationalized characters or numbers (unless the number is a key part of the name – e.g. 99 Designs)

v) The name should be quick to explain. For example, Fastr is just “faster” without the “e”.

vi) Use a relevant, purpose-matched name, unless you have a large marketing budget or a brand new business model.

3) Your name should be poetic.

Your company name is the first story you tell your customers – so why not make it a beautiful poem? No, I don’t mean that literally. Language is an incredible construct that sets meaning and imagery dancing in the minds of people, with the power to create strong emotional responses. Your company name should grab people’s attention and make them feel good. Take full advantage of the power of language when searching for a name. In particular, one should strive for positive associations, seek good melodic structure, and avoid negative meanings.

Positive associations are easily achieved by using positive root words, whether from keyword derivations, combo names and portmanteaus, or names that sound similar to familiar positive words. Good examples of such names include Yahoo, Fidelity, Accenture, Altria, Prestasa, Uber, Valero, Etsy, Quora, Excelza, Advantan, Lumina, Elevanta, Vitala, Wellixa, and Whatsapp. Names can also have positive associations taken in light of the industry they are being used in, by employing admirable qualities of products and services in those industries. So we have examples like Durabuild (construction), Fastcar (automotive), BriteCloud (cloud computing), PayPal (online payments), Good Reads (book sales), Costco (retail), Safeway (supermarket), Intel (computer hardware), Prudential (finance), Sprint (telecoms), and Nationwide (insurance).

The search for a melodious name is simpler than it sounds. We all recognize the elements of catchy rhythm and smoothly flowing pitch to a greater or lesser degree. Business names that have a good melodic structure have an immediate advantage over competitors, since they appeal on a visceral, emotional level, in the same way that we are touched by music. We don’t need an expert to tell us that the names Ukuncckla, Xrezzekli, Garqixerb, and Zwevblopt sound bloody awful. And we can listen to our hearts and hear the music in Viviara, Vertida, Vivotex, Lantena, Tigera, Entitan, Strivor, Empreo, Elavite, Naruda, Splenida and Excitro.

Names that conjure strong visual images are very effective at capturing people’s imagination and helpful for generating a good logo too. Consider the stunning visual power of the names Firefox, Facebook, Mailchimp, Treehouse, Solarcity, Wikipedia, Cloudflare and Bigfish.

Another powerful technique is the use of humor in a name, but here one should proceed with caution. There is nothing more off-putting than a bad joke, and any joke that gets repeated a thousand times by your dad is likely to go stale. Furthermore, the use of humor is acceptable in certain types of business, but detracts from your image in others – e.g. no one is going to invest their life-savings in Go For Broke Mutual Funds.
So the secret is to employ humor subtlety if you ever decide to use it. Avoid crass humor unless your primary clientele is deeply appreciative thereof. Puns based on common phrases and classic cultural references can be quite appealing. Unexpected twists and double entendres can also work in the right context. Humorous names that we like include Barber Blacksheep (barber shop), Tequila Mockingbird (bar), Hair Force One (hair studio), Surelock Holmes (locksmith), Wok this Way (chinese restaurant), Just Falafs (falafel takeout), Sew And Tell (seamstress), Pita Pan (restaurant), Brewed Awakening (coffee shop), Deja Brew (coffee shop), Sofa So Good (furniture store), Dog & Cat Repair (vet), Iron Maiden (ironing service), and Udder Delights (cheese shop).

Finally, we must be careful to avoid negative associations. It’s a no-brainer that people don’t want to be reminded of unpleasant, foul or scary things. Don’t base your business name on something awful. Be especially careful of negative or sexual associations introduced accidentally by separating the domain name in the wrong place – e.g. Penisland (Pen Island) and Bandie (meant to be a cute derivative of “band” but ends in “die”). You also need to be careful of negative associations in other languages. This is particularly important if you are trading internationally. Here we recommend consulting with a language expert.

4) COM is King

This has been repeated all over the web by domaining experts, and it remains true today. The .COM domain extension is still by far the most well known and popular extension for corporate websites. Most people visiting a company’s website will start by typing in the business name and .COM. Most successful businesses that start out with different extensions eventually switch to the .COM name. Approximately 75% of startups use a .COM domain name. The truth is, .COM names still carry by far the most credibility and are expected by consumers for major brands.

The big exception here is country-specific domain extensions (ccTLD) in countries where they such domains are widely used by businesses – e.g. .co.uk in the United Kingdom and .de in Germany. Such a domain name extension may be advisable and more affordable if your target market is limited to the specific country.

This situation may change in future with the flood of new generic domain extensions, and there are plenty of stories of companies that succeeded despite a non-com name, but you will be shooting yourself in the foot if the .com domain name you want is available and you settle for the .info to save some money.

5) Take care of the competition

Competition arises from many sources, not necessarily only from within your own industry. It is important that your company name is not too generic, otherwise it might get lost among irrelevant search engine results. Good luck, for example, trying to sell a hand-held fan for personal cooling named a Sports Fan. You definitely want a name that is distinctive enough to bring your web page to the top of search engine results!

The most obvious thing you need to be careful about when it comes to competition is trademark infringement. Avoid existing trademarks like the plague! Usually a simple Google search will reveal the trademark in question, but a more thorough analysis is recommended when it comes to making a large investment in a name. At a minimum, one should consult the TMView trademark search portal available here https://www.tmdn.org/tmview/welcome. This portal combines the trademark databases of the US, EU, Canada and numerous other international trademark offices. If your name is too similar to a competitor in your industry, move on to something else. If a conflicting name is in a country you never intend trading in, in an entirely different industry, and you have reason to suspect won’t be trading in your country anytime soon, you can consider using it, but first make sure you have the matching company name registered successfully in your country.

Ideally you want to have your name in the matching .com domain name, in order to have the most authoritative virtual address for your business, but it is not the end of the world if you have to add an industry modifier – e.g. MaximoFoods.com

6) Follow a structured naming process.

Now that you have a fair idea of what to look for and what to avoid in a name, its time for the hard part – finding one that works. If you can’t afford to use a branding consultant to find one for you, you will have to start brainstorming, generating and refining your choices, consulting with friends and colleagues, and eventually making the call. We recommend following a structured process as follows:

1) First decide what you need out of a business name: Must it describe your product offering exactly? Must it sound strong and authoritative? Must it provide room for vertical expansion within your industry or horizontal expansion into different industries and product offerings? Are you creating a fresh brand in a new field? Must it be entertaining, comforting, welcoming, exciting, trustworthy? What type of name is likely to appeal your target market? What are your competitors names? What is good or bad about them?

2) Write down a word-list of nouns, adjectives and adverbs related to your product or service offering. Initially try to be as broad and creative as possible. Use a thesaurus. Consider which qualities of your products and services are most admired. Use a visual dictionary, Google image search and Pinterest to help you explore concepts in a different way, and break out of your normal thinking patterns. Consider the use of metaphors to represent your offering and make abstract concepts more tangible. Consider relevant classic cultural references and idioms. Visit Startupranking.com to get name ideas from other successful startups. If you are brainstorming this in a group (recommended), get each person to generate this list individually before the group meeting so that you can have truly diverse and unbiased input.

Example word associations for “car”:
Words associated with cars: auto, automobile, sportscar, fuel, drive, transport, travel, speed, race, traffic
Positive adjectives for cars: sleek, fast, beautiful, powerful, aerodynamic, solid, craftsmanship
Objects commonly found in cars: driver, family, wheels, steering wheel, gears, engines, brakes, dashboard, seats, horn
Phrases associated with cars: lets drive, vroom, faster faster, hit the gas, stuck in traffic
Feelings that cars elicit: exhilaration, acceleration, happiness, joy, safety
Moments spent with cars: auto racing, sunday drive, stuck in traffic, road trip, car crash

3) See what names are available on the market. Visit the domain name marketplaces and brandable business name marketplaces like Sedo.com, Brandroot.com and Brandbucket.com and search for names using your generated keywords. You might be lucky and immediately find a name you love within your budget. At this stage you want to get a feel for different types of names in your niche to help with your brainstorming, potentially expand your keyword list, and see what domains cost so that you can determine your budget.

4) Brainstorm to generate as many names as you can. If you are in a group, do this separately again before you come together. Use the naming techniques discussed in Section 1 of this article. At the end of this stage, you want to produce a long list of realistic candidate business names.

5) Evaluate your candidate names. Screen and refine your list using the points described in Sections 2 and 3 of this article. Check the filtered list for trademark infringements and exclude those. Compare the names to your competition, and exclude those that are too similar. This step is extremely important and deserves as much effort as the earlier steps to find names that really work well for your business.

6) Find domain names that fit your business name. You can use a registrar like Godaddy.com or Namesilo.com to check the availability of a bulk list of up to 500 domain names at a time. Given that most good .com names are already taken, it’s likely that you’ll spend at least a few hundred dollars on buying a good name in the aftermarket, or risk forgoing some of the best options. Obviously the exact match .com name is best, but you may have to compromise depending on domain availability and budget. Repeat steps 3 – 6 until you have a shortlist of domains that you would be happy to use for your company. You have to be ruthlessly realistic here. It is unlikely that you will find the “perfect name”. You might have a favorite name that just doesn’t stand up to the filtering process. Let it go.

7) Now involve everyone you know to vote on their favorite names in your candidate shortlist. This will help you to rank the names and narrow it down further.

8) Finally you have to make a choice. Trust your judgement, choose the one that works best for your business, and let the naming process draw to a close.

And there you have it! Remember, we have some excellent company names for sale right here on Brandty.com! We also offer comprehensive company name research and consulting to simplify the process for you. Best of luck with you business naming adventures!