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Of all the decisions
you make when starting a business, one of the most crucial is picking a name.
It’s a crowded world, after all, and often you don’t get much time to grab the attention of potential customers. A catchy, memorable name can give you a real advantage, while the wrong choice can confuse people or send the wrong message.
So in this three-part series, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about naming your business.
In this first tutorial, you’ll learn all the steps to follow when choosing a name for your business. You’ll get tips on what criteria to use, what pitfalls to avoid, how to make your name “web-friendly,” and how to test it out before you make the final decision.
Then in the rest of the series, we’ll go through the steps involved in trademarking a name, and explain how to change an existing business name.
Step 1: Brainstorm
The first step in picking a name is to brainstorm. But don’t worry, we’re going to give you some help here. After all, it’s hard if you’re just starting with a blank sheet of paper. So here are some key things to think about.
Think of what your business does, and write down different terms for it. Use a thesaurus, or try typing your key terms into a visual online brainstorming tool like SnappyWords or WordStorm. Try to come up with a list of at least ten key terms, and preferably more.
Even if you don’t want your business name to be a simple description of what you do, these key terms can help inform a more unusual name. For example, Microsoft is a unique name, but it’s also formed from some basic terms for what the company does—selling software for microcomputers (as PCs were called back then).
Next, start to think more broadly. Write down some wider associations or metaphors for what your company does.
For example, the name “Twitter” is not a literal description of what the company does, but you can see how a large volume of very short bursts of speech could be likened to the twittering of birds.
Similarly, the photo sharing service SnapChat incorporates the idea of speed, while the messaging app WhatsApp plays on what we say to each other when we’re just checking in: “What’s up?”
Finally, think of ways to use your own name, or your initials, or combinations of your name with the names of your business partners.
The toy company Hasbro, for example, is an abbreviation of the names of the founders, the Hassenfeld brothers. Oprah Winfrey’s production company Harpo is her name spelled backwards. And IKEA is formed of the founder’s initials, along with the initials of the place where he grew up.
Sometimes simple is best, too. It may not seem very creative just to use your surname as the company name, but it’s worked out just fine for McDonald’s, Mars, Ford, Prada and many others. Or you could be more informal and get on first-name terms with your customers, like Ben & Jerry’s.
Put Them Together
When you’ve got a list of key terms, broader associations, and versions of your name, try combining them and see what you get. These are the basic building blocks of most company names out there, so keep mixing and matching until you get some names you like. At this stage, the more ideas you can come up with, the better. We’ll start filtering them in the next steps.
If you’re stuck for ideas, try asking other people. You could do a shout-out on Twitter, or even run a contest offering a small cash prize or other incentive to the person who picks the best name. This has the dual benefit of generating good ideas and making people feel involved and engaged with your brand.
While sites like Twitter and Facebook provide an ideal venue for crowd-sourcing ideas by asking thousands of different people at once, you can also use more traditional methods like asking people face to face. If you have employees or business partners, ask them to contribute some ideas too.
Step 2: Narrow it Down
So by now you should have a good list of possible names to choose from. Now let’s try to shorten that list, and finally pick a winner. Here are the key criteria to consider.
Type of Business
The type of business you’re in makes a difference to the name you choose. A new, made-up word works particularly well for tech firms, for example, because it conveys novelty and progress. Think of Google, for example.
But if you’re running a more traditional business, a novelty name might confuse your customers. Imagine you’re driving along and a light comes on in your car, indicating you need an oil change. If you see a sign saying “Johnson’s Auto Shop,” you’ll pull in there. But a sign with a made up name like “Tribble” will leave you wondering what the company does, and you’ll probably keep driving by.
Have you ever wondered what Häagen-Dazs means?
The answer: nothing. It’s a made-up word. The company’s Bronx-based founders chose a name that they thought sounded Danish, because they wanted to convey an image of exotic foreign quality. It worked: they were able to market their ice-cream as a premium brand, selling for more than their competitors.
What image do you want to convey? What type of customers are you targeting? If you’re competing aggressively on price, something like Joe’s Discount Club may be just the ticket. If you’re targeting higher-end consumers, go for something a little more elegant.
The sound of the name is also important. Think of a name like 7-Eleven, which began as a simple description of the store’s opening hours, but was incredibly successful because it rhymes so nicely, making it instantly memorable. Eight Six just wouldn’t have been the same. Coca-Cola is another name that works well because of how it sounds, the rhythm and of the two very similar words together.
More and more commerce is moving online these days, so even if your company is primarily a bricks and mortar business, you’ll still need to consider whether the name you’re thinking of will work well online.
Is it easy to spell? Is it fairly short, or can it be easily shortened into a manageable URL? Does it have any ambiguity—for example, a word that can be spelled in different ways, or a hyphen or special character that people don’t know whether to include?
It also pays to think about search engine optimization. One argument for including some kind of product description in your company name is that it helps people find you when they’re searching online. If you sell candles, for example, a name like Candle Shack will probably attract more searchers than a name like Waterberry’s.
But the search engine rules are changing all the time, and having keywords in the name is already less important than it once was, so don’t choose a name purely based on attracting search traffic. It’s just one factor among many.
Step 3: Check for Duplicates
By now you should have narrowed your original list down to a handful of possibilities, or you may even have a clear winner already. The next step is to see if anyone else has had your idea before.
A web search is a good start, but for a more robust check, search for registered trademarks. In the US, you can do this online through the US Patent and Trademark Office’s search tool.
If the name is very unusual and has already been used by someone else, particularly a well-known company, then it’s best just to avoid it. Naming your business Google, for example, is a bad idea, no matter what industry you’re in.
But in some cases, it may be okay to use a business name that already exists. If it’s your own name, for example, you can use it in most cases. And if it’s a name already in use, but for a completely different type of business, then there’s some scope for duplication. “Lotus,” for example, is the name of a British car company, and also a US software company (now owned by IBM). There’s no chance of people confusing a spreadsheet with a sports car, so the two can coexist. There’s also a Lotus Foods in California, and various other Lotus companies around the world.
Generic names are usually fine too. “Fresh & Clean,” for example, is the name of a Michigan dry cleaner, a New Mexico portable restroom manufacturer, a WordPress theme, several carpet cleaning firms, and many others. No single firm can claim ownership over common words like “fresh” and “clean,” so again some duplication is OK.
But be very careful here, because the last thing you want is a lawsuit from someone who thinks you’ve stolen their name. The best thing, of course, is to pick a completely unique name. If you’re duplicating another company’s name, make sure that customers couldn’t possibly be confused, or think that you were trying to trade off the other company’s popularity. If in doubt, consult a trademark attorney.
Also make sure that you can find a web domain name you’re happy with. Finding available “.com” addresses is increasingly difficult, but you may get lucky, or be able to make an offer to the existing owner of the URL you want. Again, having a truly unique name will help a lot here.
Step 4: Test the Name
Once you’ve found a name that you’re happy with, it’s time to get feedback. Ask friends and family, run web surveys, and use social media. Run a contest and offer incentives for people to give you their honest feedback. The more people you can test it with, the better your chances of getting it right.
It’s also important to see how the name sounds to people of different nationalities and cultures. There are plenty of examples of naming misadventures over the years, from IKEA’s short-lived Fartfull workbench to Kraft Foods spinoff Mondelez International, which means something very bad in Russian.
Even if your proposed company name doesn’t have an offensive meaning in other languages, it may simply be very difficult to pronounce, or have completely different connotations than in English. It’s worth getting input from as broad a cross-section of the population as possible. Even if you plan to start out as a local firm, you may want to expand later. And the internet can give even local firms the potential for global reach.
Also test out the name for yourself by sketching some possible branding and logo ideas, drawing up a rough design of your website, and picturing the name on your business card and stationery. Make sure the new name feels right in all those situations.
Step 5: Decide
You’ve now learned how to brainstorm for company names, what criteria to use to narrow your choice down, how to avoid duplication, and how to test the name with a broad audience.
Step 5 is to put it all together and make a final decision on the right name for your business. Ideally it’s a name that:
- Is memorable.
- Communicates something about what you do or how you do it.
- Is appropriate for your type of business.
- Appeals to your target customer.
- Has a catchy sound or rhythm.
- Works well online.
- Can’t be confused with someone else’s business.
- Is approved by most of the people you test it with.
If it at least meets the majority of those criteria, then you can move forward with confidence, knowing that you’ve done a thorough job of finding the right name for your business.
In the next tutorial in this naming your business series, we’ll look at how to protect your new name from competitors. We’ll cover when you need a trademark, what the benefits are, what types of names are eligible, and how you can apply. Then in the final part of the series, we’ll examine what happens if you need to change your business name later on after your company grows.