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On Naming Your Business, and Getting It Right

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What's in a name? Plenty, according to Alex Frankel, the author of Wordcraft (Crown Publishing, April 2004), a book about the business of naming companies and products. BlackBerry, for instance, wouldn't be quite so popular, he suggests, had it remained "PocketLink," its original name.

"This name allowed them to vault into the big leagues," he says.

Frankel has been involved in the naming of hundreds of companies and has written about words in the "On Language" column in the New York Times. He recently discussed the significance of -- and the best approaches to -- naming a business, with Inc.com.

What's the first step an entrepreneur should take in figuring out a name for his or her company?

The first step is to make sure a company has written down its mission statement or story of who they are and what they do. Without that, it's difficult to create a name. Most companies will think of writing a mission statement, but often it's pretty clunky. A lot of mission statements can be too formal and written in a way that doesn't get at who they are, what's the story. They can think of the name as the title of their story.

Then, they need to lay out objectives for the name. That's a step a lot of people forget about. The list will have things like -- if it's a company selling microchips -- "this name must describe that we make microchips." Or, it might not: "This name must allow us to get into other areas in the future." If it were Microchips Inc., that wouldn't work.

Beyond the likes and dislikes of various people, a name must also work for them as a function.

Is coming up with a name something done best in-house or outsourced, by one person or a team?

If it's done well, it can be done in-house. But there's value to getting an outside vantage point. The value there is having someone who has a new take on what this company does and also somebody who has no political allegiances with anyone in the organization. I find that an issue of ownership [of the idea] comes up.

And from there, just free-associating?

From there, into the creative phase, the big thing is to come up with hundreds if not thousands of names. The reason here is that there are going to be a lot of problems securing the [trademark for] names. There has to be enough fodder to make sure something will work.

Tell me about the idea of putting your own name on the front door. Is there anything wrong with that?

Nothing wrong with that, but it depends on what your goals are. It can limit growth if that person leaves, or something happens to that person. Martha Stewart is a good example of that. But, at the same time, if that person has a lot of great assets -- also like Martha Stewart -- it is worth building the brand around that person. And also, it's distinct and ownable.

How important is it to tie the name of your company to what your company actually does?

It's easier to own a coined name, but [with a coined name] you have to supply meaning behind that. Your marketing budget has to fall in line. If you're calling yourself Apple, you have to tell the world what you do. If you call yourself "New, Cool Computer Co.," [they know what you do].

Is it possible to be too clever -- or too boring?

A lot of companies err by being either. Puns often fall flat. And there are a lot of companies that won't take any risks--and their names show it. They try to stick to very literal meanings; that can limit their growth and show their culture -- that they're somewhat limited in creativity.

In the long run, how much does it really matter whether you get the name right? Isn't it really about producing solid products and services?

It is, but the right name can create huge upside in things you don't typically associate with it. It can build in traction for the company in terms of people who want to work there. It can build a strong culture around it. And it can help the company to become a company leader, like BlackBerry.

Certainly, if the product's good, a, so-so, mediocre name won't hurt the product, but a good name will help that offering really get out there ahead of the pack.

Last updated: Jun 1, 2004




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