MONEY

Your Company is Great. Your Name Stinks. Now What?

Your company name is less important than it's cracked up to be.
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A great company name is a wonderful asset.

The word “Twitter” is memorable, fun to say, and conjures images of young birds chirping away to one another in their nest. It’s perfect for a start-up devoted to providing a platform for short 140-character updates to the world.

DropBox is easy to spell and says what it does. Perfect.

DreamWorks is inspiring.

But what if you have the perfect company name and can’t register (or can’t afford to buy) the URL? What if you’ve been in business for a while and you're stuck with a lousy name? Should you change it?

No.

A name, like a logo, is virtually worthless until you start making it mean something to your target audience.

Great names are made, not born.

No one likes being a Virgin, but Richard Branson has made us happy to buy from one.

An apple is a piece of fruit.  You’re supposed to eat one a day but I don’t always remember. It happens to also be the name of one of the world’s most valuable companies, but it’s not the name that made it so. It’s what Apple did to define what the company would stand for in the mind of the customer that made it valuable.

Mother is the name of the U.K.’s largest independent advertising agency, and with 400 employees spread across offices in London, New York and Buenos Aires, they’re a big success. If you’ve downed a Stella Artois in the last few years, you may have been seduced by an ad created by Mother. You could argue that everyone has a soft spot for his or her mom, but beyond that, the company name Mother is worthless. It’s just a word that now happens to mean something special to Chief Marketing Officers.

IBM stands for International Business Machines, which is about as boring as you can get. IBM is a valuable company today because of the trust the IBM name instills in CEOs and CTOs who outsource their service contracts to Big Blue - nothing to do with a fancy name.

Wal-Mart, one of the world’s most valuable companies, is a mash-up of the plain vanilla surname Walton and the ugly, unimaginative “Mart” suffix.

Phil Knight changed his company name from “Blue Ribbon Sports” to Nike back in 1971. Blue Ribbon Sports is a truly awful name, but unless you’re into Greek mythology and happen to know your goddesses by heart, Nike is not much better. It’s four little nothing letters that Knight & Co. have made to mean something -- along with the swoosh logo they had created for $35.

Google used to be called “BackRub” because the platform used backlinks to verify the influence of a site. Larry Page and Sergey Brin then changed the name to Google, which originated from misspelling the word “googol.” Only geeks know googol is math speak for the digit one followed by one hundred zeros. So stop obsessing over your moniker. The name of one of the world’s most valuable companies is a typo.

Tiny deposits on the brain

Every time you google something and find what you’re after, Google makes a tiny subconscious deposit on your brain that says, “Hey, I found what I was looking for. I like those guys over at Google.”  The Nike brand wasn’t built on a $35 logo and a four-letter word. It was the advertising campaign “Just Do It” that inspired the competitor in all of us and made us fall in love with the company behind the name.

A great company name might add value to your business, but having a crappy moniker is not a death knell. What drives your value are customers who seek out your brand -- not because of your name, but because of what it means to them.

Last updated: May 23, 2013

JOHN WARRILLOW | Columnist | Sellability

John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You and the founder of The Sellability Score, a cloud-based software company that helps business owners improve the value of their company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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