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BRANDING

What's in a Name?

Is your company's brand name doing everything it could? Here's how to get the name you deserve.
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Kevin Brynan spends a large chunk of his day explaining over and over again how to pronounce the word Mxyplyzyk--the name of his gift shop in New York City's Greenwich Village. As it happens, the name (which is pronounced "mix-ee-pliz-ik," in case you were stumped) is so long that Brynan's business card is a three-part foldout. The unusual moniker, created by a co-founder and inspired by a Superman comic book character, is fitting for a shop with unusual items like pug dog "puggy" banks and warped vinyl record serving bowls. On the other hand, it's hard to tell your friends about a store when you can't pronounce the name, and good luck finding it online. Ultimately, Brynan thinks the unusual name has been a plus, highlighting the store's quirkiness and helping to draw foot traffic. Nonetheless, he adds, "sometimes I wish we'd named it John Doe."

Deciding on a name for your company or product is among the first steps an entrepreneur takes. But coming up with the right name can be a lot harder than it looks. In many cases, companies rush into a decision because forms need to be filed or business cards need to be ordered. Others find the process to be one of trial and error, until they stumble upon one that fits. Even Google, which most experts consider an exemplary name--attention-getting, fun to say, alliterative, nonsensical sounding but reflecting a relevant meaning (a googol is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes)--used to be called BackRub before it incorporated. "Great companies no longer prosper solely from the efficient production of goods, but also from the ubiquity of their brand names," Alex Frankel writes in his recent book, Wordcraft, about the art of creating great brand names.

A good name will never save a bad company. But the right name can make a huge difference. In late 1996, at the age of 28, Houston entrepreneur Mina Mann quit her job to launch her own advertising agency. At the time, most ad firms were run by men, and many were named for the founders. But Mann, who was running her start-up as a sole proprietor, wanted her company's name to have a traditional, masculine feel. After going through 200 possibilities, she made her decision: Grant Harrison Advertising. There was neither a Grant nor a Harrison working at the firm, but friends and family members all agreed it sounded large and professional.

Mann says the august-sounding name helped her land accounts by making her agency seem better established than it really was. She also had four different business cards made up, saying things like "Mina Mann, Sales" or "Mina Mann, Accounting." She was afraid if she gave clients "Mina Mann, President," they would say, "Why is the president doing my invoices?" Mann's company now has 20 employees and clients such as Minute Maid and Ritz-Carlton. But she and her staff have a lot of fun with the Grant Harrison persona. "We've had people dress up as Mr. Harrison for Halloween," she says. "Apparently, he is a British guy with a pipe."

Naming experts say that, ideally, the goal of a name shouldn't be to make your company sound bigger or inspire trust. Those things will come naturally as your company grows and delivers on its promises. The best names do more than that: They subconsciously convey a feeling, highlighting a company's or product's strengths. When brainstorming for names, think about your company's mission, advises David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding in Sausalito, Calif., which is responsible for creating memorable names such as BlackBerry and OnStar. What are you trying to accomplish? What is it like to do business with you? And lighten up, Placek says.

Consider the BlackBerry. At the time the product was ready to be released, its main competitor was Motorola's PageWriter 2000. The BlackBerry team, which had been toying with the name PocketLink, realized it needed something less literal. It sought the help of Lexicon, which suggested naming the product after a small fruit. The first thought was strawberry, but that sounded too slow. Eventually, Lexicon came up with BlackBerry, which not only sounded great (because of the crisp consonants and vowels) but also had alliteration and symmetry that would make it memorable. What's more, for a piece of technical equipment, the name was pleasing, not intimidating. "You want a name that your employees and customers will want to say," says Anthony Shore, creative director of brand consulting firm Landor Associates, "a name that, when you hear it, your mind goes places."

Easier said than done. But at Lexicon, Placek and his staff work to reduce naming to a science. They have performed countless linguistic studies to develop a system to analyze how vowel and consonant sounds affect perceptions. For instance, they say the P and B in PowerBook (another Lexicon coinage) connote strength and reliability. In contrast, a name with slower and softer sounds might be more appropriate for a cosmetics line.

That's the mysterious, magical part of the name game. There are more prosaic details to consider as well. According to Frankel, one of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is to come up with only one name, fall in love with it, and tell tons of potential clients about it--all before checking the availability of trademarks. A long list of options is key, he says, because it's likely that many of your choices have been taken. When searching the list of fictitious names (also called "doing business as," or DBAs) for your county and looking for names in your "class" (or industry) on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website (www.uspto.gov), be sure to look up variations on spellings, too, because names that sound alike can't be registered in the same class. Also check Register.com to see which Internet domain names remain available.

The easiest names to trademark are made-up ones, such as Accenture and Altria. Generally, these names are what Frankel refers to as "empty vessels": Because they don't really mean anything, they're blank canvases that allow you to paint any picture that you like. Such names can work well, but bear in mind that painting that picture takes advertising and marketing (Read: lots of money). Names like Apple Computer or Caterpillar Inc., by contrast, are full of meaning and make subconscious connections in the minds of customers. These two examples are also arbitrary words that really have nothing to do with computers or construction equipment--which makes them easier to trademark.

What worked for those corporate giants has worked for any number of start-ups--such as RetroBox, a reseller of used computer hardware in Columbus, Ohio. When he founded the company in 1996, founder Stampp Corbin and two of his vice presidents sat in a closed room and brainstormed. They eventually settled on a truncation of two words: retro, which evokes something old yet cool, and box, techspeak for both desktop computers and servers. Despite their enthusiasm, it didn't immediately catch on. "At first it was difficult because we didn't have a straightforward name like Technology Recycled or IT Disposal," Corbin says. "People would say, 'What the heck is RetroBox?" Corbin responded with an ad campaign, sending mailers and making lots of phone calls. RetroBox, it turned out, was a name people remembered. "Now it's an advantage," he says. "We're very distinct." Corbin did the right thing by sticking it out, says Landor Associates' Shore. Far too many entrepreneurs choose purely descriptive names, ? la IT Disposal, which do little to set them apart from the competition. On the other hand, a descriptor at the end of the name can help customers figure out what the company actually does.

Naming experts are also wary of eponyms because they stake the company's reputation on the founder's personal reputation. While this can help to establish trust, it can become a liability (ask Martha Stewart's investors). Rick Bragdon, of the naming firm Idiom in San Francisco, also shuns acronyms and initials. "A meaningless string of letters is not very friendly and fails to inspire," he says. "It looks like somebody gave up." Names that are built around geographic locations can also be limiting as you outgrow your city or state.

And don't be discouraged if your name fails to communicate everything you had hoped. "In reality, you end up with about four to nine letters," says Placek, "and they can really only convey one or two things about you." Above all, great company names only enhance and cement a firm's image in the minds of customers. As Shakespeare said: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." If your company delivers a great product or service, people will seek you out. Even if your name is Mxyplyzyk.

Naming 101

Ask the Right Questions
What is your mission? What is it like to do business with you? A good name should reflect those things.

Have a Backup Plan
Carefully check trademarks. Chances are, your favorite choices already have been taken.

Avoid Acronyms
A meaningless stream of letters is hard to remember--and never inspired anyone.

Web Exclusive

On Naming Your Business, and Getting It Right
What you name your business often can determine how much attention you'll get from customers. Alex Frankel, author of a new book about naming companies, shares his tips for picking a name in this Q&A.

Last updated: Jul 1, 2004




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