Conventional wisdom: You know your company's brand better than anyone, and nothing's both as memorable and untouchable as its name.

On the contrary: Customers often know you better than you know yourself.

A company's name is a customer's first impression. If you are fortunate, the name of your company can tell your customers a lot about you--not only about what you do, but also about your company culture. In the best of circumstances, it might even make your customers more inclined do business with you.

In the case of Big Ass Fans, which I founded in 1999, the most common question I get about the company is how we came up with the name.

The history behind the name

We originally called the business the HLVS Fan Co.

HVLS is an acronym for "high-volume, low speed," and that's exactly the type of fan we made. It was a straightforward name that made perfect sense to us.

Unfortunately, HVLS wasn't ringing a bell with our potential customers. When we answered the phone "HLVS Fan Co.," the people on the other end of the line would pause for a few seconds, because those letters meant nothing to them. Then they'd ask, "Are you the guys who make those big-ass fans?"

"Yes," we'd have to admit. We sure were.

Eventually, we saw the light. We started using the "big ass" idea in our marketing. We spent several hours urging a recalcitrant donkey to look at look at the camera in a specific way, finally capturing just the right rear-pointed-forward-looking-over-its-shoulder stance. That donkey gave us that perfect triple-entendre big ass pose for our ads, and that photo that became the official image of our iconic mascot, Fanny.

Not too long after that that first Fanny photo shoot, we decided to change our name officially to Big Ass Fans. After all, that was the name our customers called us anyway. The name really did perfectly describe our products. And what was equally important, it announced that we were a fearless, bold and innovative company.

Go against the grain

It's a good story, but it also tells you some important things about how you should approach your business. First and foremost, listen to your customers. The easiest path to your customers is a straight line. That's why Big Ass Fans follows a direct sales model, which we'll discuss in a future column.

Your name also indicates the tone of your company and business style. At Big Ass Fans, the culture is going against the grain--not just for the hell of it, but because there's an advantage in being different.

Another company that has mastered the approach is New Pig. They developed an absorbent sleeve for cleaning up spills that they called a "pig" because it looked like it was wallowing in the dirty oil. The name stuck and they've embraced it as a brand. Yes, it's a funny name, but it's also a serious product.

People appreciate asense of humor. The demographic that both Big Ass Fans and New Pig approaches finds the names funny and unpretentious. Back that up with a quality product and that's how you build a successful brand that people like.

Why your name matters

When you have a funny name like Big Ass Fans, everyone expects you to be a one-note company that doesn't take things seriously. Use those expectations to drive you. Never stop improving--you'll love proving the doubters and detractors wrong.

Focus on making a great product, and you'll have the confidence to relax the staid, conservative business front that most companies think is necessary for success. You don't have to be boring; you just have to make something that appeals to people and fixes their problems.

We've gotten plenty of flak for the name, of course. A postmaster refused to deliver the first series of postcards we sent out. A councilman wanted our billboard of Fanny removed from the side of our first manufacturing facility. To this day, we receive a small amount of hate mail from people who find the name offensive, crude or inappropriate. We embrace the haters by posting videos of their rants. Most people just think it's funny and get as much of a kick out of the hate mail as we do.

We never thought the name would be as popular as it's become, but it's turned out to be a hugely important part of our business. It tells people much of what they need to know about Big Ass Fans: We're bold, we're direct and we're contrarian. In the end, that's what a name should do.

Choose yours wisely.

Published on: Oct 24, 2014