How to name your business – and create a brand
Good branding starts with a company name
Although a name isn’t everything (it won’t rescue a bad business idea), it is an important component in the foundations of a brand. A strong, distinctive name will help to provide strong foundations. A weak, unimaginative name won't.
There are many branding experts who spell out the various ‘right' and ‘wrong' ways to name a business. Beware of such prescriptive advice. Sure, descriptive or keyword names, location-based names and eponymous names are usually worth avoiding. But there really are no rules. In fact, if you follow rules you’re likely to end up with a name that sounds a bit like someone else’s business. And copycat brands are never a good thing. So you must start with an open mind. (For a comprehensive summary of the types of names you could choose from, check out our free guide.)
The process of coming up with name ideas is not mysterious. You don’t need supernatural creative powers. Nor do you need to be a professor of linguistics. You don’t even need skinny jeans and an interesting beard. What you DO need is:
- A brief – a clear view of what your trying to achieve
- To try different approaches to generating ideas
- Rigorous filtering
You also need a lot of patience. Because whether you’re a naming professional or a first time business owner, naming a company is very time consuming. (There’s a good reason why professional naming services come at a high price.)
1. Creating a branding brief
It’s important to know what you’re aiming for before you get anywhere near the ideas bit. Answering these questions will give you your brief...
Are you naming the business or the product?
Clue: you should be naming the business. Many startups lose site of this, and name the company after its first product or service. This can paint the business into a corner from the get go.
What do you want your business to feel like?
Is it techie and process driven? Old-school with traditional values? Pioneering and innovative? A reassuring safe pair of hands? Young and dynamic? You may not instinctively know the answer to this, but it’s vital that you take time to work it out. Only then can you spot names that match the character of your business. If your business 'doesn't feel like anything in particular', you've got a problem.
What are the must-haves?
Although there’s a series of filters a name must go through to be 'validated' (see Filtering section below), there are only TWO absolute, cast iron must-haves for selecting a truly brandable name: 1) it should be short, and 2) you should own the .com domain. Short names are easy remember, practical to use, and have kudos from day one. And if you don’t own the .com, you can’t own the brand name. This isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.
What’s your brand proposition?
This is simple statement that answers three basic questions:
- What does your business do?
- What makes it different from others?
- Why would customers buy from it?
Here’s an imaginary example of a brand proposition:
"Our business is a new kind of domestic window cleaning service, using the very latest cleaning technologies. Our customer base will be developed entirely online, and services can only be booked and paid through a web app. Initially available to domestic homes across Greater London, in the future it will roll out nationally. Although technology currently differentiates us from competitors, this may not always be the case. Ultimately it's about delivery and peerless quality – traditional values that are at the heart of our brand. An old fashioned service for our modern age."
Through this straightforward statement, you get a feel for this business. Have a go at writing down the equivalent statement for your business idea. It’s well worth the effort, and the process can help you to further develop your concept, and give you clarity for the next, really difficult stage...
2. Generating name ideas
Explaining how people get great ideas is to explain how the brain itself works. Nobody knows. What we do know is that there are tried and tested methods for generating business names. Whether they're any good is another matter.
Bear in mind that a method that works well for one person could be a creative cul-de-sac for someone else. There’s no ‘right' way to do it, and you don’t know what will be effective unless you try a bit of everything. By the way, treat yourself to a new notebook (and make it a nice one, this is important stuff!).
Here are five common methods for getting name ideas:
Build a list of keywords
Everyone says you should start here, and they’re right. But it’s ONLY a start point. Your new name will not appear in a list of category-related keywords. It’s what you do with the keywords that might get you somewhere. So go through a thesaurus or dictionary and write down synonyms, or related words, for every keyword you’ve written down. You’ll end up with hundreds of words, most of them seemingly irrelevant to your company. Now break down those words into prefixes, suffixes, or other word parts. Then mix word parts up to make new words. These new words are unlikely to mean anything, and some will feel awkward or too artificial. But if any of these synthetic name ideas somehow just ‘feel right', put them on the list.
Have a brainstorming session
Bring together a group of friends and family, tell them about your business idea, and get them to chuck in ideas. Caffeine can be helpful, alcohol less so. In principle, so we’re told, you should “write EVERYTHING down, however silly it seems”. Hmmm, good luck with that. The trouble is, almost everyone you know doesn’t understand your business idea like you do. A brainstorming session can be fun and motivating, and can produce a lot of notes, but unfortunately it’s rarely productive. Still worth a go though.
Try online name generators
There are dozens of name generator tools out there and as with all tools, it’s all about how you use them. They work using computer algorithms, which means that names produced by generators are, at there best, not very human. At their worst, useless groups of random letters. Generators shouldn’t be relied upon to deliver a fully formed idea, but they can give you ideas and take your mind in other directions. Most of them check the availability of .com domains, which saves you the trouble of checking later.
Coming up with business name ideas can drive you nuts. It’s easy to get fixed on a particular line of thinking, where you seem to be getting nowhere. When you get stuck in a naming rut, get away from your screen and pick up a random book or magazine. Anything with words in it, unrelated to your business. Scan over paragraphs, headlines, adverts, just looking out for words that catch your eye. Write them down. I use this method all the time and it’s an effective, if unpredictable, way of stimulating new thinking.
Check out off-the-peg names
Sites like Brandbucket and Novanym offer a halfway house between using a naming or branding agency and coming up with a name yourself. These are called brandable business names, or brandable domains. You still have to sort through hundreds (with Brandbucket, thousands) of names and then use your own judgment to decide on which ones might be suitable. But you do know that the domain will be available. Of course, it’s more expensive than creating a name yourself, but cheaper than a naming agency.
By the time you’ve tried out all the above methods, you should have a long list of ideas, half-ideas, random notes, and “What the heck was I thinking?” scribbles.
Now you need to turn the long list into a shortlist, by getting rid of all the dross. Your shortlist can vary from a handful of ideas, to maybe twenty or thirty if you’ve been particularly inspired and/or lucky.
Now begins the process of filtering your shortlist, which is as important as coming up with the ideas in the first place.
Run each name through these filters, and strike them off if they don’t pass the tests:
- Is it short and sweet? Shorter is better, but this is as much about the number of syllables as letters.
- Does it pass the phone test? How does it sound when you say it out loud?
- Is it too weird? If your name is too odd, it can be tough to establish credibility.
- Is it a pun, or ‘witty’? Be aware that jokes tend to wear thin over time.
- Is it a phrase, initials, a number or acronym? Names like this are bland and hard to remember.
- If it’s synthetic, is it safe? It might be full of brand potential, but it needs to be checked out in other languages.
- Is it suggestive? Great: hinting at what your business does is a good thing. But don’t use descriptive words.
- Is it yours? Do some basic online checks to see if, and where, the name appears.
- Can you own the .com? Essential. Don’t accept compromises. Don't be tempted by fadish .whatever domains.
- Does it limit potential? Names which are too specific don’t allow a business to develop or change. Avoid specific.
- Is it sticky? Hard to define, but does the name sound just a bit different? Catchy? Engaging even? If not, move on.
- Is it trademarkable? Not relevant for many businesses, but legal checks are vital if you want to protect a name.
- How does it make you feel? Excited? Nervous? These are good signs. Bored? Unenthused? Less so.
If you have one name left at the end of this, then you may have struck gold ...as long as you love it. This last bit - feeling the love - is imprint, because names - and hence naming choices - aren't about cold logic.
Naming is a creative process
Even the most ordered, rigorous approach doesn't guarantee a result, and you may need to repeat the process more than once to get there. This is, after all, a creative process. But it's important to take your time with it, and don't accept compromises. Deciding on a name is the first important step towards building a strong identity, and a brand. And once a business idea has a name, it starts to feel real.
If you get it right, it should last the lifetime of the business, and make a big contribution to its success. Good luck!