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Personalize Your Plates

Select a name that reflects your business's image.

If effectively chosen, your business name can convey what you do, pinpoint your business's location, or deliver a subtle message of quality and elegance. If poorly chosen, the name can limit your business's growth or, worse, confuse potential customers. Naming a business is more an art than a science, with few hard-and-fast rules.

Originality Counts

"Don't copy or spin off something that worked for someone else. Instead, figure out why it worked well and try to use the idea behind it. Create something to pull people in, to give them an idea of what you do," says Richard McCluhan, owner of several businesses in Mankato, Minnesota, including a restaurant and Richard McCluhan & Associates Inc., a holding company for an Express Personnel Services franchise and for Ergo-Rite, which manufactures and markets an ergonomic cart for offices and factories.

Your business name or tag line should tell customers what you do, says Richard Gerson, a Clearwater, Florida, management and marketing consultant. For example, if "Charlene Ford" creates brochures and newsletters, she could call her business Communications Unlimited or CF Communications, but not simply CF Unlimited--it's too vague.

Including the business's location in the name can be helpful for a business to which customers must come, such as a mechanic's shop, but meaningless for, say, a computer consultant.

Leave room for expansion and diversification. "Don't choose a name so specific that it will constrict the business," says Riley Harrison, a Minneapolis consultant for beginning entrepreneurs. "If you call your custom-chair business `Chairs-R-Us,' what will you do when you begin making tables to match?"

Clarity Counts

"Make sure the business name is easy to spell and pronounce," Harrison advises. "If you name your company `GloveCo,' you may be unpleasantly surprised to hear a radio announcer advertising it as `Glove-ee-co.' " In this case, you might try something like "Gloves-R-Us."

A descriptive name can include words that provide nuances. McCluhan chose his mother's Sicilian birth name for his Cafe Camarda, pronounced kah-MAR-duh. "The name tells you it's a restaurant, yet it conveys an aura of romanticism," McCluhan says. "People ask about it, giving me the opportunity to explain that we specialize in Sicilian cuisine. Using my own name--Cafe McCluhan--would sound stupid."

Connotation Counts

To make your business appear bigger, consider including words like enterprises, unlimited, associates, industries or corporation (only if you are incorporated). If your image is that of a small business offering personal attention, omit words that give an impression of grand size.

You should consider developing your logo before finalizing your business name. When Melissa Balkcom founded Performance Edge Inc., an Albuquerque, New Mexico, consulting business that offers marketing services and organizational development and training, she chose a name that projects an image of cutting-edge quality, yet is not so specific it might prevent her from adding other business services. To create a memorable image and identity, she set a high priority on logo development, interviewing several graphic artists before choosing one to design the logo.

Using your personal name for your business can give you a jump-start if you have a good personal reputation and people recognize your name. It's also a good idea for a business in which you plan to develop personal name recognition to provide business credibility, as Mary Brown, an entrepreneur in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has done. Brown, who manages fashion models and coaches business executives and television reporters in visual and speaking style, has become a familiar face and name by regularly discussing fashion trends and local success stories on KCRG-TV9, an ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids. After four years in business as Professional Development Image Firm, Brown realized it would be advantageous to change her company's name to Mary Brown's Image Group. She moved her offices to a more visible location in Cedar Rapids and held a grand opening to draw attention to the name change.

There's also value in using a family name known in the area where you will do business. If the business fails, however, your personal or family name may be associated with failure.

Change Counts

If you buy an existing business, should you change its name? Not unless the company has a poor reputation, says Rick Rios, president of JTI Systems Inc., an engineering consulting firm in Albuquerque. "When I bought JTI, it had name recognition, even though the business itself was at a standstill," he says. "I kept the name, added a logo, and developed new clients."

Protecting Your Name

To make sure you have the right to use the name you've come up with--and to keep someone else from using your business name, visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office online.

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