What's in a name? A lot, when it comes to small-business success. The right name can make your company the talk of the town. The wrong one can doom it to obscurity and failure. Ideally, your name should convey the expertise, value and uniqueness of the product or service you have developed.

Some experts believe that the best names are abstract, a blank slate upon which to create an image. Others think that names should be informative so customers know immediately what your business is. Some believe that coined names (that come from made-up words) are more memorable than names that use real words. Others think they're forgettable.

In reality, any name can be effective if it's backed by the appropriate marketing strategy. Here's what you'll need to consider in order to give your small business the most appropriate and effective name.

Enlist Expert Help to Start

Coming up with a good business name can be a complicated process. You might consider consulting an expert, especially if you're in a field in which your company name may influence the success of your business. Naming firms have elaborate systems for creating new names and they know their way around the trademark laws. They can advise you against bad name choices and explain why others are good.

The downside is cost. A professional naming firm may charge as much as $80,000 to develop a name. That generally includes other identity work and graphic design as part of the package, according to Laurel Sutton, a principal with Catchword Brand Name Development. Naming services that charge as little as $50 do exist, but spending a reasonable amount of money early for quality expert advice can save you money in the long term.

What's in a Name?

Start by deciding what you want your name to communicate. It should reinforce the key elements of your business. Your work in developing a niche and a mission statement will help you pinpoint the elements you want to emphasize in your name.

The more your name communicates to consumers about your business, the less effort you must exert to explain it. According to naming experts, entrepreneurs should give priority to real words or combinations of words over fabricated words. People prefer words they can relate to and understand. That's why professional namers universally condemn strings of numbers or initials as a bad choice.

On the other hand, it is possible for a name to be too meaningful. Common pitfalls are geographic or generic names. A hypothetical example is "San Pablo Disk Drives." What if the company wants to expand beyond the city of San Pablo, California? What meaning will that name have for consumers in Chicago or Pittsburgh? And what if the company diversifies beyond disk drives into software or computer instruction manuals?

How can a name be both meaningful and broad? Descriptive names tell something concrete about a business -- what it does, where it's located and so on. Suggestive names are more abstract. They focus on what the business is about.

Consider "Italiatour," a name that was developed by one naming company to help promote package tours to Italy. Though it's not a real word, the name is meaningful and customers can recognize immediately what's being offered. Even better, "Italiatour" evokes the excitement of foreign travel.

When choosing a business name, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Choose a name that appeals not only to you but also to the kind of customers you are trying to attract.
  • Choose a comforting or familiar name that conjures up pleasant memories so customers respond to your business on an emotional level.
  • Don't pick a name that is long or confusing.
  • Stay away from cute puns that only you understand.
  • Don't use the word “Inc.” after your name unless your company is actually incorporated.

Get Creative

At a time when almost every existing word in the language has been trademarked, the option of coining a name is becoming more popular. Some examples are Acura and Compaq, which were developed by naming firm NameLab.

Coined names can be more meaningful than existing words, says NameLab president Michael Barr. For example, "Acura" has no dictionary definition but the word suggests precision engineering, just as the company intended. NameLab's team created the name Acura from "Acu," a word segment that means "precise" in many languages. By working with meaningful word segments (what linguists call morphemes) like "Acu," Barr says the company produces new words that are both meaningful and unique.

Barr admits, however, that made-up words aren't the right solution for every situation. New words are complex and may create a perception that the product, service or company is complex, which may not be true. Plus, naming beginners might find this sort of coining beyond their capabilities.

An easier solution is to use new forms or spellings of existing words. For instance, NameLab created the name Compaq when a new computer company came to them touting its new portable computer. The team thought about the word "compact" and came up with Compaq, which they believed would be less generic and more noticeable.

Test Your Name

After you've narrowed the field to four or five names that are memorable and expressive, you are ready to do a trademark search. Not every business name needs to be trademarked, as long as your state government gives you the go-ahead and you aren't infringing on anyone else's trade name. But you should consider hiring a trademark attorney or at least a trademark search firm before to make sure your new name doesn't infringe on another business's trademark.

To illustrate the risk you run if you step on an existing trademark, consider this: You own a new manufacturing business that is about to ship its first orders when an obscure company in Ogunquit, Maine, considers the name of your business an infringement on their trademark. It engages you in a legal battle that bankrupts your business. This could have been avoided if sought out expert help. The extra money you spend now could save you countless hassles and expenses further down the road.

Final Analysis

If you're lucky, you'll end up with three to five names that pass all your tests. Now, how do you make your final decision?

Recall all your initial criteria. Which name best fits your objectives? Which name most accurately describes the company you have in mind?

Some entrepreneurs arrive at a final decision by going with their gut or by doing consumer research or testing with focus groups to see how the names are perceived. You can doodle an idea of what each name will look like on a sign or on business stationery. Read each name aloud, paying attention to the way it sounds if you foresee radio advertising or telemarketing in your future. Use any or all of these criteria.

Keep in mind that professional naming firms devote anywhere from six weeks to six months to the naming process. You probably won't have that much time, but plan to spend at least a few weeks on selecting a name.

Once your decision is made, start building your enthusiasm for the new name immediately. Your name is your first step toward building a strong company identity, one that should last as long as you're in business.

This article is an edited excerpt from "Start Your Own Business, Fifth Edition", published by Entrepreneur Press.