What's in a name? When deciding what to call your company, the answer is plenty. A business name can be too broad--or too confining. It can be too quirky--or not memorable enough. The challenge is to pick a name that's catchy, but also fits well with your particular type of business.
Here are 10 questions to ask as you ponder various names, keeping in mind that the choice could make all the difference in establishing your company in the marketplace.
What do I want a name to accomplish for my company?
A name can help separate you from competitors and reinforce your company's image, says Steve Manning, founder of Sausalito, Calif.-based Igor, a naming agency. He suggests clearly defining your brand positioning before choosing a name, as Apple did to differentiate itself from corporate sounding names like IBM and NEC. "They were looking for a name that supported a brand positioning strategy that was to be perceived as simple, warm, human, approachable and different," Manning says.
Will the name be too limiting?
Don't box yourself in, says Phoenix-based Martin Zwilling, CEO and founder of Startup Professionals Inc., an advisor to early-stage startups. Avoid picking names that could limit your business from enlarging its product line or expanding to new locations, he says, citing the example of Angelsoft.com, a company formed in 2004 to help connect startup companies with angel investors. A couple of years ago, the company realized it needed to appeal equally to venture capital and other types of investors. So, it did a costly rebranding to Gust.com, which is less specific and evokes a nice "wind in the sails" image.
Does the name make sense for my business?
For most companies, it's best to adopt a name that provides some information about their products and services. That doesn't mean it can't also have a catchy ring. Lawn and Order, for example, is a good name for a landscaping business because it gets people's attention and also clearly relates to the company's services, Zwilling says. While unusual words like Yahoo and Fogdog sometimes work, quirky names are always a crapshoot.
Is the name easy to remember?
The shorter the name, the better, Zwilling says, suggesting that business owners limit it to two syllables and avoid using hyphens or other special characters. He also recommends skipping acronyms, which mean nothing to most people, and picking a name whose first letter is closer to A than Z because certain algorithms and directory listings work alphabetically. "When choosing an identity for a company or a product, simple and straightforward are back in style and cost less to brand," he says.
Is the name easy for people to spell?
That may seem to be a given, but some companies purposely select names that consumers can't easily spell. It's a risky strategy to try to make a company stand out, and some naming consultants recommend against it. "If your name looks like a typo, scratch it off the list," says Alexandra Watkins, founder and chief innovation officer of Eat My Words, a naming service based in San Francisco. She also believes that it's important that your name be spelled exactly as it sounds. Otherwise, you will forever have to spell it out for people when saying the name or your company's email or website address aloud. "Think of how often you have to spell your own first or last name for people," she says. "Why would you want a brand name with the same problem?"
How will potential customers first encounter your name?
Some naming experts believe there are exceptions to the easy-to-spell rule, especially if most people will see your name for the first time in a print or online ad. For example, consider Zulily, the online company offering daily deals for moms, babies and kids. "If you just heard that name, you might not guess how to spell it, but the company's aggressive online ad campaign has meant that most people first see it spelled out," says Chris Johnson, a naming consultant in Seattle and author of The Name Inspector blog, who came up with the name Zulily. "The payoff is that the unusual sound and spelling of the name have helped them create a very distinctive brand."
Does the name sound good and is it easy to pronounce?
Manning says the sound of the name is important in conveying a feeling of energy and excitement. You also must be sure potential customers can easily pronounce your company's name. "It is a hard fact that people are able to spell, pronounce and remember names that they are familiar with," he says, pointing to Apple, Stingray, Oracle and Virgin as strong names. But he doesn't like such company names as Chordiant, Livent and Naviant. "These names are impossible to spell or remember without a huge advertising budget, and the look, rhythm and sound of them cast a cold, impersonal persona," he says.
Is your name meaningful only to yourself?
A name with hidden or personal meanings evokes nothing about your brand, and you won't be there to explain it when most people encounter it. "Refrain from Swahili, words spelled backwards, and naming things after your dog," Watkins says. She gives the example of Lynette Hoy, who was using her first and last name for her PR firm in Bainbridge Island, Wash. The name didn't work because it failed to evoke Hoy's fiery personality and passion, Watkins says. So, the company was rebranded Firetalker PR, and Hoy took the title of Fire Chief. She called her office The Firehouse, and began offering PR packages such as Inferno, Controlled Burn and The Matchbox. "Her entire brand is built around that name and lends itself to endless ways to extend the name," Watkins says. "Her prior name didn't lend itself to any theme or wordplay."
Is the name visually appealing?
You also want to consider how the name looks in a logo, ad or a billboard, Manning says. He points to Gogo, the inflight Internet service provider, as a good name for design purposes. "It's the balance of the letters, all rounded and friendly, versus a word with hard, angular letters like Ks and Ts and Rs," Manning says. Other visually appealing names include Volvo because it has no low-hanging letters and Xerox for the symmetry of beginning and ending with the same letter.
Have I conducted a proper trademark search?
A great name is worthless if someone else already has laid claim to it. Start with some free resources like Trademarkia.com or USPTO.gov to do a cursory search to see if the name is already in use. Then, hire a trademark attorney to do a more thorough screening, and if the name isn't taken, to register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "Get it right the first time," Watkins says. "A third of our business comes from companies who are being threatened with trademark infringement."