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What’s in a name? About US$100m in the case of Accenture, which reputedly spent that sum in transforming its brand from Andersen Consulting way back in 2001. Okay, not all of that went on the actual naming process, but the fact that the company felt the need to change its name in the first place, and thus incur all the costs that followed, shows just how important your brand name is.
Choosing the name for your company may not be the most important business decision you ever make but it will be one of the hardest– because it is important. Naming anything is difficult: a business, a product, a child. Whatever name you come up with, there will always be an element of doubt in your mind– could you have come up with something better? But at some point, you have to make a decision. You know you can’t spend the rest of your life waiting for that moment of enlightenment, so you need a process that will help you choose a name that will benefit your business and, just as importantly, avoid one that will do the opposite.
In her book Hello, My Name is Awesome… How to Create Brand Names That Stick, former Ogilvy & Mather copywriter Alexandra Watkins of naming firm Eat My Words offers two mnemonics to help you get the basics right. The first is SMILE, which stands for the attributes of a "super-sticky" name: Suggestive, Meaningful, Imagery, Legs, Emotional. The second is SCRATCH, "the seven deadly sins" of naming: Spelling, Copycat, Restrictive, Annoying, Tame, Cursed, Hard.
First, though, you need some ideas. Where do you start?
There are essentially two aspects to the naming process: the emotional and the practical. It’s best to start with the emotional aspect and then check your ideas against the practical considerations. So let’s examine those aspects in more detail.
The emotional bit
The inspiration for your company name can come from anywhere. According to the 2011 biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the name Apple was born out of one of Jobs’ fruitarian diets. Jobs thought the name sounded "fun, spirited and not intimidating." It covered the Suggestive, Meaningful, Imagery and Emotional parts of Watkins’ SMILE. It also lent itself to the development of the business beyond computers into a much broader range of products and services– the Legs part.
Jobs clearly had a good idea of the sentiments he wanted his brand to evoke. You need to do the same. Your brand name is your first impression and it needs to evoke a positive emotional response. That emotion needs to be appropriate to the products or services you provide. What are the key attributes of your business? Reliability? Efficiency? Caring? Creativity? What sort of clientele are you serving? High class? Everyman? Men? Women? Children? Whatever adjectives describe your business and its customers, your naming ideas need to reflect them.
Accenture is an example of what naming guru Alex Frankel describes in his book Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business as "the synthetic, just-add-water (and a lot of advertising dollars), umbrella name." In other words, it’s a made-up name that evokes little or no emotion but, in its cold vagueness, is somehow suggestive of a large corporation that offers a multitude of services.
According to Watkins, however, "the most powerful brand names connect with people and move them to buy because they are based on familiar words and concepts that they understand and appreciate: Kryptonite locks, Mayday tech support, Obsession perfume, Leapfrog toys, Ninja blender… these are the names that speak volumes."
The practical bit
The practical considerations are more numerous than the emotional ones but arguably easier to apply. As you come up with ideas based on the emotions you want to evoke, check them against this list to make sure you avoid the classic naming pitfalls.
1. Is it memorable? The most important aspect of any business name: If your customers can’t remember your name, how are they going to find you? Short, familiar words of one or two syllables are easiest to remember. Apple. Golf. Twitter. But it’s better to choose a longer word that makes sense for your business than a short one that doesn’t. Think about spelling too. If you decide to give it a twist by changing the spelling, make sure you’re not making it confusing because any confusion will make your name harder to remember.
2. Is it baggage free? Naming baggage comes in various forms: the names of your competitors, foreign translations, mispronunciations, domain names. Any of these things can derail what appears to be a perfectly good name. Making your name distinct from all your competitors is obvious; less obvious are the offensive meanings in foreign languages that have tripped up many a brand. Do your research, especially in the territories in which you intend to operate. That also includes checking the naming regulations in each territory.
Check how your name sounds too and get plenty of feedback, from both humans and voice recognition software. Before he came up with the name Amazon, Jeff Bezos was running with Cadabra as the name for his online bookshop concept. That changed when his lawyer misheard him and thought the business was called Cadaver.
Similar mishaps can happen when you come to register your domain name. The internet is full of amusing examples, one of the more repeatable ones being the art website speedofart.com– you get the idea. Just be careful.
3. Is it usable in all applications? Further to the previous point, make sure the domain name you want is available. Consistency between your brand name and your domain name are very important for reinforcing your brand in customers’ minds and many good name suggestions flounder on this technicality. It’s easy to look up domain name availability online: Just do a search for "domain names" and open one of the numerous domain registration sites that come up.
Consider too how your brand name is going to appear– on packaging and signage, etc. Do you produce goods that will have your name on them? If so, how does that dictate the shape of it? A four-letter name like Dodo offers very different possibilities to a long name like Sparrowhawk. Think about social media handles too.
4. Has it got legs? Apple, Amazon, Google– three brands that have undergone massive growth and diversification without having to change their name. If you’re planning a similar trajectory for your business, this is something to bear in mind. With the ability to pivot now such a key part of modern business strategy, choosing a name that can pivot with you is a must.
Just last year, the long-established American office supplies company United Stationers changed its name to Essendant. Why? According to CEO Cody Phipps, it was due to "a combination of the iPad effect, cloud storage and the millennials entering the workplace." In other words, the word "stationers" had become outdated. It no longer represented the company’s core business and it was giving the wrong impression to a younger, more tech-savvy audience.
While it would have been impossible for the founders of United Stationers to foresee the digital revolution, by including the nature of the business in the name they were committing one of Watkins’ seven deadly sins– restricting the opportunity for future diversification. That said, if your business makes tables and you only ever intend for it to make tables, then including "tables" in the name will make it easier to remember. It’s another decision for you to make.
The UAE naming regulations checklist
Here in the UAE, there are several guidelines that must be adhered to when naming a business, all of which are fairly straightforward.
- Offensive language is forbidden. Phonetic considerations must be taken into account to ensure all words are non-offensive when pronounced in Arabic.
- Company names cannot contain references to Allah or anything relating to Him.
- Only full personal names can be included in your company name– meaning both first name and last name are required if you are using your personal name for your company name.
- If you do choose to name your company after a person, they must be either a partner or owner of the company as named on the company licence.
- Company names should include no references to political organisations or religious or sectarian groups, such as the FBI or Mafia.
- All company names must be written as they are sounded out rather than translated.
What’s in a name?
Choosing a name that stands the test of time and conveys the perfect image of your business is a delicate blend of art and science– and there is no definitive answer. The success of such giants as Microsoft, Apple and Amazon is not down their names alone. Nor did Facebook succeed where Diaspora failed simply because it had a catchier moniker. The fact is, a company is not made great by its name. It is made great by its business model, its people and, above all else, its achievements.
But make no mistake, a catchy and memorable company name can offer a distinct advantage, keeping you at the front of your customers’ minds and helping you to make a positive and engaging first impression.