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Eight Biz Name Blunders

Stop the presses! Don't print up the new letterhead until you read our list of the top eight biz-naming mistakes.

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Naming a business is a lot like laying the cornerstone of abuilding. Once it's in place, the entire foundation andstructure is aligned to that original stone. If it's off, evenjust a bit, the rest of the building is off, and the misalignmentbecomes amplified. So if you have that gnawing sense that choosinga name for your new business is vitally important, you'reright. With 18 years experience in the naming and brandingbusiness, I've witnessed the good, the bad and the really bad.To help you get off to a good start, read on to discover the top 8mistakes I've found people make when it comes to choosing aname for their business:

Mistake #1: Getting the "committee" involved inyour decision. We live in a democratic society, and it seemslike the right thing to do--to involve everyone (your friends,family, employees and clients) in an important decision. Thisapproach, however, presents a few problems. The first and mostobvious fact is that you'll end up choosing only one name, soyou risk alienating the very people you're trying to involve.Second, you often end up with a consensus decision, which resultsin a very safe, very vanilla name. A better method is to involveonly the key decision-makers--the fewer the better--and select onlythe people you feel have the company's best interests at heart.The need for personal recognition can skew results, so you'llbe best served by those who can park their egos at the door. Alsomake sure you have some right-brain types in the mix. Get too manyleft brains on board, and your name will most likely end up tooliteral and descriptive.

Mistake #2: Employing the "train wreck" method ofcreating a name. When forced to come up with a catchy name,many aspiring entrepreneurs simply take part of an adjective andweld it onto a noun, essentially colliding the two words head on tocreate a new word. The results are names that have a certaintwisted rationale to them, but look and sound awful. Someonestarting a high-end, service franchise becomes QualiServe. Someonestarting a classy day spa becomes TranquiSpa. It's a bit likemixing chocolate syrup with ketchup--there's nothing wrong witheither ingredient, but they just don't go together. Othercommon truncations include Ameri, Tech, Corp and Tron. The problemwith this approach is that it's simply forced--and it soundsthat way.

Mistake #3: Using words so plain they'll never stand outin a crowd. The first company in a category can get away withthis one. Hence you have General Motors, General Electric and soon. But once you have competition, it requires differentiation.Imagine if Yahoo! had come out as Thename would be much more descriptive but hardly memorable. And withthe onslaught of new media and advertising channels, it's moreimportant than ever to carve out your niche by displaying youruniqueness. Nothing does that better than a well conceivedname.

Mistake #4: Taking the atlas approach and using a map to nameyour company. In the zeal to start a new company, manybusinesses choose to use their city, state or region as part oftheir company name. While this may actually help in the beginning,it often becomes a hindrance as a company grows. One client came tome with complaints that he was serving more of the market than hisname implied. He had aptly called his business St. Pete Plumbingsince he hailed from St. Petersburg, Florida. But Yellow Pageshoppers assumed that was also his entire service area. With alittle creative tinkering, we changed the image of St. Pete from acity to St. Peter himself, complete with wings and a plumber'swrench. The new tagline? "We work miracles!"

Many other companies have struggled with the same issue.Minnesota Manufacturing and Mining was growing beyond theirindustry and their state. To avoid limiting their growth, theybecame 3M, a company now known for innovation. Kentucky FriedChicken is now KFC, de-emphasizing the regional nature of theoriginal name. Both of these companies made strategic moves toavoid stifling their growth. Learn from them, and you can avoidthis potential bottleneck from the beginning.

Mistake #5: Turning your name into a cliché. Oncepast the literal, descriptive word choices, your thought processwill most likely turn to metaphors. These can be great ifthey're not overly used to the point of being trite. Forexample, since many companies think of themselves as the top intheir industry, the world is full of names like Summit, Apex,Pinnacle, Peak and so on. While there's nothing inherentlywrong with these names, they're overworked. Instead, look forcombinations of positive words and metaphors, and you'll bemuch better served. A good example is the data storage company IronMountain, a name that conveys strength and security withoutsounding commonplace.

Mistake #6: Making your business name so obscure, customerswill never know what it means. It's great for a name tohave a special meaning or significance--it's sets up a storythat can be used to tell the company message. But if the referenceis too obscure or too hard to spell and pronounce, you may neverhave the opportunity to speak to that customer because they'llsimply pass you by as irrelevant.

So resist the urge to name your company after the mythical Greekgod of fast service or the Latin phrase for "We're numberone!" If a name has a natural, intuitive sound and a specialmeaning, it can work. If it's too complex and puzzling, it willremain a mystery to your customers. This is especially true ifyou're reaching out to a mass audience.

I pushed the envelope a little on this one myself, naming mybranding firm Tungsten after the metal that Thomas Edison used tocreate light. But because my clients consist of knowledgeableprofessionals who appreciate a good metaphor and expect a brandingfirm to have a story behind its name, I knew it would work.It's also a way to differentiate my services--illuminated,bright, and brilliant. But while something different might work fora branding firm, it wouldn't work as well for more commonbusinesses, like an ice cream parlor or an auto body shop.

Mistake #7: Taking the Campbell's soup approach toselecting a name. Driven by the need for a matching domainname, many companies have resorted to awkwardly constructed orpurposefully misspelled names. The results are company names thatsound more like prescription drugs than real life businesses.Mistake #2 sometimes gets combined with this one and results in aname like KwaliTronix. It's amazing how good some names beginto sound after searching for available domain names all night. Butresist the urge. Avoid using a "K" in place of a"Q" or a "Ph" in place of an "F".This makes spelling the name--and locating you on the internet--allthat much harder.

And it's not that coined or invented names can'twork--they often do. Take, for example, Xerox or Kodak. But keep itmind that names like these have no intrinsic or linguistic meaning,so they rely heavily on advertising to convey their meaning--andthat gets expensive. Many of the companies that successfully usethis approach were either first in their category or have largemarketing budgets. Verizon, for instance, spent millions on theirrebranding effort. So did Accenture. So check your pocketbookbefore you check into these types of names.

Mistake #8: Choosing the wrong name and then refusing tochange it. Many business owners know they have a problem withtheir name and just hope it will somehow magically resolve itself.The original company name of one of my clients, for instance, was"Portables", which reminded some people of port-a-pottiesor portable classrooms--neither was accurate nor something thebusiness owner wanted to be associated with. This added to theconfusion when sales reps tried to explain their new concept ofmoving and storage. After some careful tweaking, we came up withthe name PODS, an acronym for Portable On Demand Storage. The restis quickly becoming history as they expand both nationally andinternationally.

Mike Harper of Huntington Beach, California, bought a 30-yearold janitorial and building maintenance company named Regency. Weboth agreed it sounded more like a downtown movie theatre than aprogressive facilities management firm. After a thorough namingsearch, we developed the name Spruce Facilities Management. Sprucenot only conveyed the environmentally friendly image of a sprucetree, something important to the client, it also meant "toclean up." The new tagline fell right in place:Spruce..."The Everclean Company."

It's only a matter of time before Southwest Airlines,Burlington Coat Factory and others who have successfully outgrowntheir original markets begin to question their positioning. Muchlike 3M and KFC, they may need to make a change to keep pace withtheir growth and image.

In the fever to start your new business or expand a current one,take time to think through some of these issues. By tapping intoyour creativity and avoiding these potential pitfalls, you'llbe able to create a name that works for both the short and longterm. Like the original cornerstone of a building, it will supportupward expansion as your company reaches new heights.

Phil Davis founded and ran a full-service ad agency for over17 years before launching his business naming and brandingconsulting company in Asheville, North Carolina. His work can beviewed at

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