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How to Name -- or Re-Name -- Your Business A seven-point primer for creating compelling business names and avoiding major mistakes

By Jeff Wuorio

Choosing a name for your business carries a slew of possibilities … or repercussions. On one level, you certainly don't want a name that's offensive. The proprietors of Psycho Donuts thought their name merely reflected the edgy quality of their products, only to confront an angry backlash.

But getting your business name right involves more than simply not ticking off potential customers. Here's a seven-point primer to help you choose the best name possible:

Know your audience
Your business name should relate to and be understood by your target market. Know your market demographics completely before even trying out various names. "Septuagenarians aren't going to buy 'Homeboy Antacids,' nor will teenagers flock to 'Bob Hope Video Games,'" says branding authority Steven Mason.

Keep things short
Generally, we're a lazy species -- and that carries over to business names. Not only do shorter names tax us less when speaking or writing them out, they're much easier to remember and pronounce. "Think about the names of companies you admire. They typically have a few things in common: their names are short, simple, easy to write and easy to remember, like Apple, Google, Virgin and Southwest," says Ross Kimbarovsky of crowdSPRING, a Chicago-based design and creative concern.

Don't get too cute
It's often helpful to tinker with the wording of a name, such as acronyms and plays on words. How much depends on the business -- burger joints, for instance, have much more leeway than, say, funeral homes. But don't get so carried away that you muddy the implicit message your name should convey. That's a problem that -- an educational service for law students -- ran up against with its initial name, Morange.

"We thought we were being clever -- nothing rhymes with orange and, likewise, nothing is quite like our business. We work with law students who are mainly in their early 20s, and we thought the cleverness and subtlety would be perfect for this demographic," explains owner Elura Nanos. "Boy, were we wrong. After years of struggling with people who thought we were French and pronounced our company "M'orange,' as in duck L'orange, or thought we were selling mortgages, we gave up the name this summer."

Watch for unintended consequences
Even the most seemingly innocuous names can be damaging. Case in point: the online pen store Pen Island (just move the sequencing of letters and you'll see what I mean.)

Even names that seem harmless can cause problems, even if there's a hint of an issue. For years, it's been widely held that the Chevrolet Nova sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because "no va" means "no go" in Spanish. Nice story, but largely untrue. For one thing, drivers had been filling up for years with a gasoline named nova; a sudden distrust of the car of the same name would make no sense. Moreover, "Nova" is one word, while "no va" is two, with the emphasis on the second word. Chevrolet officials were aware of the possible mistranslation of the name and thought it unimportant. Still, once you consider a name, do some research, checking to see if it means something in another language or can be misinterpreted or misread in some way.

How risqué?
In the search for a name, it's essential to know when a candidate is provocative and eye-catching and when it crosses the line to alienating. Again, the answer lies in demographics. While many doughnut consumers might be miffed at the connotation of a mentally unstable piece of pastry, a cutting-edge fashion manufacturer named French Connection United Kingdom has prospered, in part, by the acronym its name boils down to. "It all depends whether the target customers of the company in question would be intrigued or, on the contrary, put off by the name," says brand and marketing strategy consultant Olga Slavkina.

Know the best process to choose a name
Given its importance, many businesses may downplay the method with which a name is determined. Not a good idea. Here's a checklist culled from suggestions:

  • Don't use a democracy. As one authority quips, fascist dictators have been elected by a plurality and so can choose terrible business names. Either mandate that everyone agree or defer to the owner for the final choice.
  • Don't shortchange possibilities. One expert suggests no fewer than an initial list of 100, pared down slowly from there.
  • Investigate derivations. Greek and Latin translations can uncover unexpected, yet great, possibilities.
  • Run a Web search. See if the name's already in use and, if so, by whom, both on the Internet and elsewhere.
  • Go visual. How will the name look on business cards and stationery?
  • Consider the future. Five years from now, will the name still capture your business?
  • Let it grow on you. Once you've decided on a name, use it in conversation for a couple of days. If it doesn't sit well, revisit your other candidates.
  • Keep it simple. If you're undecided on a suitable candidate, err on the side of directness and simplicity. Notes Jordan Gottlieb of Go Green Fundraising: "I got some great advice a long time ago: People should have a pretty good idea of what you do by knowing only your business name. My business is named Go Green Fundraising. Can you guess what we do?"

Jeff Wuorio is a veteran freelance writer and author based in southern Maine. He writes about small-business management, marketing and technology issues.

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