The Unwritten Rules of Naming Your Business

You may not know it, but your industry has unwritten rules when it comes to business names. Find out what yours might be so you can craft a name that resonates with your customers.

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By Brad Flowers Originally published

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The following excerpt is from Brad Flowers's The Naming Book. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound or click here to buy it directly from us and SAVE 60% on this book when you use code MARKET2021 through 4/24/21.

Every industry has a set of unwritten branding rules, or tendencies, that become codified over time. Sometimes they can become clichés. Most industries will have only a few types of names. This happens naturally: One company finds success, and the next company mimics them because it worked for the first. The next thing you know, it's a rule, and no one remembers why it started. This applies to everything from how businesses are run to color choice and typography to their names. But let's look at naming for now.

The name of my company, Bullhorn, is a good example. There are general naming trends in the branding agency world that have become unwritten rules. The first is to use a modifier with the word "brand," like this:

  • Moving Brands
  • Interbrand
  • FutureBrand

I chose these companies because they're all large, successful agencies that do great work. In many ways, they're the agencies Bullhorn aspires to be. But their names are forgettable. More than that, they're undifferentiated. How could you remember if you liked the work from Moving, Inter, or Future? The names are too similar.

The second general trend is the law firm model, in which you name the agency after the founder(s), like this:

  • Landor
  • Lippincott
  • Wolff Olins

While these names are unique, they don't tell you much about the company. What they do is give historical weight. They sound established. They sound old. Choosing this sort of name puts you in the same tier as other professional service providers—hence the "law firm model" description. What these names tell consumers is that the providers will tend to be safe, traditional, and fairly expensive choices.

We also looked at advertising agencies because they often have branding capabilities. Many ad agencies start with the law firm model until the name gets too long and unwieldy. At that point they make it an initialism, like this:

  • WPP
  • BBDO
  • DDB

Again, I'm picking on these three because they're massive, global companies that do the most recognizable work in their industry. They can take it. These names are undeniably easier to handle, but they're interchangeable.

So, we have identified three general naming trends among our competitors: modifier with "brand," law firm model, and initialism. The important thing is what to do with this information.

For Bullhorn, we didn't want the name to have the word "brand" in it. We also didn't want to name it after the founders. This is partly because when you Google my last name, you get a bunch of flower shops, but that's beside the point. And finally, we didn't want a name that would eventually become an initialism. Those tend to be forgettable, especially for a new company that doesn't have the benefit of familiarity.

When it comes to business names, there's a limit to how far outside the unwritten rules you can go. People tend to prefer names that sound like they fit in their category. But if the name is too similar to all the other companies, it will blend in with the noise. And if you go too far in the other direction, it won't be recognized as something that fits.

Fortunately, "Bullhorn" still makes sense here. While they're in the minority, metaphorical names are still used in the branding space, and often to great effect. Consider these examples, all branding agencies like Bullhorn:

  • Matchstic
  • Salt
  • Murmur

These companies are using metaphors in a way that's similar to our logic. Maybe Matchstic creates the spark that starts the fire. Salt provides the seasoning that makes your brand delicious. Murmur is using a similar metaphor from an opposite perspective. It's also about communication, but they aren't yelling it in your face. They're creating the word-of-mouth that travels from person to person. Thus, Murmur.

So. It's important to think about your industry. Like ours, yours will likely have a few unwritten rules. What are they, and why do they exist? Can you break some of them and stand out from the crowd, or is there a good reason to follow them? Do you want to be perceived as established or as an upstart? That perception is greatly influenced by how you choose to position yourself in relation to your industry's unwritten rules.

Unwritten Rules Exercise

To help you determine whether your industry has an unwritten rules, make a list of 30 or so of your competitors. It might help to divide them into groups. What are the most established companies in your industry? Which companies are disrupting tradition? Are there outliers that are just strange? Once you've identified your groups, you can most likely pick out three naming trends. Circle the trends you're interested in pursuing, and cross out the ones you want to avoid. This will help inspire some business name ideas.

Did you enjoy your book preview? Click here to grab a copy today—now 60% off when you use code MARKET2021 through 4/24/21.

Brad Flowers

Founder of Bullhorn Creative

Brad Flowers co-founded Bullhorn, an agency that builds confident brands with language and design. Brad leads naming and language generation at Bullhorn. He has a degree in English literature, which he finds more useful than he expected.

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