Even as a branding guy, I’ll admit that a business name isn’t everything, and it certainly won’t compensate for a weak business idea or poor execution. However, a distinctive name can be an important start point for building a brand, whereas an unimaginative name cannot.
Some so-called experts often prescribe that certain types of business names are ‘right’, and other types are ‘wrong’. As you might expect, it’s not that simple. There are some name types that are generally worth avoiding, like location-based names or naming a business after yourself, but other than that, there are no hard-and-fast rules. In fact, if you follow rules you’ll probably choose a name that sounds a bit like someone else’s company – never a promising start for a new business.
So the first tip is; start with an open mind. There are no rights or wrongs.
Although coming up with business name ideas isn’t easy, neither is it a mystery. And as with any process, you need to start with a plan:
- Write yourself a ‘creative brief’ – this will give you clarity over what you’re hoping to achieve
- Try a range of idea-generating approaches
- Filter your ideas thoroughly and methodically
- Prepare to be patient! When done properly, business naming takes time …a LOT of time. (Professional
naming specialists charge a lot of money with good reason.)
Stage 1: Creating your brief
It sounds obvious, but before you even start thinking of ideas for your business name, you have to be clear about what you’re looking for. Your brief will come from answering these simple questions:
A. What’s your brand proposition?
This is simple statement that answers three basic questions:
- What will your company do?
- What will make it different from others?
- Why would customers buy from you and not someone else?
Here’s an imaginary brand proposition:
“We are a new breed, on-demand manufacturer of luxury products, using the latest material science and 3D printing. Our first product is a mens wallet which customers design and customize to their own spec, using an innovative drag-and-drop web app. We are UK-based with a strong ethical stance and commitment to sustainability. Our customers are style-conscious early adopters who embrace new thinking.”
From this simple brand statement, we can get a general feeling for this company. Try writing an equivalent paragraph for your business.
B. Are you naming the product, or the business?
Clue: it’s the business! Many startups name the company after its first product or service – fine if you only ever intend to do one thing; not fine if you’re thinking about growing the business at some point.
C. How would you like your business to feel?
Don’t be put off; this isn’t as cod-spiritual as it sounds. It’s important to have a sense of the messages you’re hoping to convey through your business name. Is your business a pioneering innovator? Or steeped in tradition with time-honoured values? Tech-obsessed and all about systems? Or a reassuring safe pair of hands? Perky and full of dynamism? You get the idea.
The answer to the question ‘what does my business feel like’ might not be immediately apparent, but it’s important to work it out. Only then will you be able to identify names that match your company’s personality. If you struggle to identify any personality at all, then you have a problem!
D. What are the must-haves?
Although there are many filters that name ideas should pass through to make it to a shortlist, there are only TWO absolute must-haves for selecting a name with genuine brand potential:
- It should be short
- You should own the .com domain
Short names are practical to use, have a certain cachet from the get-go and, most importantly, they’re easy to remember. And if you don’t own the .com, you almost certainly won’t be able to own the brand name – simple as that.
Stage 2: Get some name ideas
Although the process of generating ideas isn’t mysterious, it isn’t all that easy to explain either. But fortunately there several are tried and tested techniques for generating business names. Some might work brilliantly for you, and others may be a time-consuming dead-end. But I’d recommend giving everything a go, and see what happens.
Here are five common methods for getting name ideas:
Build yourself a keywords list
This is the perfect place to start, but it is only a start. Your fantastic new business name won’t emerge from a list of category-related keywords – it’s what you do with these keywords that might get some results. So identify synonyms, or related words, for every keyword you’ve written down. This will give you tons of words, and most of them will have nothing directly to do with your business.
But now try breaking down all the words on your list into word parts, including prefixes and suffixes. Then, use these word parts to create new, ‘synthetic’ words. If any of these synthetic words look OK (most won’t), stick them on your long list.
Have a brainstorming session
A brainstorming session with a group of friends/family can be a lot of fun, and a great way to get people around you engaged with your business idea. Before you start, make sure everyone fully understands what your business is about. The group dynamic often takes thinking into new and sometimes strange directions. Unfortunately, brainstorming doesn’t often lead to the perfect name. Definitely worth trying though. And the standard advice for brainstorming is to write EVERYTHING down. This will result in a lot of notes, though not necessarily great ideas!
Take some online name generators for a spin
Name generator tools are freely available, so they’re worth a go – and most will check the availability of domains as they deliver name ideas. But bear in mind that these tools use mathematical algorithms, which means that the names they produce often aren’t often ‘human’. Frequently they produce bunches of random letters – not much use as a potential brand name. For me, name generators shouldn’t be relied upon to create a fully formed idea for you. They can, however, be effective at giving you fresh ideas, especially when you find yourself stuck in a naming rut. And remember to take notes as you use these tools, you’ll forget those half-ideas if you don’t write them down.
Go off on tangents
Speaking of ruts, getting fixed on a particular line of thinking can drive you crazy, and can even make you feel like giving up. When you get stuck, walk away from your screen and pick up a magazine, or a book, or anything with words in it, preferably with no relevance to your name search. Scan over text, ads, headings, even image captions, keeping an eye out for anything interesting or unexpected. I know it sounds a bit random, but I employ this trick all the time and it rarely fails to stimulate new thinking. Again, write everything down.
Consider an off-the-peg name
Sites that sell ‘brandable domain names’ offer an alternative to combine up with a name yourself, or paying a branding agency to do it for you. This domain-first approach means you still have to browse through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of names. And you’ll need to use your own criteria and judgment to spot the wheat from the chaff – but you do know form the outset that the domain will be available. Of course, it’ll cost more than creating your own name, but it’s usually considerably cheaper than a branding agency or naming specialist.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Even the most methodical creative approach won’t guarantee a positive result, and you may need to repeat the name-generation process to get there. But it’s crucial that you take your time. After trying all the above name-generating methods, you should have a pretty epic long list, containing a wide range of ideas, scrawls and random notes. The quality of your ideas will be pretty random, too.
Now comes the task of reducing your long list into a short list, which can be anything from a handful of ideas, to maybe twenty or thirty if your creativity has been flowing freely.
Stage 3: Filtering your long list
The vital process of filtering your shortlist is as important as coming up with the idea.
Simply run each name idea through the following filters, and take them off the list of they fail any of the tests:
- Is it short? Shorter is always better – which doesn’t always mean less letters; it’s as much about the number of syllables.
- Is the name a set of initials, a number or acronym? – Names like this are bland and hard to remember.
- Will it pass the telephone test? – How does the name sound when you say it out loud? (If it’s awkward or embarrassing, strike to off the list.)
- Can you own the .com? – Don’t compromise – the .com is still king. And don’t be tempted by those that are flavour of the moment not-com domains.
- Is the name just too weird? – If it’s is too strange, establishing credibility will be an up-hill battle.
- Is the name a witty pun? – Remember; over time, jokes get less and less funny.
- If the name is synthetic, is it ‘safe’? – If you’re planning to go global, find out if the names means anything in other languages.
- Does the name give people a clue? – Hinting at what your business does (without using descriptive words) is a great idea.
- Can the name be yours? – Carry out simple online checks to see if the name crops up and, more importantly, WHERE it crops up.
- Will the name limit your potential? Avoid specific-sounding names could hold your business back or paint it into a corner. The best names will help business to keep its options open.
- Does the name sound memorable, or engaging? – Does it sound a bit different to your competitors? If not, it’s not the right name.
- In principle, would the name be trademarkable? – This might not be important for most businesses, but legal checks are vital if you would like to protect your business name. So, do you have any name ideas left after this filtering? If you do, well done …because you might well be in business.
But the final test is the hardest to pass: How does the name make you feel?
If you love it, or are a bit nervous, or even excited, this is a great sign. If it leaves you a bit cold, or fails to push any of your buttons, maybe you should keep looking. Although name ideas can be created using an ordered process and rigorous filtering, CHOOSING the right name can’t be about cold logic.
A business name is the first important step towards building a brand – and the right name should last the lifetime of the business, and make a positive contribution to its success. Over the past 20 years or so, time and again I’ve seen that as soon as a business owner selects a name for their startup, only then does it start to feel real. And that’s when things start getting really exciting.
Vince Bridgman is a creative branding specialist with over 20 years experience in the industry. Vince is co-founder of Novanym.com, the brand name store.