Catchy, original, evocative—the right name defines your company and is an invaluable marketing tool. Here's how to find it
Lisa Tep wanted her spa to have a waterfall, bamboo floors, and a tranquility lounge. After six years, the former accountant had everything set. But her Vienna (Va.) company still didn't have a name. For inspiration, Tep pored over books about Thailand, where her mother was born, and searched the Internet. She considered Lotus, which was taken, and Nail Nirvana, which didn't quite fit. After a year of researching Asian culture, she hit on Sesen Spa. "Sesen" is the ancient Egyptian word for the lotus flower, a symbol of beauty and purity. Perfect. "People would be able to pronounce it, but it was different enough, and it would prompt people to ask, 'What does this mean?'" says Tep, whose company now has 15 employees and revenues of $1.5 million.
A good name is an alchemical combination of message and esthetics. It has to encapsulate everything that makes your business special. It has to be catchy. And it has to be original. "The golden rule of naming is memorability," says Mike Carr, founder of NameStormers, a naming and branding company in Lago Vista, Tex. "If you can get inside the consumer's mind, a lot of other sins will be forgiven."
Bad names—and there are plenty—are off-putting, impossible to pronounce or spell, confusing, or just downright forgettable. Then there are the legions of copycats, such as the many companies adopting names with "oo" after Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO)! made good. But you can do better than that.
Whether your company is starting out or changing direction, finding the right name is a matter of creating a process in which inspiration can strike. Of course, you might get lucky. The founders of 100-person, $18 million Antenna Software in Jersey City, N.J., which makes software that connects salespeople in the field, stumbled on what they thought was the ideal moniker for their company—it was scrawled on the sidewalk in front of their building. But more often, as Tep found, naming your company takes a good deal of research and brainstorming. And no matter where you find your name, you'll have to do some digging to make sure no one has beaten you to it.
You can choose to turn over the task of naming your baby to the pros. But no one knows your company better than you do, so it makes sense to give it a shot yourself first. Draft a small group of company insiders to serve as your brainstorming partners and sounding board. Keep the group small; more than six people can stifle creativity. You can also canvass friends and family for ideas. Begin by listing all the positive attributes of your company and its products; you should aim to evoke your company's personality and the factors that set it apart from the competition. Simple nouns and adjectives work best, such as "warm," "friendly," and "innovative."
You can get creative juices flowing by combing through dictionaries, magazines, and encyclopedias. Web searches might provide some inspiration as well. Rather than consulting a thesaurus, which might steer you to the overly esoteric, Carr recommends leafing through synonym finders and word-menu and word-association books, whose listings are often simpler and more colorful. And look for inspiration out of the office. "Creative inspiration can come from anywhere," says Anthony Shore, global director of naming and writing for brand and marketing firm Landor Associates in San Francisco, "but it is more likely to come from sources that are distantly removed from whatever category you are in." If your goal, for example, is to inspire enthusiasm and excitement, go to an amusement park and look at the names of the rides, or scan skateboarding and snowboarding magazines. Or, if you prefer a more staid company image, you might find a spark in the world of Martha Stewart. Elusive qualities such as sound also play a role. If you're opening a restaurant, for instance, its name should be as appetizing as the food you want to serve.
Last year, My Artist's Place, a child actor's talent company and television production studio in Emeryville, Calif., decided to change its name to something more kid-friendly. President Erik DeSando invited six managers of the 40- employee, $10 million company, including the heads of marketing, graphics, and production, to brainstorm names that suggest creativity and individuality to teens interested in art. The team bandied about ideas for weeks, developing a list of about 150 possibilities before the company's chief operating officer lit upon the winner—"Be." Says DeSando: "The minute we heard it, there was no more discussion needed. It branded everything we wanted to say."
Keep in mind that this street runs two ways. Your products must also reinforce the image conjured by your name. Experts frequently point to Apple. The name piques interest by evoking knowledge and education, and the company follows through by making great products with similar connotations. "There is a virtuous circle of the name helping to create interest and the products feeding back to the name," says Shore.
You'll do well to remember the sort of names that many executives wish they could forget. ValuJet, the former name of AirTran Airways (AAI), made the airline sound cheap and downscale, says Shore. Back in the 1980s, United Airlines (UAUA) parent UAL spent millions of dollars to rebrand itself as Allegis, only to spend millions of dollars to revert to UAL when customers didn't respond favorably. Says Carr: "There was a total disconnect with the airline, and no reason to remember it."
If It Ain't Broke
As UAL learned the hard way, changing the name of a well-established business comes with some risk. No matter what the shortfalls of your current name, your customers identify your products and services with it. But it may be worthwhile to change your name if your brand has been sullied by bad news, or it no longer suits your company. Because changing a name can be tricky, you may want to enlist the help of an outside firm that will help choose and market the name. To minimize disruption, pros recommend talking about your new name early and often. "It is essential to have a campaign to announce it, and provide a rationale for it," says Mike Ladd, president of Smith-Winchester, a marketing and branding firm in Southfield, Mich. Steps might include holding focus groups, mailing brochures, and creating a new logo. Depending on the firm and how detailed the plan, expect to spend between $10,000 and several hundred thousand dollars.
In 1997, after Potomac Funds, named for the river the founders saw outside their window, moved into more innovative investments and wanted to reach more money managers, the executives decided a new image was in order. Plus, the company relocated from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Says Todd Kellerman, chief financial officer: "We wanted to express innovation and excellence and partnership with the customer base." Potomac hired Boston branding consultancy Sametz Blackstone Associates, which interviewed current and prospective customers about the company's name, products, and services, eventually producing a positioning document to guide communications and marketing for the new name. They ultimately settled on "Direxion Funds," because they felt it suggested the direction of the markets, and denoted a sense of leverage and movement, Kellerman says. The process took six months and cost about $50,000.
MAKING IT YOURS
The game isn't over when you find a name you like. You have to make sure you have the right to call it your own. To avoid potentially costly missteps, hire an intellectual-property lawyer. Expect to pay your attorney up to $10,000 for all the searches and filings. That might seem like a lot, but according to Ilene Tannen, partner at New York law firm Jones Day, the costs of disputing a lawsuit for trademark infringement, along with lost goodwill, advertising, and packaging costs if you have to change your name, can run to tens of thousands of dollars.
After narrowing the field to half a dozen names, see whether any have been trademarked. Start with the Patent & Trademark Office database, which lists all names filed with the federal government for the purpose of doing business. The owner of a name registered with the PTO trumps anyone who comes afterward, as a federal trademark holds throughout the country. You can search this database yourself at no cost, but an intellectual-property lawyer can do a better job. Inexperienced searchers, for example, won't know to search the different product classes. An expert can also help you find names that sound like yours, which may take precedence even if they are spelled differently.
Next, you'll need to consult state registries. To save money, businesses with limited geographic scope, such as restaurants and dry cleaners, typically register their names only in the state where they do business. No free, central repository exists for the state registries, so for this leg of the journey, you should hire an intellectual-trademark attorney. Most charge in the range of $400 an hour. Trademark specialists will also search databases such as CT Corsearch and CCH for so-called common-law names. Although these names, which specialists cull from trade magazines, local publications, and other sources, have not been registered, trademark law gives precedence to the first user. Companies with state-registered or common-law names can use their mark either locally or nationally, if no one else has a nationwide claim to the name. And be aware that if a business owner can prove he has been using a state-registered or common-law name nationally before you filed for a federal trademark, you could lose your right to the name.
Once your name checks out, you must file the appropriate documents with the federal or state government, effectively serving notice that you intend to do business under the name. For a federal filing, you'll have to register your name for particular classes of goods, of which there are 45, ranging from musical devices to hand tools to clothing. The fee per class is $375 ($325 if you register online at uspto.gov), with the term valid for 10 years. After five years, you must also file a document of continued use to keep your trademark active. Fees for state registrations are typically half the federal rate.
After you've filed your trademark, you can begin using it immediately. But you'll still have to keep your fingers crossed. The PTO could reject a name for any number of reasons: It may be overly vague, say, or lewd, scandalous, or inaccurate, or it may span several classes that you have not included in your filing. Names can also be dinged for being generically geographic, such as Bermuda Onions or Idaho Potatoes. Intellectual-property lawyer Herbert Hammond, a senior partner at Thompson & Knight in Dallas, says: "You can't use a trademark if it would deprive others from using a term that geographically describes their product."
If you plan to operate online, you'll have your own peculiar challenges. Just about every domain name known to man has already been registered, which explains the proliferation of nonsensical names and strange spellings, such as Flickr. "Finding a clean, top-level domain name is extraordinarily difficult," says Shore. Even if you manage to get a federal trademark for a bricks-and-mortar business, you might find someone using your name online or squatting on it: Squatters buy names with no intention of using them, other than selling them to businesses later on. If the user is a legitimate business, you're probably out of luck, and you'll have to find another name to use online. If you run into squatters, you will either have to buy them out or take them to court to get the name that should by rights be yours.
Whatever the obstacles to finding a good name and making it yours, resist the temptation to settle for one that you suspect is uninspiring. After all, if you can't get excited about it, your customers won't, either.
Back to BWSmallBiz December 2007/January 2008 Table of Contents