The importance of an effective company name can’t be overstated; it’s the first thing potential customers and clients see and is an essential building block of future growth and success.
A ho-hum name will hamper people’s ability to remember and talk about it. Getting it right is crucial.
The first piece of advice that Jay Jurisich, chief executive officer and creative director of Zinzin, a Berkeley, Calif.-based naming agency, offers to clients is to ditch the thesaurus.
The biggest mistake a company can make is using a name that describes exactly what it does, he explains. To do that, many look for synonyms to describe what they do. Say a business sells software and it wants people to know that the product is fast and agile.
“They’ll look in a thesaurus for different synonyms for fast and agile then see that those are all taken because everyone else in the industry has already done that,” Mr. Jurisich says. “Or they’ll do mashups: Agilefast or Fastagile, Fasteo, Agilio … that’s where about 80 per cent of companies will go with their naming."
The most successful brands don’t play by those rules, he says. “Apple doesn’t tell you anything about what Apple does. The same can be said for Caterpillar, Amazon and Oracle. Those are evocative names, names that map metaphorically rather than linearly. They demonstrate brand position rather than a product or company.
"Strong names express the story you want your brand to tell the world.”
Strong names, as opposed to cold, anonymous or techie names, create poetic resonance that lodge in people’s brains, he says. That’s what gets people talking about your brand, telling their friends about it and sharing it on social media. (Zinzin’s own name has multiple meanings. The word is colloquial French for “bonkers” or “loopy” and is the French slang equivalent of “thingamabob,” a placeholder name you use for something when you don’t know the actual name.)
Another common error business owners make is using a dull, run-of-the-mill name when they claim their business is game-changing.
“Why should people believe you when, in a very prominent form, you’re demonstrating the opposite with a boring, standard name?”Mr. Jurisich says.
Some business owners rush through the naming process, considering it just one more item to check off a list, says Chris O’Shea, a business consultant at the Business Development Bank of Canada. Or, they may focus first and foremost on their logo and company colours and give their name less priority. Either way, the result is rarely an effective title.
“Naming doesn’t have to be a painful process, but has to be a well-thought-out process, where businesses ask: Who are we? What do we represent? What’s important to our market, our business, and our customers?” Mr. O’Shea says. “You really want to start the conversation as a brand conversation first, then get to the logistical details.”
Some entrepreneurs know instinctively when the name is right; others prefer to give prospective names to focus groups or get feedback via online surveys.
Tim Silk, professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, suggests trying an implicit association test. Derived from the field of psychology, it involves having an individual say out loud, in private, the first things that come to mind upon hearing a name or seeing a logo. These responses are unfiltered and unbiased.
“If I do that with 100 to 200 people in your target market, we can do a frequency count of actual words and emotions about what your brand implicitly evokes,” Mr. Silk says. “You can continue to measure that every six months or every year to see how a brand builds its meaning and associations over time.”
While layers of meaning and story help to build personal engagement, entrepreneurs also face practical considerations when naming their businesses.
Besides doing a prescreening via Google, there’s trademark prescreening. Mr. Jurisich urges business owners to hire a trademark lawyer to screen a name; “otherwise, you risk losing lots of time and money investing in a name that you ultimately can’t trademark in your space.” Business names must also be registered in the company’s local jurisdiction and with the Canada Revenue Agency.
Another important step, particularly with made-up names, is what Zinzin calls “linguistic connotation screening.” This ensures that a word that might be perfectly acceptable in English doesn’t have inappropriate or offensive semantic meaning or usage in other languages.
Some business owners contemplate naming a business after themselves. There are drawbacks to this approach. For one, their company brand will become a personal brand, and people need to be comfortable with that in the digital age. “For a lot of people that’s a step too far,” Mr. O’Shea says.
Then there’s the potential for a person’s name to tarnish a company, Mr. Jurisich notes. Take Weinstein Co. This year, the movie production company co-founded by disgraced Harvey Weinstein was renamed Lantern Entertainment.
A few of our experts’ favourite business or brand names:
Jay Jurisich, Zinzin: General Assembly, Warby Parker, Nest, Obo, and Éclair (Zinzin named the last two).
Chris O’Shea, Business Development Bank of Canada: Instant Pot, Steam Whistle Brewing, Shopify, The 7 Virtues Beauty, TenTree International.
Tim Silk, Sauder School of Business: Under Armour, Médecin Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders, Haagen-Dazs, Gatorade.