How to quickly choose a good-enough brand name for your startup

You don’t have time for this, but you know you need a brand name. Here’s how to just get it done.

https://pablo.buffer.com/ is an awesome tool

I’ve led many brand name development workshops for startups and corps in the past. I am definitely not a specialist in brand name development but I have a process I’ve refined the hard way — by having too many stakeholders, not enough time and no budget.

Is your brand name good enough? A good-enough brand name is always good enough. The value in a brand name is developed over many years through a consistently great total customer experience, not by what you decided to call the company or the new product. Many of the world’s most valuable brands have a good-enough brand name at their core (some even have atrociously bad brand names).

Microsoft always amazes me for having consistently chosen appalling logo designs to express their brand name visually. But come on, who originally thought “Microsoft” would be a great brand name? It literally means “small” and “flaccid”.

Good-enough brand names which are hugely valuable are all around you, every day.

If you’d never heard of these companies, how would you know what products Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks, IBM or Ford made or what service they provided? Tesla was a mad professor who died a pauper. Apple? Don’t get me started. Yet, all these companies have gradually built a valuable brand by figuring out what their brand attributes were, and then delivering a consistent customer experience that communicated those brand attributes.

Where do we start?

I frequently meet startup teams struggling because they’re visual thinkers and they start by trying to design a logo. Or trying to choose a brand name without having a clear picture of what the company will do, or who they’ll do it for. Or buying an available domain name and then immediately regretting it because they didn’t go through a process to see if anything better might be available.

So let’s do it the good-enough way.

If you build brand value by delivering a consistent customer experience that communicates your brand attributes, by working backwards through that timeline, it becomes obvious that you should start by defining your brand attributes.

WTF are “brand attributes”?

Sounds wanky but it’s easy: are you selling a premium product/service or a low-price product/service? (You have to choose one or the other — you can’t credibly be both). Are you high-tech and leading-edge or are you solid, dependable, reliable and proven (again, you can’t credibly be both). Are you value-for-money or value-for-service? Are you making your customers a lot of money, or saving them time, or making them feel less anxious, or making them feel more in control, or less alone, or sexier, or high? Are you new or established? Are you gendered or gender-neutral? Are you liberal or conservative? Fighting the establishment or part of it?

You can’t credibly be all these things. The fewer you try to be, the better you’ll be able to deliver a customer experience which conveys them. Be ruthless, choose five or less, and none that contradict each other (like leading-edge and dependable).

It takes the whole team

A fatal mistake is to have a subset of the team doing all the brand work so the rest of the team can work on other things. While some would never consider themselves a brand strategist, and will tell you they don’t care what the brand name is, there will come a time when they suddenly do care very much: when you’ve come up with something they don’t like.

Few of us are born brand strategists, but all of us were born with the ability to dislike a new brand name.. Those absent from the branding process will tell you it’s because they don’t know what they want. But they all know what they don’t want when you show it to them. Which wastes time.

It’s vital to get all the stakeholders involved directly in the entire process, so nobody walks in after the process is complete and says, “Oh, I wouldn’t have chosen that.” Or even worse: dislikes it but doesn’t say so to your face, just silently edges away from it, avoids any situation in which they might have to be a brand ambassador, whispering apologies for the terrible brand name to people they meet. Infecting the rest of the team with their doubts.

It just takes one person who wasn’t part of the process to sow discomfort and discontent. And yet, no-one who was wholly engaged in the process will be able to sidle away from the final outcome. And it should take less than a day to do this. So if they can’t all attend for the whole process, reschedule.

If someone just won’t be part of it, print out something for them to sign that says, “I acknowledge that because I will be playing no part in the brand name selection process, I will have no right of veto or feedback of any kind on the final choice of the brand name selection team. I will wholeheartedly stand by whatever brand name is chosen, gladly wear a t-shirt with the brand name on it, and happily introduce myself to people as [your name] from [new brand name].” If they’re stubborn enough to sign it, stick it up on the wall where everyone can see it. You’ll be surprised how they will suddenly find time to attend.

Trust the process

No matter how far away you think you are from a good-enough brand name, it’s not rocket surgery. The easiest path to a good-enough brand name is usually a compound name (a made-up word formed from 2–3 words, Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes).

  1. You’ll need Post-It notes, pens, and something to stick them to.
  2. Start by listing the values and attributes of the business. What do you want it to be and stand for? See if you can condense each attribute into a single word, or break multiple word attributes (like “value for money”) into single words (“value” and “money”).
  3. Take each attribute and use a glossary to build out a ‘word cloud’ of Post-It notes bearing related words, synonyms and homonyms and Latin roots. (“money” could lead us to “asset”, “worth”, “wage”, “salary”, “pay”, “cash”, “currency”, etc).
  4. It’s unlikely any viable single words in English are available cheaply as domain names under any TLD (top level domain). It’s more likely that a combination of two or more words/prefixes/suffixes will be available. So build a long list of possible compound names by combining two or more options from your word cloud. These are your first-round contenders. Discard any (like “Microsoft”) that make you sound small and flaccid!
  5. Check each is available as a trademark under the relevant class. This search tool is handy.
  6. Check each is not a slang term in English(with urbandictionary) or in a major international language (by checking the first three pages of a Google search on the word, and by using Google Translate).
  7. Check domains and social accounts are available.
  8. Get to a ranked shortlist of the remaining candidates by asking the whole team to vote for them.
  9. Unless your number one choice is “Microsoft” you should be done.

Why does one brand name feel better in my mouth?

Alliterative brand name choices are good — people like the mouth feel and have better recall of brand names with internal rhyme (like “IdeaFrontier”) a 1:2 syllable structure (such as Blue (1 syllable) Chilli (2 syllables) or a 2:1 syllable structure (“ChilliBlue” would also work).

We’re in startups, isn’t there just a tool we could use?

There’s always a tool. Tools come and go (most of them are hard to monetise) but right now you could try Naminum (adds prefixes and suffixes to a word you input, then checks for domain name availability on GoDaddy). Business Name Chooser is an iOS app that checks for trademark and domain name availability. Bust-a-name helps create names and then checks domain availability. There are definitely more tools, but this is an article, not a list. Besides, it’s no good trying to use a tool if you don’t understand how and why to use it.

Hope I’ve helped you with that, let me know how it goes for you!

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This is a collections for articles about business including startups, business developments, and management. Managed by @tkwyoung and @aptnumber2

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Alan Jones

Alan Jones

I’m Alan Jones, coach for accelerators, partner at M8 Ventures, angel investor. Earlier: founder, early Yahoo product manager, tech reporter.

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