How to come up with a name for your new business
More than 600,000 new businesses launch every year — how can you come up with a name that stands out from the crowd?
“Names have power.”
― Rick Riordan
A name is the face of your business. It needs to capture your essence, values, and what makes you different from the competition. It should be the most unique, yet relatable thing about your brand.
That’s a lot of pressure to hang on a few words.
Especially because what makes a name “good” is highly subjective, and if you get it wrong the stakes are high.
So how can you create a name for your new company that gets people excited to buy it?
What makes a great name for a new business?
Although whether a name is “good” or “bad” is subjective, there are few traits that successful names share:
- Familiarity: This characteristic matters more when you’re naming a brand that is part of a master brand or portfolio. For instance, Apple’s naming convention for its mobile products. Each began with “i” (iPad, iPod, iPhone). BMW has a numeric system that puts every car into a hierarchy based on performance (118i, 320d, 520d xDrive).
Think about the typical naming conventions of your market. How can you create a naming convention that customers will learn to know and love?
2. Distinctiveness: How unique is your company’s name? The uniqueness of your name should relate to how unique your brand’s offering is.
Think about your market — what naming conventions appear repeatedly? Can you break these and create your own, or twist the convention so that your name stands out from the crowd?
A basic process for naming a new company
1. Before you do anything, create a brief
A brief is a set of instructions or guide rails for a project.
Briefs are essential when starting a project because they define measures for success. In an agency or consultancy, the brief also helps inspire the writers who will be creating the name.
Some questions our brief needs to answer include:
- Who is the target audience for this business?
- Should it be abstract (like Apple) or descriptive (like PlayStation)?
- Should it be long or short?
- Are there brand naming conventions we need to keep in mind (like the iPad and iPhone)?
- Should it be a real word (like Blackberry) or a new word (like Google)?
- Should it support a mother brand (like DoubleTree by Hilton) or be able to stand alone (like Starbucks)?
Because a good name is so subjective, you’ll need to make sure there are agreed parameters for what makes the name “right” for you and/or your client.
First, we need to answer some fundamental questions about the world our name will live in, like:
- Who are our competitors in this space?
- What’s a sample of their company names and types?
- What are some naming conventions in this category we’d like to adopt or avoid?
- What brand attributes do their names convey?
- Are there any “big name” territories we want to avoid (such as naming a new laptop iCompute)?
3. Brainstorm (with parameters)
Before we begin our session, it’s essential to realize that brainstorming without guardrails will fail. Research shows that loose and free brainstorming sessions are less productive than approaches with more structure.
Thought starters and parameters are needed to establish what we’re looking for.
A great place to start when brainstorming is a four-quadrant grid that establishes the common types of names:
- Functional / Descriptive Names: These are the most straightforward names. They tell customers exactly what the business does. “Gary’s Plumbing” or the “Kline Branding Company” are examples of Functional Names.
- Invented Names: Invented names are those that include words not yet seen in language. Think “Google,” “Kleenex,” or “Oreo.”
- Experiential Names: These names connect to experiences people are familiar with, or can easily relate to. Examples include “Safari,” “Explorer,” “Amazon,” and “Sweaty Betty.”
- Evocative Names: These names evoke the spirit of a brand and how it differentiates itself from competitors. Think “Virgin Airlines,” “Uber,” “Bumble,” and “Lululemon.”
4. Vet potential names
There are two parts to this process:
- First, we’ll legally vet our names to make sure we can use them.
- Second, we’ll use an objective scorecard to make sure our names are fundamentally sound choices (and to stack-rank them).
The legal vetting phase
Note: I suggest that you consult with an attorney during this section, as they’ll be the best person to advise you on if the name is legally available. The list below is no substitute for a lawyer’s input.
Although you will get lawyers involved eventually, a “first vet” of potential names will help you eliminate obviously problematic ones.
Here’s a quick list of places to test your names in the wild, to see if they pass the “trademark” test:
- Google it.
- Visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark website (if you’re in the U.S.).
- Put your potential name into Google Translate and see if it might prove problematic in other languages.
- Search social media to make sure potential usernames are available.
- Do a domain name search to see if your name is readily available (or affordable to buy).
- Use Namechk to search social media for similar names.
- Use Google Trends to see how often people search for a keyword.
The scorecard phase
Once you have a vetted selection of names, you can go down each of the criteria and score the name from 0–10. Then tally the numbers and see which of the names is the strongest overall.
5. Bring the name to life and test it
Now it’s time to bring our names to life by exploring them through creative elements. This might include mocking them up in logos, creating sample labels, merchandise, or websites.
Note: If you lack the resources to bring these names to life right now, you can test only names with customers — but be wary that creative elements can radically change perceptions of a name.
- Narrow down your list using the previous step to your top five choices.
- Use creative mockups to bring your elements to life.
- Use a low-cost consumer survey like SurveyMonkey, Amazon MTurk or Google Consumer Surveys to get your names in front of as many of your potential customers as possible.
- Use this feedback as data to inform your final name choice.
The bottom line
“Determine who you are and what your brand is, and what you’re not. The rest of it is just a lot of noise.”
— Geoffrey Zakarian
A company’s name is its face to the world. People will learn from it, judge it, and use it as a shortcut to understanding your brand.
But no matter how perfect, a name can’t save a bad business. And it won’t sink an amazing one.
At the end of the day, your business’ name must reflect your brand and its values. Otherwise, as Geoffrey Zakarian says in the quote above, it will just be “a lot of noise.”
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