What’s in a brand name? More than you think

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If you have gotten through the tough part of dreaming up a product or service, analyzing your market, defining your niche and doing a first draft of your business plan, you are ready for the fun part:  choosing a name for your business.

Although certainly a creative exercise, it isn’t always as easy as it seems.  My buddy Suzanne Falter-Barns and I have been coaching a group of small business owners and have spent weeks helping them get clear, crisp and compelling brands.  Suzanne breaks down the process in two parts:

  1. Brand Name:  Catchy, easy-to-understand name that says something about what you do.
  2. Unique Selling Proposition (USP): Phrase that describes what you do more specifically, preferably addressing a key problem faced by your target market.

Examples I love:

Furniture That FitsSmall Furniture for Small Spaces

I saw this on a billboard here in Arizona.  I think it is a local store.  The URL is actually owned by a company that is called “A Perfect Space.”  But I like it as an example of speaking directly to a problem faced by people living in small spaces.  I think they could have raging success targeting people in New York City or San Francisco where you spend 82% of your salary on rent for an apartment the size of a small storage locker.  (The other 18% is on parking tickets since there is rarely a garage and parking on the street is a nightmare).

Area 51Top Secret Research Facility

I realize that this is a government-run facility more known for UFO conspiracy theories than a spunky brand name.  But what if they had chosen to call it the Nellis Air Force Range Research Center?   It hardly has the same effect.  If I was a famous researcher aiming to take over the world, or build a better bomb or whatever they do inside there, I certainly would want to be part of a “top secret research facility.”

Garage Technology VenturesWe start up start-ups.  Early Stage Venture Capital.

This is a good example of a clean, clear and crisp business and brand name.  You don’t have to guess what they do.  The garage part of their brand is very pertinent to their target market, Silicon Valley technology start ups.  Those in this community would love to grow big like a few famous people who started in a garage:  Bill and Dave in their Palo Alto garage (now known as Hewlett-Packard) and the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak who started Apple).

We can also learn a lot from good book titles.  Granted, the titles are probably longer than you would want for a USP, but they do speak directly to their target audience and the problems they face.  The bold part of the title could be considered the brand, the rest the USP.

The Art of the Start:  The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything by Guy Kawasaki.

You could argue here that Kawasaki defies the niche guideline by opening his book to “anyone starting anything.”  But chances are that if you know of him, you are interested in starting a technology company.

Book Yourself Solid:  The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle Even if You Hate Marketing and Selling by Michael Port.

I like that Port works in two major problems people in his target market face:  lack of clients and a deep loathing of sales and marketing.

Kawasaki also recommends some guidelines for choosing a name (details on page 35 of Art of the Start).  My explanations are in parentheses:

  • Have a first initial that’s early in the alphabet (you will be in a directory, may as well be in the top)
  • Avoid numbers (too hard to know how to spell :  1 or one?)
  • Pick a name with “verb potential.” (think Google)
  • Sound different (don’t choose a name close to a competitor or other, unrelated brand which will get confusing)
  • Sound logical (match your business name with what you actually do)
  • Avoid the trendy (probably not a good idea to call your firm Sick and Phat Technology Services)

I would now add my two cents:

  • Choose a name with an available URL.  These days, your web presence is critical.  And you don’t want to have a different URL from your brand name.
  • Don’t be fluffy or cute.  Coaches like me tend to go off into happy-fluffy-lala land when choosing business names with ridiculous results like  “Be all that you can be coaching:  Find the YOU in YOU!” (No, it doesn’t exist yet, but just wait!)
  • Don’t use a misspelled word.  Kawasaki mentions that Krispy Kreme is misspelled and sells products that are neither crispy nor creamy.  I don’t know if the misspelling has anything to do with their recent tanking stock, but it couldn’t have helped.  Please, please avoid names like “Kute Klocks and Krap”  (the USP would be fun:  Ridiculous stuff you don’t need that make perfect gifts for annoying relatives)
  • Focus on the benefits to your target market. You may think “Anal Accounting” is clever and catchy, but your target market may care more about “Accepting AccountingCleans up your financial mess without making you feel like a loser” (Anal Accounting does have potential, you have to admit)

I didn’t follow my own advice, and will continue not to, since a decade ago I named my company an obscure Spanish word, ganas.  It means inner fire, exuberance, motivation and drive.  Most clients love the name once they understand it.  But misunderstandings have been a great source of amusement through the years (yes, people really thought I named my company this):

  • Guano Consulting (Guano is seabird and bat excrement)
  • Goddess Consulting (Somehow I didn’t have a problem with that.  It meant that either I was a goddess or wanted to turn my clients into one, neither of which is a bad proposition)
  • Pamela Ganas Consulting (Pronounced “Gann-ASS” because they thought my last name was Ganas.  I did receive nice emails from people that did have that last name)

And my all-time favorite:

  • Gutless Consulting.  (I may need to open the door on this company just to develop the USP:  Watered down advice that will change nothing for people afraid of hearing the truth)

While I am keeping Ganas as a company name due to its good reputation (plus, I just dig it), I am developing brands that are more fitting with the criteria outlined, such as Escape from Cubicle NationHow to go from corporate prisoner to thriving entrepreneur.

I hope you have some fun naming your company. Before you print your business cards or design your logo, make sure that you test your brand with your target market.  It will take some time to get it right, but your patience is well-worth the outcome.  Feel free to test here.

17 Responses to “What’s in a brand name? More than you think”

  1. Jef says:

    I like this blog. Thank you.

    Also, I learned so much from the comments. I read them all.


  2. I too love this topic. When I was looking for a name for my website (JibberJobber.com) I had about 100 names brainstormed around a theme of managing and organizing a job search, and managing your career. A buddy called me with the idea of “JibberJobber” (which usually gets misprounced and misblogged as jibberjabber) and I didn’t even have to think twice about it.

    In the 6 months since the website has been live I’ve had 3 people say they don’t like the name. Lots of compliments, and each of the podcast interviews that I’ve been on spends time “where did the name come from.”

    Now, on to that more elusive “what does it do…”

  3. Jacque says:

    A side note to the Kawasaki reference: When absolutely fresh and hot from the oven, Krispy Kreme donuts are, in fact, crispy on the outside with a creaminess to the dough on the inside.
    My revealing this to all of you will no doubt send you all to a local store to try this, and the stock price will rebound…

  4. Links Du Jour 06-29-06

    Region Specific Company Naming – Joe Rawlinson asks if all companies with regionally specific company names or brand names (Northwest Airlines, for example) do business in their representative geographic area… and illustrates the possible consequenc…

  5. Anonymous says:

    What’s in a brand name? More than you think

    Pamela Slim has a great post about choosing brand names. In this post she mention about process of naming and recommendation for choosing a name.

  6. Murali says:

    “..for service businesses that aren’t likely to grow into multi-billion dollar companies..”, reminds me of an article I recently read at Adage, “Why Small Marketers Need to Reach for the Stars – Most Stumble by Not Thinking or Acting Big
    By Al Ries” (http://adage.com/article?article_id=109864).

  7. Pamela Slim says:

    Of course I had to find out more about Doug Cumming’s comment on “Don’t use a misspelled word.” Here is what he shared:

    “Yes, Google is a misspelling of the more accurate Googol. Googol is 10 to the 100th power…I think coming up with a name first comes down to the psychological, reptilian brain impact the name has when a person hears it. If that name has an impact which relates directly to the business proposition, it’s a good name. If you want to learn how to come up with a good name, read a Harry Potter book; Snape, Dumbledore, Hagrid. These aren’t literal names (Professor Potion), but they create a psychological link to the character because they fit their personality.

    Yahoo! = YES! I discovered something new

    Google = Intelligence (really smart people who know really big math equations that make finding knowledge easy)

    Fedex = Official, fast

    eBay = Adventurous trading, sailing the seven seas and docking at the “eBay” to trade.

    Advice like “make it a verb” from Kawasaki is only appropriate when your product is a verb, and then it only seldom applies. You don’t Yahoo things or Windows things, but those are both great names.”

    Thanks Doug for the great clarification!

    I shared with him that I think smaller service-based companies (consulting, legal services, accounting, coaching, etc.) may follow the guidelines I outlined more than large consumer or technology companies that can have names totally unrelated to what they do.

    Great stuff!

  8. Doug Cummings says:

    “Don’t use a misspelled word.”

    Google = Googol.

  9. Pamela Slim says:

    Great dialogue folks!

    I probably should have clarified in the post that this naming convention is particularly important for service businesses that aren’t likely to grow into multi-billion dollar companies. Murali, you are absolutely right that customers will not trust you or buy from you on name alone. You have to deliver a valuable product or service and execute your operations flawlessly.

    But in the world of smaller businesses who often have little or no advertising budget and use web-based means of viral marketing, a good, clear name can mean the difference between being noticed or being ignored. If you are doing a google search on a particular category of small business, won’t you be more likely to choose a name that speaks to your needs and is clear?

    Any “rule” is simply a guideline that can be broken if you find it silly, like the “early letter in the alphabet” suggestion. Entrepreneurs tend to be rebels anyway, so far be in from me to dictate convention. As I said in the post, I didn’t follow these guidelines when I named my business 10 years ago, and I have been very happy with my choice. But knowing what I know now about the very crowded market in my field, if I am starting a new brand or program today, I will do everything I can to make compelling and clear so that it jumps out at people in google searches, blog directories and the like.

    The funny thing is companies still pay MILLIONS of dollars to consulting firms to come up with brand names that don’t say a thing about what the company does. It is beyond me how some technology companies are named.

    Erik: I LOVE Bamboo Moon!

    fb: We must find a use for “datamio!” … for some reason I think of it as a dating service for geeks. That or a spunky Italian database company. Or a company that backs up your personal computer.

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives!

  10. Ironic that Guy Kawasaki is part of the “9Rules” network – one of the most popular online networks of blogs, isn’t it?

    .com registration is more of a contested issue these days. A lot of people around the blogosphere seem to think that it’s fine to not get the .com, others still do.

    I think more attention should be paid to the way the words roll off the tongue. I liked Bamboomoon.org over Bamboomoon.net because of the internal rhythm. .com would have been cool too, but of the two .net just ended too abruptly.

  11. Whats in a brand name? More than you think

    Pamela Slim asks Whats in a brand name? More than you think:
    If you have gotten through the tough part of dreaming up a product or service, analyzing your market, defining your niche and doing a first draft of your business plan, you are ready f…

  12. fblau says:

    I have a great domain name for a database company… I have hung onto it for years because I like it so much… datamio.com

    Haven’t really used it yet. 🙂

  13. little Ram says:

    I would say that having a realy distinct name matters a lot. If you can get it to be memorable, so much the better. In my expereince I have put the association with the product/ service offering lower down the ladder in chosing a brand name. Having said that, it varies a bit across industry/ service category. I fugured no one was going to hire me as a consultant unless they knew me or were referred by some one else. So having the description of my service in my brand name was to my mind, superfluous.

  14. I’d like to add one thing:

    Make sure you can get a .com domain name of the company name you choose!!!

    I just got a client who got $500,000 in funding for his internet business. He doesn’t own the domain name. Now he’ll have to pay up big time!

    – Bryan

  15. Murali says:

    I don’t give so much importance to ‘name’. Reality is you don’t get customers because of name. But customers once know about your company, they will remember by that name. So as long as it is different and catchy ‘to remember’, it is good to go. Your customers associate meaning to your company name based on what you do. Not the other way. When google started, it was the most geekish name. It does not mean any thing but just a big number. It does not tell you that it is a search company. But you remember it as a search company.

    Take any global brands or little companies you are familiar with, there is nothing in the name. But what you associate to it by doing what you do the best.

    It is interesting to know that most people try to associate a unique methodology to famous names to sell their books/conferences and so on. But when those famous names were coined, there was no methodology.

    Some rules like having first letter early in the alphabet to appear on the top of the list is obsolete. Google can find your company in a flash whereever it is. Remember Xerox, the household name for innovation and copy machines. Adidas did not get any better than Nike and Reebok just because it has ‘A’.

    Does Apple mean anything to you?
    Yahoo, Visa, Chase, Google, Dell, Kellogs…. aren’t they household names for some or the other product that you will never forget? Does they say anything when you first hear them?

  16. argos says:

    I love and loathe the whole naming thing. Felt as if, after nine months of virtually full time work in coming up with an appropriate name for an apparel company, that I had become somewhat versed in the matter. Still, I feel I came up short in some respects. Have you ever named an apparel company? Pick a word, any word, then, do a search at the USPTO on the trademark electronic application system, there will be an appreal comany listed, I assure you. At any rate, its challenging as a rule to have an apparel design company that is a reflection of “what you do.” A lifestyle type brand should relect more of “who they (the customer) are” or, “what it(the product)is” as is the case with the furniture reference. I love Guys “Art of the Start” work, yet I have issues with the “use a letter high up in the alphabet” thing. This is one rule that is quite restricting. At any rate, its a great challenge, since re-branding has become costly, and loads of fun. Nancy, drop me a line.

  17. Great advice! I’ve been a name developer for 18 years and always remind my clients of these rules, but at least half of the time we end up breaking them. My own company’s name, Wordworking, is a rule-breaker itself: a lot of people hear it as “woodworking” and are fascinated to hear that a woman got into cabinet-making!