Hit upon that golden idea for a business? Great. Now what is it going to be called? From getting it right to getting it very wrong (Thai Tanic), the name you choose for your company goes a long way towards defining its success.
First, a confession. I recently became the last person in the world to realise that The Beatles is a pun. It’s a weird one but I just never cottoned on to its incorporation of “beat”. It’s a revelation all the more embarrassing given that it’s my job to identify and understand the intricacies and subtleties of what makes a great name. Having come to terms with my mistake, I have decided that it represents something more than humble absentmindedness: it tells us something rather interesting about naming.
I would wager that most people don’t notice the finer points of a brand name. They won’t care where the words came from and they won’t think about etymology, mythology, psychology or any other ’ology that served as inspiration for the name. Does anyone (who isn’t Danish) know that Lego means “play well” or that Uniqlo is a portmanteau of unique and clothes? Does anyone out there really care that Nike is the Greek goddess of victory or that Ikea is an acronym of Ingvar Kamprad (its founder), Elmtaryd (the farm where he lived) and Agunnaryd (the village he grew up in)? Some will probably be able to tell you that Coca-Cola comes from coca leaves and cola berries but fewer will know that Pepsi gets its name from dyspepsia – another word for indigestion.
Yet the origin of these names is important. Along with market positioning and communicating the brand’s narrative and values, they create the cohesive story that serves as a foundation for all future work. Beyond that small matter, they also help staff understand the organisation’s culture, history and vision for the future. So when it comes to naming your business, you need to know that your name can do two things: attract attention and give you space to grow. A good place to start is to lay out all the names of the brands in your sector and look for the gap in the market. Branding is about telling a story that nobody else is; if everyone is calling themselves Something & Something, why not call yourself The Something Company? At this point, if you want a name that lasts, you’ll need to consider the trickier part: instilling your name with meaning.
We humans invest an awful lot in names. Whether it’s your beloved Italian greyhound, trusty fold-up bicycle or favourite kitchen succulent, assigning personality to things both living and inanimate comes naturally to us. So, naturally, the names of the brands we choose must hit the right notes.
Generally we want to feel a sense of honesty and integrity; that there is a certain provenance and an understanding of a wider purpose. Choosing something descriptive and straightforward might reduce your marketing budget in the short-term but, alternatively, that heavily marketed abstract name could help you build a brand that people remember. The name will influence the life and success of a business. Getting it wrong could leave you open to ridicule or as Peter York, co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, says, “You don’t want your brand to get into the national joke factory.”
Naming a business is an emotional and financial investment, which is why trying to decide on a name can induce a form of business-halting paralysis. Perhaps it’s best to take inspiration from some of the biggest names in business. Jeff Bezos decided against calling his online retailer Cadabra and instead chose Amazon as it was closer to the beginning of the alphabet; Apple was named after Steve Jobs came back from a trip to an apple farm; and Häagen-Dazs was a name made up in 1961 by its founders to convey old-world tradition and craft. So there really aren’t any limitations apart from your imagination and ability to convince your colleagues of a name’s merits. But tread carefully: for every industry-defining winner, there’s a Thai Tanic (restaurant), Analtech (pharmaceutical company) and Big Beaver Stump Grinding (by all accounts a highly rated tree removal service in Massachusetts) waiting in the wings.
Today you need look no further than the adverts on your city’s metro carriage for the emerging moves in naming. Where space is cheap and visibility high, start-ups and those without asteroid-sized budgets can get some healthy exposure. On the London Underground the current tendency is for made-up words and a cavalier approach to spelling. That’s all very well as a way of guaranteeing domain space online but trends are fleeting and most of us remember words we can say – and spell.
Two bits of advice to leave you with. First, objectivity is your friend. Second, keep a naming brief to check back on. But the general rule is: if it feels right, it probably is. And if you change your mind you can always rename it. After all, Google was originally called BackRub; there’s hope for us all. Now what did you say your name was?
About the writer: Yeoman is a writer, strategist and head of copy at Winkreative, monocle’s sister design agency.
Golden rules of naming:
1. Start wild There will be time for safe ideas later so cut loose and go on a creative safari. At this point every idea should be welcomed, no matter how whacky.
2. Head down the rabbit hole You’re only ever one idea away from your Apple, Orange or BlackBerry so explore the fruit section at your supermarket. And don’t forget to have a read of that Old Norse dictionary. You never know where the perfect words might appear from.
3. The eureka moment is rare Good names can be slow burners. Don’t decide too quickly: the right name will often need time to percolate.
4. Be lucky for more than just some Sure, you want to be big in China but have you picked a number or a colour as part of your name? If so you should be sure to have a leaf through those numerous resources devoted to Chinese mythology to learn about what is lucky – and what is not so lucky.
5. Beware grandma’s cat syndrome Remember Iris, the angry half-Siamese that used to scratch your hand off every Christmas? Chances are that Iris isn’t a name you’re ever going to warm to. Everyone has objections to names based on personal experience so bear that in mind when discussing a newly minted one.
6. Check before you buy People get excited about names. They fall in love and they can’t move on. But make sure your name isn’t taken by an Indonesian telecoms giant. You’ll be disappointed and – even worse – you’ll have raised the bar for the next idea.
7. Trends don’t last Don’t plump for a name that fits the latest fashion if you want it to age gracefully. Name for keeps.
8. Don’t box yourself in Always choose a name that allows for an expanded business, service or product line. At one end of the scale you have overly descriptive names; at the other are the empty vessels. The best ones often lie in the middle.
9. Don’t worry about URL availability Modified urls can work just as well. It’s sometimes helpful to split naming ideas into types or constructs so that you’re ticking all boxes: abstract, simplistic and descriptive.
10. If in doubt, make it up This is generally a good idea if done with care. The trick is to take a word with positive associations that are relevant to your business then change a letter or two – and bingo. Or Bipgo. See? Easy.