Would Google still be Google if the founders had stuck with their nickname for the business and called their company BackRub? Would Sony have become a global powerhouse if it kept its original name, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo? And which would you prefer, a Pepsi or a nice cold can of Brad’s Drink?
Looking back at naming near misses is funny. It also illustrates just how incredibly important it is to select the right name for your business. As well as how easy it is for even smart entrepreneurs to almost go horribly, hilariously wrong.
That’s why we rounded up the best advice from top branding experts, as well as in-the-trenches stories from entrepreneurs, to flag up the most common pitfalls that trip up founders when choosing a name for their new startup, so you can avoid them.
1. They don’t do their legal due diligence.
Let’s cover the basics first. Just about every entrepreneur and expert I spoke to about naming a business kicked off their comments with the same piece of advice–don’t set your heart on a company name before you’ve made sure it can be trademarked and that no one else has already taken your idea.
“The biggest pitfall that a lot of companies run into is just trying to find a name that you can legally use. The world is so full of trademarks that it’s incredibly hard to find a trademark that is available for use,” says Kellogg School of Management branding expert Tim Calkins. Most naming projects land on a shortlist of favorites only to discover none of the ideas are available.
“You really want to uncover the problems there early. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to go back and change a name later. It causes customer confusion. It’s very disruptive, It’s expensive,” Calkins cautions.
2. They don’t check the name’s digital presence.
Can you get the best web domain name for your chosen company name? Are relevant, consistent social handles available? Is some spammer already using a similar name so that when customers try to find you, they end up with a “Nigerian prince” or an inappropriate product? In today’s digital world, checking the digital presence of a name is nearly as important as checking its legal availability.
At least some experts claim you shouldn’t obsess too much about domain names. “No one expects a business to have an exact match domain name anymore. Using a modifier word is perfectly acceptable. For instance, SquareUp.com, JoinKnack.com, and BlissWorld.com,” notes Alexandra Watkins, CEO of branding agency Eat My Words and author of Hello, My Name Is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019). Get creative, and brainstorm ideas to come up with something unique.
That being said, if you’re going to be competing with shady businesses or a corporate behemoth to rank in search, steer clear of a name.
3. They pigeonhole their business.
Businesses have always benefited from clarity in naming–hanging out a shingle marked “Dentist” will bring in more toothaches than one marked “Smith Corp.”–but thanks to the dominance of Google, specific names are even more appealing now.
But while calling yourself something like Springfield Roofing may be great for SEO, if there is even the smallest chance you may one day want to expand in terms of services or geography, your descriptive company name can limit your ability to grow.
Just ask Joey Randazzo, founder of marketing agency Portland SEO Growth. “My business has grown quite quickly, and we’re opening up offices in other cities. It would be really strange to have a business called Portland SEO Growth with a location in Vegas,” he told Inc.com. “I’m currently going through the painful, time-intensive, and expensive process of changing my name to SEO Growth Partners.”
The same principle holds with company names that are over-specific about the services you offer. Calling yourself “Main Street Math Tutoring” might seem like a surefire way to convey what you do, but that name will turn into a liability if you ever decide to add SAT prep or French to your offerings.
4. They choose a name that evokes nothing.
While overly descriptive names can be limiting, so can names that mean nothing. According to top naming agency Lexicon, the ideal name conveys something about the company’s values or attitude, even if it doesn’t directly describe what the business does.
“The name must offer a degree of relevance. But this is tricky and sometimes misleading because when you read the word relevance, most people think about names that are descriptive or highly suggestive. While this is true in some cases, relevance can also be delivered in attitude or by association. Think Google. Think Apple. Think Sonos. These names are not descriptive, but they deliver relevant attitudes,” the firm explains.
Contrast that with “Consolidated Business Interests.” This vanilla name was entrepreneur Michael Rosenthal’s initial pick for his negotiation-and-conflict resolution business until several clients confessed they struggled to remember the company’s name.
“We rebranded to Consensus, which better aligns with our business and is much easier for clients and prospects to remember and to refer to others, which has led to millions in revenue for our firm,” Rosenthal reports.
5. They come up with a tongue twister.
Consolidated Business Interests isn’t just painfully boring. It commits another cardinal sin of business naming–it’s long. Research from Clifton Green, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and colleagues showed that the greater the “fluency” of a company’s name (basically how easy it is for people to process), the higher the company’s market value tends to be.
Investors prefer companies with short, easy-to-say names. Customers do too. “We tend to not like things, or view them as less good or more risky, if they are harder to mentally process,” Green explains. “It’s subconscious.” So if you’re choosing between a multi-syllable mouthful and something that rolls off the tongue, don’t make the mistake of going with the mouthful.
6. They don’t think about inclusivity.
Entrepreneurs want their businesses to appeal to the largest possible number of customers, but sometimes they accidentally choose a name that limits their appeal, according to Watkins. She offers the case of a vertical farming company initially called See Jane Farm.
The name “was inspired by the Dick and Jane school primers, which were prevalent during a simpler time when food was more nutritious, but young people fail to understand why this name is so charming,” Watkins explains. After a rigorous rebranding process, the company is now known by the more broadly appealing name Plenty and has raised more than $200 million in venture funding.
Don’t consider just how a given business name will strike you and those like you. Think about how the name will resonate with those of different ages, backgrounds, and life experiences. Get diverse feedback before you settle on a choice.
7. They don’t think globally.
Similar to the point above, if there is any chance you may eventually sell in foreign markets, you need to think not just about how your name sounds to English speakers but to speakers of other languages as well. Getting a translation agency to run a global brand name study for you may be a good move.
This is especially important if your business is entirely online as your customers might be based anywhere in the world, says international growth expert Nataly Kelly. “With digital products, it’s much more important to make global-friendly naming choices from day one,” she says.