How to conjure up a new business name.

by John Furgurson on January 13, 2013

Eons ago, advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins said “a good name should almost be an advertisement in its own right.”

He wrote the original bible on the subject, called “Scientific Advertising.”  And now, some 90 years later, recent studies in behavioral economics and psychology show that many of his theories were dead on.

There’s a proven correlation between a memorable name and market value of the company.

Fortune 500 companies have figured that out. They pay naming firms huge sums to concoct new words that eventually become successful brands. Those firms employ teams of poets, neologists, writers, comedians, behavioral psychologists and linguists to come up with names like “Acura for Honda’s luxury car division. “Pentium” for an Intel Processor. Viagra for, well, you know what.

Small business owners, start-up entrepreneurs and Marketing Directors of mid-sized firms don’ t have that luxury.  Often they try the do-it-yourself approach. (How hard can it be, right?) Or worse yet, they have a contest. They throw the fate of their business into the hands of a crowd that knows nothing about their business.

Naming is one of the toughest creative disciplines you’ll ever find. Alex Frankel, in his book Word Craft, said “naming is like songwriting or Haiku, but it’s even more tightly constrained. You have to evoke shades of meaning in small words.”

Analytical people have a very hard time coming up with names with any nuance. Their brains simply aren’t wired for the lateral thinking it takes to concoct a name from nothing. So they usually end up with very literal, unimagintive names that wouldn’t pass muster for old Claude Hopkins, much less a skeptical, modern consumer.

The most common trap is the local, “tell ‘em where we’re at” business name…  Just borrow a geographic location name, and tack on what you do.

In this area it’s “Central Oregon” blank or “High Desert” anything: Central Auto Repair. High Desert Heating. Central Oregon Dry Clearning. Central Oregon Distributing. In San Francisco it’s Golden Gate Heating or Bay Area Brake Service. In Seattle it’s Puget Sound this and Puget Sound that.

There’s no differentiation built in to those names. Might as well be “Acme.”(A lot of companies have names that begin with the letter A, due to the old yellow pages listing criteria.  I’m glad that’s no longer relevant)

Another naming trap is the business owner’s last name. If it’s Smith, Jones, Johnson or any other common name, forget about it.

If there are a bunch of owners or partners involved, forget that too. You don’t want to start sounding like the law firm of Ginerra Zifferberg Fritche Whitten Landborg Smith-Locke Stiffleman.

If every partner has his name on the door it’s virtually impossible for the human brain to recall the brand. Inevitably, people will start abbrviating names like that, until you end up with alphabet soup.

Can you imagine answering the phone at that place. “Hello, GZFWLSLS. How can I help you.”

However, there are times when the last name of the partners can work.  Here’s the criteria:

1. The last names themselves must have some relevance, credibility and value in the marketplace. 2. The two names must sound good together. 3. They don’t add up to more than four syllables. 4. They can be connected into one, memorable name.

My firm has a client we named MorrisHayden. Both those names are highly recognizable and trusted in their local real estate industry. Literally weeks after they hung up their sign, they had people calling, saying “yeah, I’ve heard of you guys.”

The Morris and Hayden last names together fit every criteria, but those cases are very rare.

Traditionally, the goal of a good  name was to capture the essence of your positioning and deliver a unique selling proposition, so you could establish supremacy in your space just with your name. Precisely what Claude Hopkins had in mind.

Examples: Mr. Clean, A1 Steak Sauce, ZipLoc, Taster’s Choice, Spic & Span.

But literal names are getting harder and harder to come by. The playing field is getting even more complicated, moving from what the words literally mean to what the words remind you of.

As Seth Godin said, it’s “The structure of the words, the way they sound, the memes they recall… all go into making a great name. Now the goal is to coin a defensible word that can acquire secondary meaning and that you could own for the ages.

Examples:  Apple, Yahoo, Jet Blue, Google, BlackBerry, Travelocity.

Frankel says, “the name must be a vessel capable of carrying a message… whether the vessel has some meaning already poured into it or if it stands ready to be filled with meaning that will support and idea, an identity, a personality.”

Starting out, the name Dyson was an empty vessel. Now it’s forever linked with the idea of revolutionary product design in vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, and who knows what else. The brand message behind that company is very clear. This is not your mother’s vacuum cleaner!

So here’s the deal… First thing’s first.

If you haven’t already pinned down the underlying premise of your brand — the value proposition,  the passion, the values  the promise — it’s going to be very hard to come up with a great name.

So get your story straight first. Hire someone to help you spell out the brand platform. That’s the place to start. Then, whoever’s doing the name will have something more tangible and enlightening to go on.

When you nail it, the naming process really is magical.  Throw enough images, sounds, thoughts and concepts around, and you come out with that one word that just sticks.

Look what BlackBerry did for Research In Motion. That distinctly low-tech name helped create an entire high-tech category. I’m sure there were plenty of engineers there who didn’t initially agree with the name choice.

But those dissenting voices were silenced when BlackBerry became a household word, and their stock options paid off.

Click here for more on this subject from the Brand Insight Blog. 

Tiny URL for this post:
 

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: