When you’re building a business, there are a lot of decisions to make. Business naming is probably one of the first decisions you’ll make. What will you call your brand? How will you express everything that makes up your brand in just a word or two?
A business name is not the place to take the easy path. Think about it—you gravitate toward brand names. Quirky brand names, established brand names, foreign brand names, simple brand names. All of these names have one thing in common: they’re unforgettable brand names.
So as you’re crafting the perfect look and feel for your new business, focus on the perfect name. Here are some crucial tips and exercises on how to name your business—so your brand name can play a key role in your success.
Why is your brand name so important?
Your business name is your identity.
Your business is unlike any other company out there, even if there are hundreds or even thousands of other businesses offering the exact same thing you offer.
Why? Because it’s the only one operated by you, and the only one that expresses your unique brand. So your brand name needs to reflect that.
Your business name shapes how your brand is perceived not only by potential customers, but by other companies in your industry. It’s a shorthand for everything you offer and everything you are—positive and negative.
That’s why you need a business name that doesn’t just express your brand persona, but projects it loud and clear for the whole world to see. It’s a key part of your brand identity because it isn’t just an asset people will see, it’s one they’ll hear; it’s got to be something that communicates your brand and rolls off the tongue easily.
Business naming considerations
When it comes to business naming, there’s a lot to consider. Keep the following points in mind, while you brainstorm business name ideas:
Growing and pivoting
As your business grows, your name needs to stay relevant. Otherwise, your business might feel stuck in a box or fail to connect with customers.
This is one reason why it can be tricky to include any tech term in your business name (Bell Telephone, Radio Shack)—as tech moves forward and you pivot into new products and offerings, your name might become obsolete. Consider how other companies, like Circuit City and Micro Center, use less-specific but still techy terms in their names.
Acquiring another brand can put you into a tricky position regarding business naming. Do you simply rebrand the acquired company’s assets with your own name? Combine the two names? Leave the old name on certain assets to avoid alienating longtime fans? When Lays bought Walkers in 1989, they went with the third option.
Using your own name or initials is one strategy that can keep your business name timeless.
Alternatively, you can choose a name that has nothing to do with the industry you’re in or the service you provide, like how Apple is a tech brand and has nothing to do with actual apples.
Naming an international business is different from naming a business that operates in just one country. And when the countries the business operates in speak different languages (versus, say, operating your company in the US and UK), business naming can be even more challenging.
As you work through different business naming ideas, research how each proposed name will be interpreted in the countries where you plan to operate. In the best case scenario, it will just sound like an exotic foreign word.
But it could also:
- Sound like an inappropriate word in the other language
- Be an inappropriate word in the other language
- Be difficult or impossible to pronounce for speakers of the other language
- Be the same as another business name that’s already trademarked
If you’ve already picked out the perfect business name and changing it simply isn’t an option, you can translate your name or even rename the brand for foreign markets.
But if you haven’t chosen a name yet and global branding is part of your business plan, make worldwide markets part of your business naming process—and make sure you guarantee you’re able to trademark the name you choose in every market you plan on entering, because:
Registering and trademarking
You should trademark your business name in every country where you operate, and that can potentially be a lengthy, complex and expensive process. Once you’ve determined that there’s no problem trademarking your business name in each country, start the process before you begin actually operating.
When you research your name’s availability, do a search for URLs with the proposed name. Even if the name isn’t trademarked, somebody else might already own the domain name (or something very similar) that you want for your business. If this is the case, you have two options: pick another name or see if you can buy the domain name from its current owner.
You can also just use the name you want, but go with another top level domain (.net instead of .com, etc), but we don’t recommend this. Most people recognize .com as the “main” top level domain, so this is the address they’ll use when searching for your brand. If the .com URL connected to your brand name goes somewhere other than your website, you’ll miss out on a ton of business.
Standing out from the crowd
You don’t want to sound too similar to other brands in your space… but you also need your audience to know what you offer.
Research what other brands in your industry are calling themselves. This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly what everybody else is doing, but it can help you determine which type of business name is best for your brand.
For example, there’s a reason why you won’t find many law firms with funny names, but you’ll find plenty of indie boutiques and candy shops with them.
Choosing a vastly different kind of name than your industry’s typical style can set you apart from the crowd, but be careful… it can potentially turn off prospective customers.
Use your industry’s culture as a guide for which kinds of names are appropriate and land best with clients. Then, focus on finding your original, authentic name.
Find a name that’s unique, but not too strange
Think about the names of the brands you interact with regularly. How do they fit into the paradigm of industry-appropriate, yet different (but not outright strange)?
Take a look at the names used by a few of the top tech brands:
Microsoft sounds techy; LG, Samsung and Sony sound like they could be people’s names; Apple sounds like it could just as easily be a restaurant or farm stand.
Now take a look at a few of the top fast food brands:
- Burger King
- Taco Bell
See how more of these brand names include a direct reference to the product they sell? In many cases, a brand needs this direct reference to connect with buyers. One example of this is Cofinity, which became Paypal.
Other brands don’t need to make their product obvious and instead, connect with audiences instantly despite having out-there names. Here’s one you won’t think of as weird because it’s so ubiquitous, but it’s a random word most people aren’t familiar with…and it isn’t even spelled correctly: Google.
How to come up with a business name
So now that you know what to do (and what not to do) when you’re exploring brand name ideas, it’s time for the fun part: coming up with your business name!
Break out a notebook and pen (yes, you want to brainstorm by hand…studies show you’re more creative this way) and start jotting down everything that comes to mind when you think of your business.
Jot down your brand’s character traits. What do you stand for? Which kinds of customers are you for? How do you want people to describe your company to their friends when they’re recommending you?
Then, write down all the words you can think of that relate to your business and your industry. How do most people perceive your industry? Does your business serve industry insiders (which means you can go ahead and use industry jargon in your name) or the end consumer (which means you probably shouldn’t)?
During your brainstorming session, determine which type of business name is the right choice for your brand. Going with your name or initials is a classic move, but doing so means you’ll probably need to illustrate what you do in your logo.
Another option is to go with something random and unrelated to your industry, but just like using your name, you’ll need to make what you do clear through your logo or tagline. The upside to names like these is that they tend to be easier to trademark than names directly related to your industry or product.
But what if you do want to name your business for your product? There are different ways to do this, too. Maybe a punny, silly name is perfect for your brand, or maybe you’re better off with something more straightforward.
Brand naming exercises:
- Quantity, not quality. Yes, you read that right. Unlike most things in life, this isn’t about nailing down the perfect name right away, but about generating a lot of ideas that can build on each other.
- Teamwork makes the dream work. You can certainly do a lot of brainstorming by yourself, but fresh perspectives can be very helpful and surprising. So if you can, pull in a wide variety of other people and create a brainstorming environment where people feel comfortable in sharing wild ideas and judgment is deferred.
- Get visual. As Tom and David Kelley say in their book “Creative Confidence”, a leader should never hesitate to reach for a marker. So don’t just write, but also draw up your ideas. Sketch badly; it’s not about artistry, but about getting the point across. The images can inspire the name, and as a bonus, now you also have a vision for your company logo.
- Play games. A brainstorming session where you just sit down and write a bunch of names in stream-of-consciousness style is not going to last long. Make it fun and more productive by integrating exercises and challenges. We’ve got you covered: check out our booklet below for brainstorming exercises.
- Cheat a little. You don’t have to come up with every name by yourself or with a team. Leverage Thesaurus for synonyms of relevant keywords, and naming tools like Namefruits or NameRobot for a wide range of name variations based on a keyword. Then play with them to find a variation or spelling that’s unique.
- Iterate. Of course, the golden rule of startups applies here too. Take a break (or a walk or a nap) and go through the brainstorming exercise again, then again. Try to vary your surroundings to promote a different creative process. If it’s a group effort, try it out with different groups, such as team members, friends, future users, etc. and different group sizes.
How to choose the right name for your brand
Here’s how to sort through all the ideas and pick the best one:
- First, group them according to similarities (e.g. same root word) and eliminate any doubles.
- Second, eliminate those that are semantically too complex and would be very cumbersome to spell/type. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out on sales opportunities down the line because the sales lead couldn’t spell your company name and therefore couldn’t reach you online.
- Third, try to say them out loud. Are they easy to say? And do they sound funny? Don’t be the Silicon Valley show bunch who came up with SMLLR, aiming for “smaller”, then realized it could also be read as “smeller”.
- Fourth, test this with other people; preferably people who are unfamiliar with what you do. Ask them about their initial impressions of the name: how it sounds to them and what it makes them feel like. See how this compares to the company values and mission that you outlined at the very beginning of the process.
- Finally, wait a while and then ask people which name from your list they remember. Which one stuck with them? And which one do they associate the most with your business?
3 expert tips for naming your business
We asked brand naming expert and founder of naming agency Namestorm Mark Leiblein for his top 3 brand naming tips and here are the nuggets of wisdom he shared with us:
1. If you want your brand name to be unique, you need a name that’s not too descriptive. Otherwise, you will simply be too similar to other businesses in your industry with the same typical keywords.
2. Don’t underestimate how much time it takes to find a name. One brainstorming session is not enough. Startups and founders almost always need several weeks or months until they have found and decided on their desired name.
3. Never (!) ask others which of your name ideas they like. That’s because all you learn is their personal opinion. Let’s say you are planning a sportswear brand. Instead of asking someone whether they like a name or not, you could ask: “Do you think this name expresses activity?” or “What name would surprise you, if you saw it on a shoe rack?”.
Should I use an online name generator?
What about using an online generator to come up with business name ideas? They can provide helpful starting points, but you’re best off developing your own business name instead of having a generator create it for you.
This is for the same reason why we recommend you work with a professional graphic designer to create your logo instead of using an online generator: the human touch is what makes it come alive. Anything a generator spits out will simply feel generic, and that’s the last thing you want your brand to be.
Can I change my business name?
But there are plenty of considerations to make if/when you do. Changing your business name is a big endeavor… and the bigger your business, the bigger an endeavor it is. Before you decide to change your business name, carefully consider why you want to change it. Generally, renaming a business is part of a larger rebranding and comes as part of a larger overhaul that involves a new color palette and a new look and feel.
Companies rebrand for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Changing the products or services they offer
- Updating to fit modern consumers’ tastes
- Distancing themselves from past biases and associations they no longer hold
- Seeking success in new markets.
Also, consider what you have to gain from a new name and what you can possibly lose. While you might gain a new audience, you could potentially alienate your existing one.
Carefully weigh how much the name change can benefit your business versus how much the change can potentially slow or even undermine your success. Then, if you decide to go ahead with the name change, make sure you minimize the potential negative impact by communicating with your audience about the name change far in advance of rebranding.
A few famous brands that changed their names include:
- Tinder (originally Matchbox)
- Amazon (originally Relentless)
- Google (originally BackRub)
- Twitter (originally Odeo)
- Instagram (originally Burbn)
The last consideration to make before you decide whether business renaming is worth it is how much the rebrand will cost you. You’ll need to register a new trademark, which can cost a few hundred dollars in the United States and similar amounts in other countries. This is just one expense associated with changing your business name, though. You’ll also need to:
- Register a new URL
- Redesign your website
- Update your messaging everywhere: social media, email template, signage, branded SWAG
- Redesign your logo (if your name is part of the logo)
While some of these updates cost money, others simply cost time and effort. Calculate these non-monetary expenses into your business naming budget to determine the true output you’ll have to make to rename your brand.
This means taking stock of everywhere your brand name appears: business cards, official accounts, print ads, websites, email signatures, signage, swag… every single one of these will need to be updated. And not abruptly, either—you’ll need to run a campaign telling the world you’ve changed your name and depending on what you actually sell, you might need to redesign your product packaging to a transitional design displaying both names before switching to one that only features the new name.
Basically, the bigger your brand, the more it will cost to rebrand.
When Datsun rebranded to Nissan in the 1980s, the company spent approximately $500 million USD to cover all the costs of rebranding, like new signs for Datsun dealerships, legal fees for franchisees to change their names, stopping existing Datsun advertising campaigns and launching a new campaign, “The Name is Nissan.” Despite the rebranding, a survey done five years after the renaming program ended found that most consumers were still more familiar with the name Datsun than Nissan.
Could Nissan have handled the rebrand differently and achieved a different outcome? It’s hard to say now. But the fact is this: renaming your company is no small undertaking.
While some brands, like Nissan, do it through highly publicized campaigns, others do it with little fanfare. Usually, this is because they’re renaming in an effort to drop negative connotations, like Philip Morris did in 2001 when they renamed themselves Altria in an effort to protect brands they held, like Kraft.
Get a name, and a great logo to boot!
When it comes to branding, your business name comes first. But branding doesn’t end there. Once you’ve determined the perfect business name, it’s time to build out the rest of your brand identity. Check out our community of graphic designers to find the perfect match for your new brand design.
Need a logo to go with your new brand name?
Our talented designers can create the perfect one just for you.
This article was originally written by Anada Lakra and published in 2017. It has been updated with new examples and information.