10 worst company naming mistakes
Naming your new company is a huge opportunity. Get it right, and you’ll have a powerful tool to express your brand and engage your customers. Get it wrong, and you might render your company invisible, or call attention to it for all the wrong reasons.
Take it from us, company naming is not for the faint of heart. It’s certainly not sitting around a table, drinking wine, and shouting ideas at your friends (that’s what we do after work). Name creation is art and science, equal parts creative and strategic.
If you want to try your hand at developing your own brand name, we’ve got lots of guides and tips in our Resources section. But whether you DIY it or get help from a domain name warehouse, naming consultant, or professional naming agency, as a naming newbie, you’ll want to watch out for these common pitfalls.
1. Imitating successful brands and following trends
Courting naming trends or trying to sound like your competitors is one of the most common mistakes a brand can make. Of course, well-known company names are memorable and engaging and sound credible. But these names became robust brands over time, and usually with a lot of marketing dollars behind them. Did Google sound solid in the beginning? Or Apple?
Your brand name should differentiate you from your competitors, not show how you’re the same. Resist the urge to simply copy your competitors in style, tone, or construction during name creation. And, please, don’t jump on the latest creative spelling bandwagon (just because replacing i with y worked for Lyft doesn’t mean it will work for you) or become enamored with the suffix du jour (looking at you, -ly, -ster, and -able). Following a naming trend will date you more than glass block and a drop ceiling. A creative, authentic name that resonates with your audience is timeless.
2. Lack of clear brand positioning
Too often, companies want a name that expresses every aspect of their brand because they haven’t identified what’s most important. (Your name is a rallying cry, not an infomercial.) Or they choose a name that says nothing fundamental about their brand because they don’t know who they really are and what their customers want.
Before you start naming, make sure you’ve honed your brand positioning so you’re crystal clear about who you are, what your audience really wants, and the most important and distinctive way your brand meets that want. Pick a name that engagingly communicates one or two key brand messages. Once you have their attention, let packaging, advertising, and site copy say the rest.
3. Poor planning and indecisiveness
Given that the name is one of a brand’s most important assets, you’d think brands would always create it with careful consideration using a proven process. Unfortunately, all too often naming (and brand work in general) is treated as a late-stage marketing concern. Or, on the flip side, name development is so fraught and subjective, that no one can make a final decision, resulting in a delayed launch, internal confusion, and general dissatisfaction with the name that’s ultimately chosen. Finding a company name can be scary, but you can do it!
The solution? Process and planning. Choose a naming process and stick to it. (Our 6 Steps to Create a Great Brand Name gives you a good overview.) Leave plenty of room in the schedule for name development (at least 6–8 weeks), legal screening, and customer research. (Don’t forget that brand copywriting and design work also need ample time.) Always involve key stakeholders from the beginning and make sure they have input on the creative brief and final name selection. Anyone with veto power (like the CEO) should be a part of the process as much as possible. If you get nervous, remember the process has guided thousands of brands before you.
4. Not screening for ownability
You’ve found it! The name of your dreams! Now you just need to create a slick logo, build the site, and … Hold on! Before you can claim that name you’d better be sure it’s yours to own. If it’s already being used in your space, you’re in for trouble.
Do your research! You can look at the USPTO database to prescreen for US trademarks, Google search can turn up companies that are using the name but haven’t registered the mark, and—best choice—have a trademark professional prescreen your names for all relevant countries and trademark classes.
5. Falling in love with just one name
We see it all the time—clients heartbroken because their brand name true love is already spoken for. Prescreening will likely knock out all the obvious name choices and many of the more creative ones (in some trademark classes, 40–60% don’t survive prescreening, and we’re pretty good at creating non-obvious names).
So what to do if your name soulmate is knocked out during screening? Keep name candidates in the friend zone and shortlist a robust set to check, not just one. Then have your legal team conduct a full review of the remaining names.
6. Cultural inappropriateness
Your target audiences may or may not understand your company name the way you intend (think of the backlash surrounding Kim Kardashian’s Kimono and Silicon Valley startup Bodega). Words and ideas that were once acceptable might not be today (think Washington Redskins and Aunt Jemima). And of course, you don’t want your fantastic new name to be slang for “vomit” in German or “screw up” in Spanish (we averted both of those disasters).
Use a diverse team to select your name and be very careful when borrowing terms from other languages or cultures. (You may think sherpa means “mountain guide” in some other language, but the Sherpa are actually a Himalayan ethnic group known for their endurance at high altitude.) The best way to avoid disaster is to screen your top name candidates for linguistic and cultural appropriateness with a service like the Catchword Global Performance Scorecard, which identifies potential snags and strengths using native speakers in your key markets.
7. Selecting a name by staff vote, customer focus group, or (please, no!) the internet
You’ve shortlisted down to a dozen names that you’d consider adopting for your brand. Now you just get the whole company to vote for their favorite, right? No! As we noted above, names that everyone thinks are “fine” are usually the most familiar (read: boring). For the same reason, do not rely on customer research to select your name. Customer feedback on your name candidates can be very valuable, but it’s only one data point. (These tips for conducting naming research will help you get the most out of it.)
And—we beg you—do not let the internet create or choose your company name. Naming contests are fine for the town snowplow or company break room. They can even build engagement if managed very carefully (open polls are a mistake). But NEVER, EVER let the internet name your company unless you’ll be happy with Company McCompanyface.
8 Caring too much about exact dot com
Passing over a great name candidate because you can’t get the exact dot com or, worse, choosing a name primarily because you can is squandering one of your biggest branding opportunities. Unless you’re a retail consumer company that does most of its business online, very few if any of your customers will be typing in your URL.
A more effective marketing strategy is to add a modifier such as Inc, Co, or Tech to an engaging and memorable name (think CatchwordBranding.com). Because your customers will likely be using search to find you, paying for SEO is a smarter spend than buying a domain. If you’re heart is set on the exact dot com, keep in mind that pretty much every English word and short coinage have already been registered as a domain, so you’ll likely need to choose a longish, heavily coined name (think Spirflo.com or Feefow.com) or spend big bucks to buy the domain you want.
9 Abbreviations, clunky coinages, and names that are hard to spell or say
In general, acronyms (said as one word, NASA) and initialisms (said as individual letters, FBI) make weak brand names. There was a time when abbreviations of descriptive names (like IBM, GEICO, and AT&T) were the norm, but as a new brand, don’t you want your name to take on more of the marketing lift? If you can make the acronym relevant (as in MADD), then this approach might work, but most of the time acronyms are strained and initialisms meaningless.
Selecting a natural-sounding name that your customers can spell may seem obvious, but awkward coined names are all too common (Xe, Healthineers, Kyndryl). Product names may be able to leverage the ugly-exotic, but company names have no business (and will get no business) in this category. The one exception here is for lifestyle consumer brands (think Häagen-Dazs or Chipotle), where an unfamiliar spelling can suggest a desirable foreign-ness, such as European sophistication, or an intriguing story and can help make the brand memorable. But with this approach be prepared for some significant market spend to teach your customers how to say your name.
10 Focusing on the specifics of today rather than your core purpose
When an established company comes to us for a new name, nearly every time it’s because it has expanded or shifted its offerings. The core problem the brand solved didn’t change, but the specifics of its solutions did. Amazon started off as an online bookseller and could have easily chosen a telegraphic name like BookWorld, but Bezos and co planned to build a bigger marketplace, as big and diverse as the world’s largest rainforest.
Business plans change, tech upgrades, competitors proliferate. What about your company will never change? Because long-term sustainability was Seventh Generation’s reason for being, its name remained strong as it expanded from cleaners to paper goods and beyond. Make your core purpose the foundation for your name’s message, not what you’re selling right now, and your name will be able to evolve with you.
Now that you know what not to do when naming your company, we can tell you one thing you should do—hire a naming agency! There are so many more considerations to consider and deliberations to deliberate, we could never fit them all here. But we understand that your average mom & pop isn’t in the market for a full-service naming agency. For the intrepid entrepreneurs looking to DIY it, we have tons of resources to help, including an overview of our company naming services, this 6-step naming overview, and our soup-to-nuts naming guide.