Top 11 Company Naming Tips From A Business Naming Expert

By Libby Sile

April 4, 2020

Laurel Sutton, Catchword

It is a mistake for businesses to leave naming to the end when starting a business, says Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Brand Name Development. (Photo: Laurel Sutton)

From researching web domains to avoiding made-up words, follow this expert’s advice.

When it comes to naming their small business, many owners think all they need to do is jot down a few ideas on a napkin.

“People leave the naming to the end or don’t put enough effort into it,” said Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Brand Name Development, a business naming agency with branches in Oakland, California, and Tenafly, New Jersey.

The process of creating compelling brand names is not always as easy as you wish. Don’t go with the first creative and witty name that pops to mind. Consider the below 11 tips from Catchword’s Laurel Sutton before you even start brainstorming.

Tips For Naming Your Business – Insights From A Naming Expert

#1. Keep it simple

Zappos, Skype, Google — these are some businesses that come to mind when we think of brands with made-up words as names. Some names are derived from real words (Zappos is a play on zapatos, the Spanish word for shoes), while others are totally random.

Should a small business follow the lead of these successful brands? Sutton says no, and here’s why: Small businesses lack the marketing dollars to turn these words into household names.

Instead, she recommends choosing a name people can easily pronounce and spell. “If your customers type things in on Google and can’t get the spelling right, they won’t always find you,” she said.

#2. Make the name connect to what you do

Sutton said a common mistake small businesses make is choosing a name that’s a little too creative. The goal, she said, is to pick a name that suggests what the business is or does. If you’re going to open a restaurant, for instance, pick a name with some connection to the kind of food you’ll be serving or the ambiance you’re striving for.

“It may be less creative, but it’ll help people understand what your business is and does so you don’t have to keep explaining it,” Sutton said. “It’s all about using your marketing dollars most efficiently, and the way you do that is to get people to understand what you do as quickly as possible.”

#3. Brainstorm, then brainstorm some more

To come up with a good name, Sutton said, you need to spend a lot of time making lists of words. “People should treat brainstorming as a job.” She recommends setting aside one to two hours a week to do nothing but research.

According to Sutton, the best brainstorming involves figuring out what you want the name to say to customers before you hit the dictionary.

“You need to first figure out what you want to push to people,” she said. “Is it the atmosphere, food, drinks or you as the owner? Figure out what makes you better than the competition and that will help you find the message you should focus on.”

With that in mind, you want to make lists upon lists. Ask friends and family for ideas. Check the dictionary and thesaurus. Research what names your competition uses. Think of places, things, colors, foods and other ideas that are related to your business.

“The longer you keep listing, the more interesting the names become.” – Laurel Sutton

“The first 20 names you come up with will be boring names everyone has heard of. Get them out of your system, then keep listing.”

#4. Try crowdsourcing

Not a whiz with words, or hitting a mental roadblock? Sutton recommends trying a few crowdsourcing resources, some of which are free or low cost.

Wordlab, for example, allows people around the world to chime in with suggestions. Squadhelp lets business owners solicit ideas via a contest. You pay the inventor of the winning name for his or her idea (usually between $100 and $300).

You can also crowdsource with your friends, family, and community. Ask others for feedback on potential names. If they can’t spell or pronounce a candidate, or if they point out negative connotations with the name, scrap it.

#5. Evaluate trademarks

A search on the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office’s website or through a lawyer will reveal whether a name has been trademarked. Avoid trademarked names entirely or you may face cease and desist letters or worse.

Also, search for your state’s corporation and business entity databases to see if there is a company registered with the name you want.

Small businesses typically don’t trademark their names, but Sutton said if you have plans to expand or franchise, it’s worth the time and money to file early on.

#6. Check the web

When you’ve settled on five to ten top options, Sutton advised checking social media and search results pages.

“If you’re in California and there’s a restaurant with the same name in Georgia, that’s probably fine,” she said. “But if it’s in the next town over, that will be confusing.”

According to Sutton, a lot of small business owners get caught up trying to find a domain name and social media handles that are not already taken. These days, it is fine for URLs and handles to include a descriptor or location. That is, if you want to name your restaurant Ravioli and you’re in New York City, or is a great domain.

“It will help your SEO for those trying to find you, and it’s a cheap way to maximize your marketing,” Sutton said.

#7. Name like you’re the “Amazon” of your industry

When naming a product it’s oftentimes acceptable and even desirable to key the name on a single feature or customer benefit. For example, a software product that mines customer data and provides insights about purchase habits might appropriately be called “PurchaseIntent” or “InHabit” (to suggest insights and habits). However, you are not a single product. You are a company, and your “features” and the benefits you provide to your customers are broad in scope and may change considerably over the years.

In general, it’s a good idea to think more expansively about your company name and avoid pigeonholing yourself with a name that may tie in well to your flagship product or service and your current business focus, but risks becoming restrictive as your portfolio grows and diversifies and your business interests evolve. In addition to Amazon, which is a great metaphor for an expansive portfolio of product offerings that don’t limit the direction in which the company can go, here are few recent examples of great company naming from Catchword’s portfolio: Asana (read the case study), Sunbird (read the case study), and Clover Health (read the case study).

#8. Avoid common words or word parts in your name

Most markets are saturated with company names that are so similar it’s hard to distinguish between the different brands. Before Catchword opened its doors in 1998, we did a thorough audit of the industry and discovered, not surprisingly, that the vast majority of naming agencies incorporated the words “name” or “brand” in them. We won’t list them all here because, if you’ve done a Google search on naming agencies and landed on this page, you’ve probably already discovered most of them.

We knew that to stand out from this pack, to distinguish ourselves and our brand, we would need to avoid these terms in our name, and think of a more creative, unique way to express the business we’re in and the value we provide to folks like you. The name “Catchword” is a great company name because it’s unlike any other name in our space and still a logical choice for a naming agency. It balances distinctiveness with industry and business focus. On top of that, it implies that the names we create (or catch!) will become popular pieces of language and household names. In other words, catchwords!

#9. Descriptors or taglines can contextualize company names and set you free

During almost every company naming project we reach a point in the name review process when we have to remind folks that names do not exist in a vacuum. They are supported by many other brand communications, including visual identity, marketing, and sales copy, website, and, if appropriate, descriptors and taglines. One of the greatest values that a descriptor or tagline provides is freedom. Specifically, freedom to expand the range of name styles you consider for your brand.

In general, a company name that’s more suggestive of a specific message may allow for more aspirational taglines. And a name that’s more abstract may benefit from a descriptor that alludes to the industry in which the company competes or the nature of its business. In either case, it’s important to remember that these complementary pieces of brand communication are available to you, and should free you up to consider a much broader range of brand names for your company.

#10. Your name is a reflection of you, your creativity, and how thoughtful you are

It’s not something that everyone thinks about, but your company name is not just a reflection of your positioning or corporate mission or industry focus, it’s a reflection of your thoughtfulness and business intelligence. The name you adopt for your company says oodles about you, your personnel, and the way you conduct your business. Are you a company of creative and innovative thinkers? If so, your name should reflect those qualities, and an uncreative or unoriginal name will fall short. Do you consider yourselves diligent, dedicated and hardworking? If the answer is “yes,” then a name that seems it took no time to imagine will quickly betray those attributes.

At Catchword, we put a lot of careful thought and creativity into our names because we appreciate that a name is not just a mirror for your positioning or mission, it’s a mirror for you, and more than any other brand element, it provides insight into who you are as individuals, including how smart and creative you are.

#11. Choose wisely because name changes are quite the bother

This may be less of a tip and more of a reminder for most: you don’t want to have to change your name, so choose wisely now. Changing a company name is an enormous inconvenience and has tremendous business implications, including, and most importantly, the loss of valuable brand equity. There are various reasons why you might have to change your name, and the most common are:

    • your company name infringes on a pre-existing trademark (note that a good naming agency should guide you toward names that stand the greatest chance of legal clearance and trademark protectability)
    • you’ve outgrown your name – i.e., the nature of your business has significantly shifted and your name is no longer consistent with the new business direction
    • you’ve merged with another company and need a new name that reflects the cultures and business objectives of both organizations
    • you’ve been acquired by another company and for legal reasons or for purposes of portfolio fit you have to change your name
    • umpteenth other reasons why you might be in a position to have to change your name!

When it comes to naming their startups or small business, many owners think all they need to do is jot down a few ideas on a napkin. “People leave the naming to the end or don’t put enough effort into it,” said Laurel Sutton, Principal at Catchword.

Need help naming your business? We’ve been doing it for over 20 years. Contact us today to see how we can help.


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