American Express OPEN Forum: How to Pick a Name for Your Business



This blog originally appeared as an article by Elizabeth Sile at the American Express OPEN Forum website.

Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” Though he was writing about roses in Romeo and Juliet, it’s a question that should be in the heads of anyone brainstorming business name ideas.

A name is your business’ first impression and can instantaneously convey quality, trustworthiness, and reliability—or the opposite. With Google searches replacing yellow page ads, names need to send the right message.

“Gone are the days when you could write down ten ideas on an envelope and pick the one you liked best,” says Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Brand Name Development, a professional naming company.

If you’re still searching for a name for your business, follow these five tips to get you the perfect one a little easier.

Clarify your branding initiative. To even begin brainstorming, you must have a clear picture of what you’re hoping to achieve with your name and how it fits the company’s mission. Zoe Sexton, managing director at Igor International, a naming and branding agency, says business names can have a slew of purposes, from free PR to demonstrating what sets your company apart.

“The key is to find a fresh way into the hearts and minds of your audience and engage people on as many levels as possible,” she says. “The best names accomplish all of these goals and are advertisements in and of themselves.”

Phillip Davis, president of Tungsten Branding, a name development firm, recommends creating a “pivot point,” a quality or core attribute that everything in the company revolves around, such as speed, price, leadership, or innovation.

“From there, you can use any number of naming strategies to convey this central theme,” Davis says. “You can use metaphors, (Jaguar, Amazon, Monster), or positive connotation blends (OnStar, TruGreen, Bright House), or descriptive hybrids (CarMax, JetBlue, LendingTree,) or key attributes (Sir Speedy, Priceline, Service Masters).”

Separate your business from your competitors. A business’ name should make it stand out among the competition. Sexton recommends compiling a list of competitors’ names to ensure your possibilities are different.

“Naming is a competitive sport,” she says. “Names don’t exist in a vacuum.”

Sutton says that businesses should not only check out their competitors’ names, but the styles, tonality and messaging of their brand. Find what makes your brand totally different, and base everything on that.

Sexton warns, however, that small businesses should avoid falling into the trap whereby their names’ sole purpose is to describe what the businesses do.

“A descriptive naming strategy overlooks the fact that the whole point of marketing is to separate yourself from the pack,” she says. “It actually works against you, causing you to fade into the background, indistinguishable from the bulk of your competitors.”

Also, if your business is looking to form an LLC or incorporate down the road, checking to make sure a name is not already taken now will prevent headaches when it’s time to start the registration process. You can search the availability of a name through your state’s secretary of state office.

Pick a flexible name. A successful candidate for a business’ name is not finite, but malleable enough that it can still stand as the business grows and changes. Davis says Midas is a great example of a flexible business name, because using the name of a mythical Greek king with the golden touch positioned the company based on quality service, not on mufflers specifically. This then allowed the company to transition to other automotive repair services without expensive rebranding.

“What you do is typically not as important as how you do it,” Davis says. “And your main products and services are likely to change and evolve.”

Treat the brainstorming process like a marketing decision. Certainly, picking a business name is fun and exciting, but the process should be taken as seriously as any other business decision, says Michael Barr, president of NameLab. Often the names people like aren’t actually the best fit.

Barr adds that this should not be a subjective decision. Ask yourself whether it accomplishes what you need to do. Then you can ask which one you like better. You should look for the unexpected name that expresses a feeling and positive brand experience, says Alexandra Watkins, chief innovation officer at Eat My Words, a brand naming company. Watkins says these are the questions you should be asking when choosing a name:

  • Is it meaningful to my customers and not just to me?
  • Does it make an emotional connection?
  • Is it easy to pronounce and spell?
  • Is it a copycat name or it is original?
  • Does it make people smile or scratch their head?

Also, one of the first things you should do is to check online to see whether domain names are available for your top choices. But if you’ve found the perfect brand name and the domain is already taken, don’t fret unless a competitor already took it, Watkins says. Many successful businesses have worked around their URL.

Avoid making up words. While this technique has worked for huge companies like Yahoo! and Xerox, it’s often not beneficial for small businesses.

“It sounds obvious, but I find a lot of small business people I speak to often want empty vessel names, meaning that you have to fill it with meaning,” Barr says.

Though naming your business should be treated with as much seriousness as drafting your business plan or budget, it should not be viewed as a panacea. Even a great name also needs great people and healthy sales to make it fly.


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