Although it was originally published more than three years ago, "How to Name Your Company," on the Carsonified* blog, Think Vitamin, has been getting a lot of recent traffic and tweets. I discovered it through Kirstin Butler, whom I follow on Twitter. She called it a "great rundown of the basic considerations."
Oh, how I wish it were true.
My guess is that people are desperate for any advice about name development. Because that post, my friends? Is full of misleading, risky, and just plain wrong information.
Granted, author Michael McDerment is an entrepreneur, not a professional name developer. I'm sure he had good intentions. I only wish he'd done better research—or at least qualified his advice with "Your Mileage May Vary."
Because it will. A lot.
I'll tackle the big problem first, and then get down to specifics. McDerment never mentions the cardinal rule of naming: You must own your name. And by "own" I don't mean "find an available Internet domain and register it." I mean own it legally. As in trademark protection.
McDerment runs afoul of the law, so to speak, right from the start. Here are what he calls the five characteristics of a good name:
- It’s easy to remember
- It’s easy to spell and requires no explanation
- It describes your business category
- It describes your benefit
- It describes your difference
I'll grant him #1: Memorability is important. But "easy to spell"? Too subjective, and there are too many exceptions to consider it a rule. (Since you asked: Flickr, Guinness, Maalox, Gaviidae. Just for starters.)
"Requires no explanation"? Fine—if you want a boring, undistinctive name. Your name is the title of your story, not the story itself. Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Zappos: They suggest something interesting. They don't give away the punchline. (And remember: None of those brands started out as behemoths. They had to build name recognition just like every other business.)
But it's #3, #4, and #5 that are the real problems. Specifically, the problem is the D-word: Describe.
To put it as succinctly as possible, if you want to own your company name, it cannot be descriptive. This isn't Nancy the Name Developer sharing her opinion. It's trademark law and basic business sense. An ownable, protectable name will fall into the suggestive, arbitrary, or fanciful categories. If it describes your goods or services, good luck getting it past the the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
My other arguments with "How to Name Your Company":
- A good name does not have to be short. Can we retire this myth already? Plenty of great brand names are five syllables or longer: Changing the Present, Habitat for Humanity, Banana Republic, 23 and Me.
- A good name does not have to be "fun to say." Suppose you're naming a cancer-diagnostics company?
- Each syllable "has to start with a strong consonant"? McDermant seems to be referring to plosives—he also calls them "harsh" consonants, a term you won't find in any linguistics textbook—but there is absolutely no evidence that companies whose names begin with plosives are more successful than other companies. Again, it all depends on what you're naming and the sonic associations you want to create.
- QuickBooks, one of McDerment's examples of names that adhere to his "constraints," is a product, not a company. (Product names have more latitude in the descriptiveness area.)
- There are three more instructions to "describe" under Step III: Structured Brain Storming [sic]. No, no, and no again.
- Test your name with your customers? Terrible idea. Go ahead and test your product or your user experience. But not your name. If your company is new, your customers won't know your brand story well enough to evaluate a name. If your company is established, your customers will have an attachment to your existing name. Either way, everyone will have an opinion, and every opinion will be equally uninformed. It's your brand: do you really want to crowdsource the most important element of it?
In the end, McDerment's team picked FreshBooks for the name of their invoicing service. They just liked it, he writes. Fun to say. "Sounds good."
Well, so much for harsh consonants and rigid constraints.
To their credit, they did file for U.S. trademark protection and may even have received it, although to my non-lawyerly eye "FreshBooks" seems confusingly close to "QuickBooks." I appreciate that McDerment acknowledges spending "several thousand dollars" to buy the FreshBooks.com domain; he calls it "a worthwhile investment." (All the good ones are taken? Not if you come up with the right price.)
There is far more to naming than picking one you "like" -- in many cases your favorite one is already "taken." It is shocking how the legal process of clearing names is mentioned nowhere in the author's entire process. There is also no consideration to the legal protectability after a name is cleared and selected. Following the author's advice will, in most cases, result in a name that cannot be owned or protected.
Furthermore, he said, "The D-word is used so often my head is spinning."
And yet this article continues to circulate on the Internet as an example of how to do it right.
Here's some better advice. First, take a look at a comment on McDerment's post written by Danny Altman, founder of the name-development agency A Hundred Monkeys. Altman raises some of the same objections I do; he also points out that "describing your benefit" is meaningless when your competitors are boasting the same benefit.
Then read a related post on Think Vitamin, "What's in a Name?" It's a trite title, but its substance is sound. The author, Ben Bodien, tells a sadder-but-wiser tale of registering a domain, designing an identity, creating a website, and launching a business—all without performing due diligence on the name. The result was a cease-and-desist letter from a bigger, more-established company . . . and, in the end, a complete renaming and rebranding. Ouch.
Don't let it happen to you.
* Carsonified, an event-production company, says it's "hugely passionate about the web." Ah yes: our friend the P-word.