Originally published on October 13, 2016; revised where appropriate.
Earlier this week I spoke via Clarity, an expert-advice service, with a CEO who was considering changing his company’s decade-old name. He told me he didn’t have the budget for professional naming services, so he and his business partner, both tech guys, had attempted to come up with a new name themselves. After 12 (!) months of brainstorming, they finally had a couple of candidates. One name, the CEO told me, was a great description of their product. The other name described what their customers wanted. They’d already bought a bunch of domains – some for more than $1,000 – related to both names.
I kept silent, but I heaved a private sigh. Within five minutes, my caller had mentioned the two troublesome D-words of naming: describe and domain. One of those words can doom a branding project; the other is almost always a distraction.
I’d hoped to hear a different D-word, the one that matters: distinctiveness. But my caller admitted he hadn’t known it was a factor in brand development.
That CEO is far from the only client I’ve worked with who has focused, misguidedly, on descriptive names and “available” domains and neglected (or been unaware of) distinctiveness. It’s such a common oversight that I wanted to take some time to talk about it.
I wrote a few years ago about the five legal categories of names: generic, descriptive, suggestive, arbitrary, and fanciful. I wrote that “descriptive names are not eligible for trademark protection, because nothing prevents your competitors from making the identical descriptive claim.” There’s an escape clause: If you can prove that your descriptive name has acquired “secondary meaning” over time, you may win your case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). But most small and mid-size companies don’t have the time or resources to wait (and litigate) it out. And so I advise my clients to avoid description and aim for suggestive, arbitrary, or fanciful names, which are stronger as brands and easier to protect legally.
Maybe you aren’t sure whether your name is descriptive or not. Here’s a test: Would the name be suitable for any of your competitors? If the answer is “yes,” your name may be descriptive (or, worse, generic).
Here’s another way to test your name for descriptiveness: If your About Us page tells your brand story by saying “Our name describes our [flame-roasted hamburgers] [job-search algorithm] [floating bath toys] [anything else],” you’ve got yourself a descriptive name.
And here’s an example from my own experience.
Earlier this year I was asked to name an event at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland celebrating children’s authors and illustrators. The internal team had come up with a few ideas: KidLit Fest, Children’s Book Festival, Fairyland Books, and so on. No one was crazy about any of the names; they were all descriptive, undistinctive, and – as they like to say at this 66-year-old storybook park – not “Fairylandish” enough.
When the project was handed over to me, I explored a different direction: the emotion of the event. How do children feel when they open a new book? What do they say? I named the event Turn the Page! – a suggestive title that conveys discovery, enthusiasm, and excited impatience.*
An online name generator couldn’t have come up with Turn the Page!, because name generators are blighted by the Curse of Descriptiveness. The ones I’ve sampled – the ones that promise to “name your company in 10 seconds or less” – ask you to plug in two or three words (sometimes just one), and presto: a bunch of “names” appear on the screen. Let’s say I want to name a brand of ready-to-serve chicken dinners. I type “chicken” and “dinner” – two words that describe what I’m selling – and the generator gives me names like My Chicken Dinner, Chicken Dinner Online, and Go Chicken Dinner. All descriptive, all boring – not a metaphor or an original idea in the bunch.
But wait! Those descriptive names come with “available” dot-com domains! Isn’t that a good thing?
Which brings me to the second deadly D-word: domain.
You need one, of course. But an “available” domain should never be your top priority in creating a brand. Moreover, the “availability” of a URL is not an indication of the legal availability of a name. (To assure legal availability – and avoid costly trademark challenges – you’ll need to work with a trademark lawyer.)
Many CEOs willingly spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on bland, descriptive domains that they think (wrongly) will stake a claim on their customers’ minds and pocketbooks. That money would be more wisely spent on professional naming services. Craft a distinctive, memorable, legally viable brand name first. Then, and only then, should you turn to the question of an appropriate and cost-effective domain.
You may need to add a word to your brand name: for example, mysens8.com, godorsal.com, and mastmobile.com are three companies I named and then found domains for. Or you may need to expand your search to include non .com domains, as I did with postandbeam.is, which uses the Iceland country code. These domain hacks, as they’re somewhat disparagingly known, can make your brand name more distinctive, not less. (More examples of creative domains here.)
Which brings me to the third D: distinctiveness.
Rather, distinctiveness means your brand looks like itself and not some competitor’s brand. (It needs to be “Fairylandish,” or the equivalent.) The distinctiveness starts with the name and carries through to the tagline, logo, color palette, and spokespersons. Legally, a distinctive name is protectable in specific trademark classes. In the world of marketing, a distinctive name stands out and makes a clear statement about who you are and what you do.
How do you arrive at a distinctive name? Here are a few suggestions:
- Start with a well-researched naming brief.
- Give a lot of thought to the soul and personality of your brand – not the features of your products or the lofty ideals of your mission statement, but the way you’re perceived (or want to be). Friendly? Aggressive? Dreamy? Clever? Careful?
- Imagine your brand on a shelf alongside your competitors’ brands. What makes yours stand out?
- Imagine your brand as a book or a movie. How would you pitch it? What would its title be?
- What kind of animal is your brand? What kind of plant? What kind of car? (Is it a car at all?) If it were a road, what would it be – a bicycle path, a scenic byway, the Autobahn?
Creating distinctiveness isn’t easy: it requires objectivity, lateral thinking, and sensitivity to the nuances of language and symbol. It’s easier be descriptive; it’s easier to just snag an available domain. But if your goal is a memorable, enduring brand – and a successful company – pursue distinctiveness.
* Update: In 2019 a new executive director took over at Children’s Fairyland, and my association with the park ended. In 2022, Turn the Page! was renamed … Book Festival.