I’ve been partnering for several months with Clarity.fmto give short, focused phone consultations about names and verbal branding. I’ve talked to business owners in Mexico, Australia, England, Brazil, and the U.S.; I’ve answered questions about company names, product names, taglines, and even Twitter handles. Most of my callers can’t afford comprehensive name-development services; what they want from me—and my 20-plus years in the branding business—are tips and feedback.
A few themes have emerged from these calls—common naming challenges that many entrepreneurs face. I share them with you in case you’re struggling with your own do-it-yourself naming project.
After a long and productive phone conversation with a prospective naming client, I received an email with a follow-up question: What’s my process for testing the names I develop? The target audience for this company is teenagers, and the client wanted to solicit teens’ input before committing to a name.
I sent a brief answer—name testing is not part of my process—followed by a longer one.
Of all the myths associated with naming, the bogus rule that insists on a “pure” dot-com domain—a URL that’s an exact match for the name of your company, product, or app—is perhaps the most wrongheaded and damaging to your naming effort. It’s a zombie rule: a holdover from the late-1990s dot-com gold rush. The rule’s been dead for years, but it still nibbles away at brains.
Yes, you should devote resources (time and money) to your naming strategy. Certainly you should cast a wide net in your creative effort, using lateral thinking to explore metaphorical associations. You should make sure your name is distinctive and appropriate in its market(s). You should protect your name legally through trademark registration.
But rejecting a good name because an exact dot-com match isn’t instantly available? That’s foolish, and bad business.
Gradually, company founders and marketing directors are seeing the light. A recent post about naming on the Buffer blog—Buffer is a social-media-publishing app—includes some misinformation (use “real” words, make it two syllables, yada yada). But it does contain one piece of near-wisdom:
3. The domain name doesn’t matter
I see many, many founders limiting themselves with the domain name. One thing I’ve learned and embraced with naming my own startups is that the domain name doesn’t matter at all. The name itself matters much more than having the same domain name. Pick a great name, go with a tweaked domain name.
I don’t agree that the domain name “doesn’t matter at all.” It’s a brand asset, and I encourage clients to consider buying a for-sale domain if they have the budget for it. Many aftermarket domains are available for less than $2,000.
But I do endorse the “tweaked domain name” part. If you’re able to legally own your name in your trademark class(es)—a very big, very important if—and you can’t buy the pure domain, I urge you to break the zombie rule. Your URL does not have to be an identical twin; rather, it can be a helpful sibling—and an opportunity to build your brand.
Here are some examples of what an impure domain can do:
Need fast feedback about a naming dilemma? On a tight budget? You can now hire my expert naming services by the minute—yes, one-sixtieth of an hour—through Clarity.fm*, a year-old San Francisco company that connects entrepreneurs with experts, over the phone, for advice on business challenges.
In a 15-, 30-, or 45-minute phone conversation (or longer, if you have the stamina), I can review your naming objectives and criteria, give you a quick professional critique of your top name choices, and point out areas you may have overlooked. You can ask me questions about product names, company names, taglines, domains, or brand architecture. There’s no obligation to hire me for further naming work, but if you’d like to do so we can talk about that, too.
Yesterday, for example, I spoke with a couple of entrepreneurs in Vancouver, BC, who wanted my opinion of their four top name candidates. In a fast-paced 17-minute call, I gave them my impressions of the names and advice for a follow-up round of creative work.
To the average civilian, the concept of name taxonomies or categories is vague at best. Unless you’re a naming professional, you probably think of corporate and product names as short or long, trendyor stale, available as an Internet domain or not. And that’s about it.
Those categories are more or less irrelevant in the eyes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which classifies names according to a spectrum of distinctiveness. “Distinctive” has a specific legal meaning here: the more distinctive a name, the greater its potential for legal protection in the form of trademark.
The spectrum of distinctiveness runs from generic on one end to fanciful on the other. In between are descriptive, suggestive, and arbitrary trademarks.
Knowing about trademark distinctiveness and types of names can help you become a smarter judge of business names—your own and others’. Here are the basics.
What exactly do name developers do, and how do they tackle a naming assignment? In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, I look at the naming process and share some tips for naming products and companies.
Full access is restricted to subscribers (so subscribe!). Here’s an excerpt:
Like a writing project, a naming project begins with research. What is being named — a company, a product, a feature, a program? Why was the company founded or the product invented? What does the name need to communicate — playfulness, security, speed, luxury, practicality? What's the competitive namescape — that is, what do rivals and partners call themselves? Who is the customer or audience — hospital managers, software developers, single parents, international travelers? Where will the name appear — website, magazine ads, T-shirts, trade-show booths, packaging? Will you require an Internet domain? Trademark protection?
Then define the personality of the company or brand. Big and serious, like a global cybersecurity company? Cute and friendly, like a children's clothing boutique? If the business is new, ask about the founders. Are they professors, gourmands, rock-climbers? What makes them tick and what turns them off? Do they share an interesting connection? I once was hired to name a startup whose founders were five brothers; “five,” “brother,” and “family” gave me lots of ideas for an initial round of creative work.
A couple times a week, at a minimum, I get an email from someone who needs a business or product name. Sometimes the sender has seen my blog; usually he or she has plucked my name from a Google search. Ninety percent of the time the email reads, in full: “We need a name. How much do you charge?”
Now, if you’ve never worked with a professional name developer, that may seem like a reasonable question. You may imagine I have a sack of names that are all (magically) available and that I’ll pull out the one that (magically) suits your (unknown) requirements. And then I’ll send you a bill for—shazam!—$39.95.
Unfortunately, professional name development is not a magic trick. Nor is it a one-price-for-all bargain basement. Every process is different, if only in its time constraints. So before I can send you a proposal and estimate, I’ll need answers to these fundamental questions:
In some ways, naming a startup is easy: you have a blank slate and nothing but potential. Renaming an established company or product can be a trickier proposition. Your customers and employees know you by the original name, and selling them on a new name can be costly, arduous, and even alienating if it isn’t done right.
That’s why it’s important to know when to undertake a renaming project and when you’re better off focusing on other business matters. Here are some guidelines and caveats.