How Good Is Your Company Name?09.27.16
I recently moved with my family from New York City to Portland, Maine. We decided to make this change for overall quality of life, but as a designer and creative director who was most recently working for the NYC Dept. of Design and Construction as Head of Graphic Design – a job that can’t really be done from Maine – this means a new beginning for me professionally, in a very different market.
There are many things to decide and figure out when starting a new business, but the one that seems to represent all of them is: what to call it? A name is perhaps the least tangible but most symbolic decision that a company founder has to make. Naming is a task that seems like it should be simple – after all, we associate words and ideas with our venture effortlessly as we describe it to people all day in different ways. Everything has a name, so how hard can it be? But as we focus on the task, throw out some ideas, and get feedback, it is often the case that a final, acceptable solution seems more and more elusive.
Naming a new company is difficult for several reasons:
There’s a lot of competition. Usually, not only your first idea, but your first 20 ideas have already been thought of my somebody else. This is especially true for general words, and positive or aspirational words that are related to your business… but to many other businesses as well. In the old days, you may only have had to consider the competition in your regional markets, but now that you need a unique URL, you are competing with the whole world for verbal real estate.
You have many audiences. There are usually a variety of people you are trying to appeal to and impress with your name, from investors and customers, to community partners, your professional peers and your parents. Some of these people may totally get and love your clever or insider ideas, while others greet it with a frowny face or online critique. No name will be a home run with everybody.
You may not be clear on your brand. Every business has many qualities and assets. Do you want to emphasize your friendliness or your expertise? Your green credentials, or your hipness? It is possible to convey a few of these attributes at once, but not all. Whichever emphasis you choose will leave out some other attributes that are also desirable. Ultimately what you choose to convey with your name should be guided by a solid brand positioning strategy.
As I brainstormed and generated ideas for the name of my studio, I created the following list of name typologies. A framework like this can be useful for generating a long list of options, as well as understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of name. (Many of these name examples are from the worlds of art, design and consumer products. A similar analysis can be done for any industry however.)
Eg.: 2×4, MTWTF, Project Projects
These names give away no emotion, but in their cool meta-ness speak to a higher plane of operation. These names appeal to a design-centric or intellectual audience, but can feel cold or alienating to more general audiences.
Eg.: Bazazas, Slavs & Tartars, Sun Buddies, Lovely Lingerie
In today’s very serious business world, choosing a silly name takes some gumption. These can be hard to get right and pull off in balance with your whole operation, but when done well they’ll win a big smile… which can’t be bad for attracting customers.
Eg.: Acne, Sunburn, Blind Spot
These companies are so hip, they turn other people’s weaknesses into the most covetable of goods. Only go here if you are actually that hip!
Eg.: Future Perfect, Sound & Fury, The Other Shore, West Village Tribe
These names are particularly popular with millennials, who having grown up in a world of near-total commercial and digital construction, long for the wild, bohemian and otherwise mysterious.
Eg.: Office of Public Imagination, Established & Sons, Untitled Worldwide, Surfer’s Union, Daytrip Society, The Butcher’s Daughter
By putting a contemporary twist on a traditional naming convention, these names are the equivalent of lofts in former warehouses and bars in former butcher shops. They get to have it both ways, evoking the comfort of the known, while also communicating wit and with-it-ness. The potential downside is that these names are very trendy and thus in danger of dating quickly.
Eg.: Citizen Research & Design, Practice for Everyday Life, The School of Life, The Citizenry
An antidote to trying to be cool, these companies embrace being part of a human community, and trying to make a difference. The result can be fresh and disarming.
Eg.: Build, Huge, Naked, Happen
Finding just the right word to encapsulate your company’s essence can seem like a great idea… until you realize that it could also apply to many other companies as well. It’s not that you’ll go wrong with one of these very general words, but in trying to be everything they can lack specificity and personality.
Eg.: Maine Beer Company, Brooklyn Brewing, South x Southwest, Bond No. 9
When in doubt, name your enterprise after another name – if not your own, then the place where you do business. Place-based names have instant history, as well as a random but specific nature that makes them interesting. The only downside is relying too much on borrowed texture, instead of proclaiming your own unique offering and character.
Eg: Other Means, Better Yet Studio, Little and Often
If you find the right phrase, these names can be intriguing and convey a rich ethos in a short, modern package.
In the end, you will probably find a good name. It will not be perfect, appeal to everybody, and elicit all the right reactions in every context. But if you enjoy it, and can say it to your major stakeholders with pride, then it’s time to press purchase on that URL and move on to all the other actions and decisions of running your business.