Apple. Google. Yahoo. Oracle. Sony. Amazon.
Had these companies chosen less memorable names, they might not be what they are today
Finding the right name for your latest venture isn’t an easy job. Names must stand out from the competition. They need to work in different languages. They can’t violate existing trademarks. And it’s nearly impossible to find a domain name that isn’t already taken.
What’s an entrepreneur to do? We give some answers: “How to name a startup.” Who knows, it might help you coin the next hot name in tech.
Do you know what “Pinto” means in Rio? Neither did the Ford Motor Company. Don’t make the same mistakes.
For startups, the naming game is hard to win.
Catchy isn’t enough. Names must stand out from the competition and work in different languages. They can’t violate any trademarks, and must have a corresponding Web domain name. And for most startups, the process can’t cost much.
With the hype and excess of dot-com boom names (think Business.com) long gone, we quizzed experts at several international naming and branding consultancies on how to come up with the perfect name.
1. Find your focus
Figure out what you want to communicate (see graphic), says Ariel Goldfarb, a principal with CurtisAlan Partners, a Chicago-based strategic brand development firm. “Often it falls to really subjective criteria,” he says. “In brands and marketing, you should try to be strategic whenever you can.”
Balance flexibility and specificity. While specific names are easier for consumers to understand, they might limit your options in the future. Non-specific names (Monster.com, for example), meanwhile, are more flexible – but require expensive marketing projects to educate consumers.
Another tip: Add a descriptor to make your name specific – such as the “Computer” in Apple Computer. If your name develops into a big brand, you can drop the additional words.
2. Think different
A good company name, says Anthony Shore, creative director for naming and writing at San Francisco-based Landor Associates, is both familiar and refreshingly different. For every wacky name success story – like Google and Yahoo – there’s a bust. Take dot-com flameout ClickMango, the U.K.-based natural health site. “It’s a horrible name,” says Mr. Shore.
3. Watch your mouth
Check that the ideals behind your new name won’t get lost in translation abroad. Mr. Shore notes that PepsiCo’s “Sierra Mist” drink would never work in Germany, because “Mist” in German means “manure.” The car industry has a history of such blunders: General Motors’ car “LaCrosse” is a term for self-gratification among teenagers in French-speaking Canada, the Chevy “Nova” could be mistaken to mean “doesn’t run” in Spanish-speaking countries, and Ford’s “Pinto” translates into “small penis” in Brazilian Portuguese slang.
4. Don’t rush it
Investing time in making sure your name doesn’t violate any existing trademarks can save headaches later on. “You want to be as thorough as possible to ensure that you’re not surprised by a cease and desist letter later on,” says Mr. Shore of Landor. Case in point: When Internet consulting companies USWeb and CSK Group moved to merge in 1998, they wanted to call their new company “Reinvent Communications.” But a small company called Invent contested the name, forcing the two companies to pull the plug on “Reinvent.” The company was renamed “MarchFirst” and went bankrupt in 2001.
5. Make it an inside job
Don’t rush out and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a professional naming company. “If you’re a startup struggling to survive, you probably don’t need a professional naming company,” says Clive Chafer, creative director at Master-McNeil in Berkeley, California. He says that with a few hundred dollars and a Web browser, you can do a good deal of the work yourself. Use online services such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for domestic trademark searches.
If you are a truly consumer-oriented service that will be operating in many countries, spend the $20,000 to $30,000 it will cost for professional help, says Mr. Chafer. But if you are a tiny business-to-business company, keep the cash in the kitty.
6. Look ahead
Amazon.com wouldn’t be the multi-category superstore it is today if it had called itself Books.com. Jeff Bezos named the company after the Amazon river – the longest river in the world – to emphasize the vast selection of products the online store would offer.
Likewise, Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of DVD rental company Netflix, says he didn’t go for a generic name such as “DVDs by Mail” because he knew that one day movies would be distributed by video on demand.
7. Stay out of the box
Generic names such as Pets.com might have seemed like a good idea at the height of the boom. In 1999, eCompanies, a business-to-business Internet company, paid $7.5 million for the domain name Business.com. “Using generics is a terrible idea,” says Mr. Shore. “You’re locking yourself into the perception of being one type of business.”
8. Stand out
When Lizzy Stallard, client services manager for naming at New York-based Interbrand, was commissioned to come up with a name for a new online travel site, she faced a cluttered landscape of names: Expedia, Travelocity, Cheap Tickets, Priceline.com. The team could have come up with a descriptive name such as “Travelscape,” but took a chance with Orbitz.
9. Beware the verb
Having a name that is used as a verb, such as Google, might seem like a boon. But there’s a downside. If the verb “to Google” becomes too popular, the company could lose control over the name, allowing others to start using it to refer to their own products (a risk Google admitted in its SEC filing in April). “It’s a very real concern,” says Mr. Chafer.
10. A name’s not everything
A great name alone won’t guarantee success. “You really can’t judge a name on its own,” says Mr. Chafer. Rather, it’s the values that you build into the name and brand over time that matter. Take the battle between Yahoo and Hotmail’s email services: it’s not their names that are most important, but the quality of their services. “You have to be very careful not to look at a name in a vacuum,” says Mr. Chafer.