Can a name really make or break your business?
A business will live or die by the quality of its product or service and to a certain extent also by the effectiveness of its marketing, but how does a business become name known in the first place? How does it get off the ground? How can it stick out in the endless crowd? What makes it memorable?
Woah. Okay. Enough questions already! But these ponderings all point to the simple fact that the value in choosing a great name for your business is nothing short of essential.
First impressions last
First impressions are essential for your brand name as they can impact how customers perceive your business. Negative feelings or interactions may stick with them, leading to them getting the wrong impression of your brand. On the other hand, positive first impressions foster trust, loyalty, and a favorable brand image.
The Basics of How to Name a Business
If you haven’t done it already, before you launch into any naming research and creative process whatsoever, it’s crucial to thoroughly understand what the vision and essence of your proposed brand is. Consider defining the following points:
- ✓ …your long-term aspirations?
- ✓ …why you’re doing what you’re doing?
- ✓ …what your brand’s personality is?
- ✓ …what the ultimate and primary goals are for the business?
- ✓ …the meaning and value you want to communicate?
- ✓ …what is the problem you are solving
- ✓ …what the ultimate and primary goals are for customers?
- ✓ …how you want to be seen/perceived?
- ✓ …who you are serving and what they are looking for?
- ✓ …what your brand values are?
These words are incredibly useful to get you started (and particularly important for searching with the core toolkit of online resources you’ll see later on), so don’t skip this step.
Come up with as many words and short phrases for the following:
- What your product or service is actually about
(e.g. accountant = numbers, tax, business, money, etc)
- The stuff used for your product or service
(e.g. watchmaker = gold, silver, steel, cogs, batteries, etc)
- What problem your business will solve
(e.g. marketer = not enough customers, not enough income, etc)
- How your business solves those problems
(e.g. builder = builds secure houses, up-cycles to save money, etc)
- How your service or product makes people feel
(e.g. doctor = safe, confident, well, hopeful, etc)
- Related historical stories, people and places
(e.g. shipyard = Blackbeard, Columbus, The Santa Maria, etc)
Now we have covered the basics, lets look at the steps to name a business.
Step 1: Initial Market Research
Because business naming is primarily a creative process, the last thing you want to do is jump right into it. You’ve got to give your brain some frames of reference, and the first being a clear idea of what sort of names are popular—both trending for new businesses, but also popular amongst the biggest and most established brands.
Here are a few simple ways to do market research.
A simple search of “hottest startups” (you might want to add the year) will return hundreds of lists of the latest and greatest new business names that are doing well in the marketplace. “Top companies in the world” will return information on the most popular brands (typically by market value). And replacing “the world” with your country will result in a more localised view on what’s working closer to home.
Google Trends is where you can do some more advanced research to see how various brand names and words are performing in terms of global and local interest over time.
Expert tip: You might notice certain months where a word or topic relating to your business peaks or dips significantly (like the trend report for the word “accounting” shown below, with big dips every December). This is definitely worth noting in relation to the timing around launching your new business, product or service—capitalizing on peaks and avoiding dips.
Fortune 500 list
Whilst not the most informative option on this roundup for a new startup, the Fortune 500 list is well-known as the top performing companies in the world. From here you can get a sense of names that have stood the test of time.
Some of the best and most creative new names seem to land on ProductHunt and there’s a constant stream of new startups being listed, so it’s one of my personal favourites for fresh ideas. Also, because they list each with a name and a tagline, I love that you can get a sense of how they came to the name by reading the tagline.
TrendHunter is probably less about a naming exercise and more a general trends platform to get a more general sense of where the world is heading right now.
Step 2: Understand How Names are Created
We’ll get into this more throughout this guide, but here are some general examples to show a variety of popular/historic approaches of business naming.
- Nike: Name for the Greek Goddess of Victory.
- Coca-Cola: The two main ingredients were Coca leaves and Cola berries.
- Pepsi: From the digestive enzyme ‘pepsin’.
- Google: Derived from ‘googol’ which means 1 followed by 100 zeros.
- Adidas: Named after owner Adolf Dassler whose nickname was Adi.
- Intel: Short for integrated electronics
- Canon: Adapted from Kwanon (Japanese name of Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy).
- Lego: Derived from Danish words ‘Leg Godt’, which means to ‘play well’.
- Nintendo: Transliterated from Nintendou. Nin in Japanese means ‘entrusted’ and Ten-dou means ‘heaven’.
- Amazon: CEO Jeff Bezos wanted a name starting with ‘A’. He chose Amazon because it is the biggest river in the world, just what he wanted his company to be.
Step 3: Do Competitor Research
The purpose of competitor research in the context of a naming exercise is to make an extensive list of actual competitor names (particularly the bigger brands and businesses that are close to you in geographical proximity), so that you don’t choose something too similar. Having a similar name will confuse the marketplace and ensure you are forgotten quickly, so it’s important to stand out with a unique name.
First, make an extensive list of competitors. There are an endless number of online business directories these days that are categorised or searchable by business type, so this should be fairly quick and easy.
Next, here are three places that you might find their back-stories:
- Company history pages
- Company annual reports
- Branding or naming case-studies
Step 4: Generate Ideas
The purpose of these initial exercises is to simply get name ideas (as many as possible), but not to judge them. But don’t worry—you’ll audit them in the next phase. Remember there are no bad ideas at this point.
This is really important. If you’re consulting a number of people in the process, make sure everyone knows that this is not the time to find fault, but only the time to make suggestions and offer what they like about each suggestion. This give everybody room to suggest ideas and builds inspiration for more and better names. Otherwise, criticism at this point shuts down the creative process.
Where to Find Inspiration
Without the right tools, finding inspiration can be challenging. But thankfully, with the advent of the internet, we now have an unbelievable plethora of endlessly inspiring tools at our fingertips. Use our Business Name Generator tool to help get you started.
Experiment with different words from your list (both by themselves and in combination of 2-3 words) to get the most out of this type of exploration.
The most useful online tools include (but not limited to):
- Dictionary.com for general meaning and related words
- Thesaurus.com for synonyms (this is an absolute goldmine!)
- Foreign Languages (Latin and Greek are always a good place to start)
- Google Search (for broad, general inspiration of related topics, articles, etc)
Additional Inspiration Sources
There are numerous places and avenues for additional inspiration. Here are just a few:
You might choose to get out and about to gain inspiration, and I highly recommend this approach—inspiration can often be found in the most unlikely of places, at the most unlikely of times (yes, I’m thinking of the bathroom right now)—but if you’re stuck for time (or it’s raining!), most of these can be accessed via online search.
Aggressively Avoid Narrow Thinking
It’s fine to have a few naming ideas before you start, but this sort of inspirational research should be done first before really brainstorming the big list of actual possibilities. The reason for this is that it’s all too easy to get stuck on an early idea and then not be fully committed to exploring what may end up being much better ideas in the long-run.
Don’t filter anything out just yet. Write down anything you come up with in the process of researching inspiration — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Explore All Possible Synonyms and Related Terms
You should have done this already with your “big list of words” (from The Basics section), but if not, write down ALL the words that relate to your business, then use each of these words to search with tools like thesaurus.com and Google to come up with as many more interesting words and ideas as you can.
So immerse yourself deeper into the world of your audience. Ask yourself and your brainstorming team the following questions…
- What do they love?
- Where do they hang out (offline and online)?
- How do they feel on a day-to-day basis?
- What are their strongest fears and desires?
- What sort of words/languaging do they predominantly use?
You may even like to take it a step further and consider the broader context of your audience. What are some universal human needs and desires? How might these needs relate to your product or service?
Make it visible
Make sure all the inspirational words and ideas are easily viewable (e.g. big whiteboard/wall, sticky notes, etc). You and your team need to be able to see everything together for your brains to put ideas together and see connections, patterns and new ideas. It’s like a murder mystery, with each clue leading to a final outcome.
Don’t forget images
Our sub-conscious creative faculties are primarily image-based, so even though the desired outcome is a word or phrase, just having words as a reference is not enough for a full creative exploration. Images trigger emotion and stimulate out-of-the-box thinking.
Involve People Outside Your Business
Bringing in an extremely broad variety of people in this purely creative stage to contribute ideas, can be invaluable because it ensures the ideation process is not limited by your preferences or preconceived ideas.
Expert tip: Remember to tell them that you’re not interested in critique at this stage, just ideas. The final decision and deliberation obviously must be made by the key stakeholders/founders only.
Have fun with it
The creative process is meant to be fun. Dry, left-brain discussions will only bring dry ideas. Word association games are the best place to start (start with a word, then the next person says the first word or phrase that comes to mind), but don’t stop there/ If you’re feeling adventurous, you might even try a version of Pictionary with your own words, or even something unrelated but fun. Basically anything that puts you in a loose creative, right-brain kind of mood is going to help.
Consider Other Languages
This is actually one of my personal favourites, firstly because it’s fascinating to see all the many words for one thing, but also because you start to think more about the sound and feeling of a word than you do about it’s specific meaning.
Often foreign words become commonplace in our language simply because they sound better than their English counterpart. Take the German word uber for example—it just means “above” with the inference of “total” or “absolute”, but uber is simply something you feel way cooler saying (much more so than “total” or “absolute”), and that’s undeniable gold when it comes to how people feel sharing a brand with their peers.
A tool for discovering foreign words is Translatr because you can search all languages at once and only show languages that use English characters (see image below). If you have time, use each of the words in your “big list” to see what you come up with, and write down any words that look appealing.
Step 5: Plan Business Name Ideas
This is where the magic happens—bringing it all together to create actual business names.
Before you begin
- Make all business ideas and references viewable in one place.
- Sleep on it. Let the ideas brew for a few days.
- Keep it positive. No negative critiques.
- Relax! It’s creative-, not decision-time.
Come Up With 100+ Name Ideas
Yes, come up with at least 100 ideas. You might still come back to one of the early ideas, but it’s important to exhaust all possibilities first so that you are not left wondering if it could have been better later on (when you’re spending big bucks on branding and marketing!).
Select Words With No More Than Five Syllables
Try to limit names to three or four syllables (definitely no more than five). Other than American Express (which most people refer to as Amex) and a few other anomalies, almost none of the world’s top 100 brands have more than four syllables  and very few have more than three(e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon).
Longer names are often hard to recall, hard to design around and hard to say in conversation. It’s safe, even at this point, to immediately disregard names longer than five syllables—you’d probably end up ditching them later anyway (or spending millions to rebrand as an acronym like IBM, KFC and GE).
Switch Up Your Environment
People respond differently to various environments. Partly it’s about associations and partly just because new places invigorate the mind. It might even be worth assigning a number of sessions to cover all bases.
You might like to try…
- Both familiar and non-familiar environments.
- Inside and outside (weather permitting!).
- Day-time and night-time.
- Busy and quiet locations.
- With and without music.
- With various types of music (Baroque classical is often best for pure creative and concentration, but if your brand needs to be energetic or youth-focussed, then pop music might be better).
If you can afford it, hire a space where you and your team can sleep and eat together for a few days—often great ideas happen in conversations during “non-creative” times.
Expert Tip: remind everyone to take a notepad when they go to bed (and to the bathroom—just in case!) because new ideas often happen at unexpected times.
Have Fun and Get Random
Remind everyone that there’s no such thing as a “bad” idea at this point. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking. If you have a big team, you might even enjoy making a competition out of the whole process, with awards for things like “The Craziest Idea Award”.
Expert Tip: Consider banning wifi/internet access and even technology altogether. The research has been done and this is a time for pure creativity, not for referencing ideas or checking domain names, or anything else online — that will only distract and dilute the creative process. This is partly why a new, offline location can help.
Take Regular Breaks
It’s an intense process, so do it in sprints, with plenty of breaks to keep minds fresh.
Have Clear Goals
Make sure the whole team understand that this is not the time for “choosing” a name, but just for brainstorming—otherwise stronger members can start directing the conversation away from the goal of brainstorming as many great ideas as possible.
Other goals might include things like the number of names to achieve each session and the variety of name types (see below) to ensure all avenues are explored.
Explore as Many Name Types as Possible
Have a list of categories or name types to explore and set a time limit for each, so that you cover all bases… Otherwise you can sometimes spend too much time fixated on one type of name or exploring a limited range of ideas.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, here is Simplicable’s list of 19 types of business names: 
- Founder Name (e.g. Toyota)
- Functional (e.g. Dave’s Carpentry)
- Invented (e.g. Fanta)
- Culture/Historic (e.g. Nike)
- Fiction (e.g. Starbucks)
- Local Names
- Generic (e.g. Solar Panels)
- Acronyms (e.g. IBM)
- Out of context (e.g. Apple)
- Foreign Language (e.g. Volkswagen)
- Odd Names
And here are some additional name types to explore:
- Visual (e.g. Black Dog, MindValley, Blue Flute)
- Surprising juxtaposition (e.g. Cold Steam, Dry Rain, Blue Leaf)
- Desire/Benefit (e.g. Loans Approved, Lean Cuisine, Die Hard Batteries, Body Trim)
- Problem (e.g. Selley’s No More Gaps, Never Late Electrical, Streak-Free Windows, Fat Blaster)
- Wordmash/Pairs (e.g. MicroSoft, Wikipedia, FedEx, Groupon, BandAid, WalMart, WebJet)
- Misspelling (e.g. Fiverr, Xero, Digg, Fotolog, Klout, Pixlr, Lyft)
- Alliteration (e.g. Blockbuster, American Airlines, Fitness First)
- Common Idioms (e.g. Holy Cow)
- Rhyming (e.g. Lunch Bunch)
- Suffix (e.g. Tatly)
- Group (e.g. __ company, collective, society, group or crew)
- Place (e.g. __ lab, corner, district, point or spot)
- Personification (e.g. Mr, Mrs or Miss __ )
- Color (e.g. Crimson Studio)
- “My” if it’s a personal product/service (e.g. My __ )
- Adding product/service (e.g. Joco Cups)
- Playful made-up words and sounds (e.g. Yahoo)
Stay Away From Special Characters
Stay away from special characters (unless you’re creating a non-English name and can’t avoid it) as using them can make branding harder in the future.
Think long term
Generic and common names might be good for SEO and immediate comprehension of your product or service, but they’re terrible for branding. As mentioned, they’re hard to recall and emotionally meaningless, so you’ll have a hard time ever gaining customer love and loyalty with this type of naming convention.
Also, with the unknowable future in mind, try to keep the majority of your name ideas as flexible as possible.
Amazon is a perfect example of this. Whilst they started as an online bookstore, their transition to the monstrously broad retailer they are now would have been impossible had they included the word “Books” (or similar) in their name. It’s for this same reason that Apple Computers simply became Apple. And also the reason that if burgers ever go out of fashion, McDonalds will probably reinvent themselves to become a triumphant survivor, whilst the likes of Burger King will immediately and irrevocably fade into obscurity.
Step 6: Audit Ideas
It’s important to review all the criteria before rejecting a name because sometimes the thing you’re ignoring is the thing that will break the back of your brand.
Firstly, categorise them into groups
Ideally, the brainstorming should have already been done in categories, but otherwise, it’s useful to list the name ideas in a way that can assist with reducing the number down. When you put 10 of your 100 names in one category, you can more easily pick the best 1 or 2 from that list and strike off the rest. It’s far too overwhelming to try to compare the full 100+ ideas at once, and people will just end up going with their personal favourite, not because of more logical rationale.
Explore language connotations
Before any names are shortlisted, it’s important to run them through a translator like Google Translate (with a number of different spellings—just google the suggested name if you’re unsure and it may suggest the “correct” spelling), or—better still—have a small team of multi-lingual consultants on hand to ensure there aren’t any negative connotations in any other languages.
Consider cultural connotations
An easy example of this is the cloud-based team collaboration service called Slack. It’s popular in the USA, but slack means “lazy” in Antipodean countries like Australia so, as a result, the product isn’t widely used “down under”—despite having millions of potential prospects there for this type of SaaS product.
So it’s worth paying attention to the alternate meanings in the dictionary. Often a dictionary will give a primary meaning for your local country, and then also offer alternate meanings for other countries which speak the same language.
If you’re short on budget, you might try finding forums (or any other helpful online community) in a variety of countries and simply asking a few people from each forum/country. It gets tricky if they don’t speak your language of course, but it’s worth a shot.
You could also search your word (and variants) in global forums to discover how it might be used in the context of other cultures. To do this, enter the following format in a Google search…
site:[URL of forum] “[your word]”
Another option is Q&A type platforms like Quora — although you might get a few opinionated people early on who influence all future responses and skew the response.
Finally, it’s important to make sure you search for “urban” meanings. This is typically where you find out how today’s youth (the next generation of adults) might be using your word of choice. One great option here is www.urbandictionary.com — but be warned, you might be shocked at some of the alternate meanings of simple, everyday words.
As with all these suggestions, you never know what you might discover. You might feel that cultural connotations from other countries/regions aren’t crucial if you aren’t planning to expand beyond your local market, but there are far too many stories of small “local” brands that have blown up and gone international, for you to ignore this part of the process.
Listen! What does it sound like?
You may not realise, but this is a critical step.
Brands such as Hoegaarden, Nutella, Tag Heuer, IKEA, Hyundai, Porsche, Nike, Moschino, Hermes, Volkswagen, Adidas, Adobe, and many more are mispronounced all the time. For example, Hoegaarden is generally pronounced “Ho-garden” (interpreted as a garden of sex-workers) rather than the much less problematic correct pronunciation of “Who-garden” (which could, for example, be interpreted as the garden where the “who’s-who” hang out).
So say it out loud
Get people from outside your brainstorming group to come in and read all your shortlisted names (or perhaps all the names if you have time) — you might be surprised how a name can sound great if you know how to say it, but really not great if you happen to pronounce it differently. Think about accents, even if you’re not planning a multi-national brand, because many of us live in very multi-cultural cities.
Ask the team: “does this remind you of anything when you hear it out loud?” It also pays to ask people outside the team the same question (in fact, this is actually more important than asking your own team, because your team already has preconceived perceptions about the name, due to the focussed creative process itself).
Can they spell it correctly if they’ve only heard it? It’s a great loss if you start getting literal word-of-mouth promotion and yet those who simply hear the name can’t find it online due to an incorrect spelling. Also, because our subconscious generally works with images, it will most-likely hinder future recollection if it’s immediately unclear how to spell it.
Write it out. What does it look like?
When you have a shortlist, try writing out the names in ALL-CAPS, lowercase and Capitalised to get a feel for how it might look under various circumstances. Also, join the words together (in both all-caps and lowercase), because often this is how your name will be seen in your website address, email and possibly even your final logo design.
Note: this is not a design exercise, this is just to ensure there aren’t any issues with how the letters look, how readable it is, etc.
Finally, write it in the context of a sentence (e.g. take your elevator pitch and try it out with each name to see how it looks, sounds and feels). This is a little less important, but worthwhile nonetheless.
Is it memorable?
Forgettable brands are extremely expensive. You might still be able to build a successful brand with a forgettable name, but you’ll probably spend millions each year to stay front-of-mind, so it’s just not worth it in the short-term.
If you can, test your shortlist on a number of people outside the think-tank. Give them the list to read and say out loud (just once), then send them away for an hour to do something else before asking them to recite any of the names they can remember.
More unique names help with memorability. And memorability helps with searchability. If someone has to resort to searching for you based on generic category or product type (e.g. bookstore, cereal, etc), you’ll probably need to spend an enormous amount of money on AdWords and SEO to even come close to competing with the more established brands in those categories.
Step 7: Your Top 10 Ideas
When you have narrowed the shortlist down to 10 or less, this is where the serious stuff starts to happen. There’s nothing worse than deciding on a name, only then to find out you can’t use it. So don’t get too attached to any one name until after this step.
Look into the trademark rules where you live:
Domain Availability (Local & International)
Whilst, in some instances, it’s okay add short words to your business name (e.g. get_.com for an app), or use a domain other than the main TLD for your country (e.g. .com for international, .us for USA or .com.au for Australia), such as .co, .net, .io, etc… ideally, you’ll be much better off if you can secure the most relevant domains, so make sure you check through your shortlist.
Sometimes this helps you make a final decision.
Expert Tip: sometimes a domain registrar will say that a domain isn’t available, but when you visit that domain, you find that it’s actually for sale. This will mean that you will pay a LOT more for the domain, but it does mean you could still own it if you had the budget for that kind of purchase.
To search domain availability, try using the Domain Name Generator.
Social Media Availability
Use a service like NameChk or KnowEm to see if you can “own” the name on various social media platforms. Ultimately this isn’t the most important aspect, as it doesn’t really matter if your Facebook address has some extra words (e.g. if your business name is BlueCheese, and facebook.com/bluecheese is taken, then you might secure /bluecheeseUSA or /BlueCheeseOfficial, etc.
Mobile App Name Availability
Similar to social media URL availability, this isn’t the most crucial step, UNLESS having an app is a definite part of your business plan. However, it’s still worth exploring, just in case.
Of course, if you’ve already cleared a name via trademark searches, then it’s not such a big deal. It may be within your legal right to “push” a competing name out of the app store once you trademark the name yourself (after passing the initial trademark qualification period).
The simplest way to check is to use the search features on the dominant app stores like Apple, Android and Google Apps.
Think of Tagline Ideas
Does a name leave you dry for tagline ideas? If so, it’s probably not a great option. If you know your business yet you’re still struggling to make a connection with a name, imagine how much harder it will be for the general public to connect with it.
It may be worthwhile bringing in a creative wordsmith or professional copywriter to assist with this aspect, as they tend to have a little more imagination and may come up with interesting ways to present a business name that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Expert Tip: if you already have a tagline in mind, it’s still worth exploring new ideas. It’s really challenging at this end of the game, but try to keep an open mind. Your existing tagline might not fit well with a name under consideration, but that doesn’t make it a poor choice necessarily. Taglines will often change over time anyway, so don’t make it a road-block at this stage.
Compare any negatives/positives
Keeping track of the results of all the previous tests and checks means that you will have a data-based (unemotional) means to rule out certain options from the shortlist. Regardless of how much you like a certain option, it should be discarded if it fails too many of the tests and checks above. Some issues can be overcome in time, others—not so much!
It’s fine to put forward considerations based purely on preference of the stakeholders (e.g. owners/founders/business-partners) too, because ultimately it’s their brand and they need to believe in it.
Now, take your favourites to the next stage: Feedback
Remember a brand is built over time not just with a name. With sufficient time and/or budget you can give almost any name virtually any meaning you like (e.g. Apple, McDonalds, etc). So try to remain as neutral as possible during this feedback stage. It’s unlikely your name will be perfect by everyone’s standards, and yet even the most unlikely people can grow to love brands with the right messaging. So don’t let your opinions be swayed too heavily by what each individual thinks or says at this point — just take careful note of what they’re saying.
Get feedback from:
- Family and Friends.
- The general public.
Discuss what you like and dislike about the name and discuss potential challenges the name presents.
Expert Tip: avoid getting feedback in groups. Whilst this seems much more time-efficient, it typically ends in the loudest/strongest (or most respected) voice in the room steering the conversation toward their personal preference.
Step 8: The Final Decision
Sometimes it will be incredibly clear (if you’re lucky!). Sometimes there will only be one possible choice, even if it’s not your personal favourite. Hopefully, having followed these instructions and considered all the data collected, it should indeed be relatively clear. But no one can really tell you which name to choose in the end. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut.
It takes time and effort to choose the perfect business name, but a well-considered naming strategy like this is an investment that pays in pure gold so what are you waiting for?
-  https://www.fuzebranding.com/complete-guide-company-naming/
-  https://www.scoopwhoop.com/world/famous-brands-names/
-  https://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2011/11/how-did-apple-computer-get-its-brand-name.html
-  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/apple-most-valuable-brand-iphone-7-google-cocacola-a7345501.html
-  https://simplicable.com/new/business-name
Image Credits: Pexels.com