No One Cares What You Name Your Business: Thoughts on Branding & Prom Kings

Austin L. Church
October 15, 2015
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In April 2015, I sold my portfolio of iOS and Android apps and a bunch of related assets, including the Bright Newt brand.Bright Newt was the name I chose after I got laid off from my first marketing job back in 2009, and for the first time in six years, I needed to pick a new name for the consulting side of my business.Maybe you can relate. Whether you’re fresh out of college, going freelance for the first time, or hoping to generate extra income with moonlighting, you spend time worrying about what to name your business. Will the name you choose make a strong or weak first impression on customers?It's easy to overthink naming a business. You're supposed to follow a rigorous process, right? While working as a copywriter and account executive, I had been tasked with committing the agency's branding process to paper. That this project fell to me was ironic because I had no prior experience with branding. For me to map out a totally unfamiliar process was rather like asking a painter to create a blueprint for a pool house while blindfolded.Perhaps my old boss had already seen something in me that I hadn’t yet seen in myself. Or perhaps he needed a subtle way to say, “Go educate yourself so that you can be of more use while on my payroll.”Regardless, I read a few books and a slew of blog posts and created a Frankenstein in InDesign. Whether I knew it yet or not, I was pouring the concrete of my own understanding of branding, a foundation that would later lend strength and stability to my work as a freelancer and consultant.

Why Branding Is Important for Your Business

One particular insight stuck with me: A brand is a promise.The name of your business, product, or service is not your brand. A strong brand represents more than a sign on a building or designation on a door.Many elements, tangible and intangible, comprise a brand: mark, typeface, logo treatments, color palette, style guide, corporate fonts, business name, product and service names, mission, vision, values, customer service, pricing, guarantees, return policy, messaging, positioning, marketing collateral, personality, voice, and the list goes on.To help my clients wrap their heads around the difference between a name and brand, I ask these two questions:

  1. “Would you want to invite your brand over for dinner?”
  2. “Would anyone want to get a tattoo of your logo?”

People get Apple and Harley-Davidson tattoos. Why? Because over the years those names have grown into brands, and those brands have come to represent a lifestyle—that is, a kaleidoscope of attitudes, values, and beliefs that people identify with, both in mind and heart. Customers then use those brands to send social signals: “Hey, I ally myself with this MacBook Air manufactured by Apple. It proves that I think differently. It is part of my identity.”(Don’t think the irony is lost on me: Buying and using Apple products proves that I think different, like everyone else who has bought products from the most valuable company in the world.)

name your business

Photo Credit; Garry Knight Via Flickr

How to Name Your Business

Therein lies the power of branding: consumer electronics become more than glass, metal, and plastic. Motorcycles become more than a shortcut to head trauma. They mean the open road, shirking convention, freedom.If Apple were called Banana instead, would it matter? No. Because the sum of the brand is greater than any part, including a name. The whole is what compels people to ink one of the parts, whether name or mark, on their skin.Word-of-skin is the most valuable form of advertising.We see an Apple tattoo, and we all understand the power of names-that-become-brands at a conscious or subconscious level. That’s why, when it comes time to name our businesses, we dawdle like kids headed into the dentist's office. I’m not ready! Don’t make me!Back in April, I picked a new name for my consultancy in five minutes: Wunderbar. was available. I registered the domain, got a new Chase Ink Plus card, and that was that.Snap judgments in this domain may be easier for me because naming and branding is something I do all the time. But that same expertise is also what has taught me that the name of a business lacks the significance we give it.We’re like a high school boy fretting over a pimple the afternoon of prom. The only difference is, when we show up at the gym, no one else is there. No one is waiting in the bleachers for the grand entrance of the Prom King.Seriously, no one cares what you name your business. And by the time they do care about the brand, the name will have ceased to matter. You will either already be out of business, or you will have reached the point that the brand, which is the second concentric circle that totally surrounds the name and includes the stuff mentioned above, conveys sufficient value to keep customers coming back.The quality of your work or products, or the attentiveness of your customer care reps, or your pricing, or the attractive cuts and styles of your clothing designs, they are the Velcro that keep people affixed. Your name became an afterthought back at mile nine.

5 Tips for Naming a Business

Here’s my first piece of advice: Don’t dawdle. Set a hard deadline, make a decision about your business or product name, and move on.As for the block-and-tackle work of picking a name, follow or ignore the trends. Your choice. Five come to mind:

  1. Pharmaceuticalese – Vaguely Latinate names that suggest something but mean nothing, replete with vowels; for example, Viagra, Cialis, Marena.
  2. Misspellathon!!! – Drop some vowels, duplicate or substitute consonants, take a common English word and pinch it, multiple exclamation points and other grammar-related atrocities optional; for example, Kik, Tumblr, Dribbble.
  3. WordSmash – Take two words that were hitherto strangers minding their own business, retain their capital letters, and sandwich them; for example, MailChimp, WordPress, YouTube.
  4. Mad Libs Mashup – Freelancers, creative services shops, and bands love them some Memorable Adjective + Bold Noun names. In fact, my old name went this route; for example, Bright Newt, Red Arrow Industries, The Last Bison.
  5. Yard Sale Finds – Tech startups are particularly fond of identifying some cultural artifact and infusing it with new meaning; for example, Intercom, Sonar, Paddle.

Sidenote: Wouldn’t it be fun to scramble the naming conventions? For example, how about using Yard Sale Finds for a new erectile dysfunction treatment? I was thinking “Lightswitch.” Yes? No? Okay, no.Worrying overly much about your new business name leads to paralysis. Pick a name. Move on. Walmart, J.P. Morgan, and General Electric clearly didn’t sweat the whole name thing. Use your whole name, or part of your name, or some descriptor from your industry. Bingo! Name.Before I close with what I believe matters most, I’d like to share a short list of other observations that might help you.

Lessons Learned about Naming & Branding

  • If you don’t name your thing, someone else will. And you may or may not like what they come up with. For example, my friends in Knoxville put off naming a faith-based event they were organizing because they didn’t want the name to be off-putting. Unfortunately, they outsmarted themselves. By trying not to alienate anyone, they confused everyone. A radio DJ, who interviewed one of my friends about the event, came to the rescue: “Well, for the sake of my listeners, I’m calling this thing ‘The Gathering.’” The name stuck. Names tend to do that.
  • If you don’t preemptively shorten your name, your customers will. My uber-talented friends at Spartan Systems recently dropped the “Systems.” Why? Out of convenience, people used Spartan anyway. One word takes less time to say and is easier to remember. I decided to drop the “Works” from “Wunderbar Works” for the same reason.
  • You can go the descriptive or the evocative direction. My friend Paul started with descriptive: Paul Hassell Photography. But a decade later, he chose a more evocative name: Light Finds.
  • The best names tell a story. That’s the edge evocative names have on descriptive ones. It’s pretty clear what Paul Hassell Photography is and does. But the name “Light Finds” gives Paul a conversation starter. Pretty soon, once they have decided they like him, new acquaintances are thinking of friends and family who need his services, even if they themselves aren’t in the market for a professional photography. Telling a story about your business name provides a tasteful sales opportunity.
  • Don’t put lipstick on a pig. A pretty name may disguise a mediocre product. But people will find out the ugly truth eventually. Spend your time creating a better product, not picking a better name.
  • A formal naming process—typically sold by consultants like me!—can get in the way. The longer it takes someone to help you pick a name, the further afield you get. And the more ground you cover, the greater the likelihood that you’re focusing on all the wrong things. For example, are you hoping the new name will make you sound important or look clever? Focus instead on making your customer the hero of the story.
  • Focus on who you want your customer to become. Basing the name of your business, product, or service on the primary benefit it delivers is an excellent way to both pick a strong name and hammer out some high-level branding and positioning statements. Emphasize benefits, not features.
  • Break the rules. The fundamental purpose of branding is standing out. If you’re about to follow the naming convention that everyone else in your industry uses, then you’re wallpaper. Be many things, but don’t be predictable. A predictable name is accidental camouflage.
  • Subject your name to the "List Test." If a potential client needed to hire someone like you and were to see a list of businesses on a page, which name would stick out? You want the name that rises off the page because it is fresh and memorable. I learned this lesson the hard way. Bright Newt blended in with all of the other creative shops and consultancies on the list with Mad Libs Mashup names. Stick out instead.
  • Don’t use words that are difficult to pronounce. You don’t want people stumbling over your business name. Find a better way to start conversations than by correcting people’s pronunciation. But if you think breaking this rule and using a memorable word from a foreign or dead language works, then go for it. That’s the route I took this time. The “W” in “Wunderbar” is pronounced as a “V” in German: Voon-der-bahr. I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, in college, and German was my minor. I love the language, and I like that “wunderbar” means “wonderful.” That’s what I want the experience of working with me to be. So with one word, I gain a short story to tell, the desired outcome for clients, and because of the way the word sounds, a hint of playfulness that is in sync with my sense of humor and personality.

And that is my final point: what matters the most is how much you like the name. Will you be proud of it? Will it be a vehicle that carries your passion and enthusiasm?Remember that the handshake matters more than the suit. The personal touch matters more than the name.Pick a name and move on because no one really cares anyway.+++By the way, if you found value in this blog post, please sign up for my weekly newsletter. I'll send you more as I publish them.