What's in a name?

What's in a name?

Firstly let me say, the image above was about the least offensive one I could find when I did a web search for 'bad business names'. That should tell you something straight off the bat. But this blog isn't about bad names per se, it's about the process of naming a business, and what's important, and what's not.

Like most things in life, a lot of what you should do in marketing makes a lot more sense when it's articulated to you by a professional. If you're left to your own devices, and you're not a marketing professional, there's a better than average chance that you're going to land head-first. I don't endeavour to do my own surgery. Representing myself at trial would, I don't doubt, be an unmitigated disaster (even if Matt Damon makes it look pretty easy in Good Will Hunting). And if I had no training in marketing (or was really unlucky and piled on top of that with no talent for marketing as well) then anything I touch will likely go sideways. 

How far sideways things get depends on a lot of factors, and this is where people can get conned. Maybe they cost themselves opportunities that they can never measure. Maybe they only seek opinions from friends and family, and said friends and family don't do well disclosing hard truths (and maybe they're not marketers either). Whatever the reason, there's a spectrum here people and how badly you get burnt depends - you might find yourself at the medicine cabinet or the emergency room (or the marketing morgue if you're really unlucky).

So what matters when choosing a name. Marketing/branding 101 will tell you a stack of stuff and most likely paralyse you with information. That doesn't mean the information is wrong, it's just that experience enables you to discern circumstance and need, and build something that's perfect for the situation. That doesn't mean a bad brand if you're a small company with a small budget. It just means that every situation is different and a good branding expert will be able to tell you what is essential, what is attractive, and what is most likely going to be irrelevant (or perhaps, least likely to make a positive impact to your business).

So let's look at small business, as these are the clients that get themselves into the most trouble (although believe me, I'll happily sit with you over a couple of scotches and laugh about some major organisations that have spent major money to get most definitely minor brands). So let's assume you have a small business, or are starting one, and need a good business name. What are the boxes you need to tick to end up with something that will form a solid foundation for your new endeavour?

1. Unique. The first rule or marketing is differentiate. So don't look at the opposition and copy them. Don't look at a large brand and copy them. If you're seen it or heard it before, it's plutonium - steer clear (yes, I could spend pages and pages talking about the difficulty of actually finding something unique - I know it's tough, but it's also imperative).
2. Simple. Don't give yourself a name with 5 words. People remember simple names, they don't remember complex ones. So be brief. Brevity is bravery people, but it's also the only option is a massively overcrowded digital world.
3. No acronyms. Yes, I know some big businesses use acronyms (IBM, NAB) but they started out with really rubbish, long names and then shortened them after they were already successful. So effectively they chose the lesser of two evils and the acronym was deemed better than the ridiculously long mouthful (or in KFC's case, better than a name that constantly reminded increasingly health-conscious people that your food was fried).
4. Matching style. Make sure the name represents the type of business you want to be. It's important that if you're a warm and fuzzy business, that you have a warm and fuzzy name. If you're a high-tech business, that you have a high-tech name (and if you're a food business, you don't include the name of an STD in your title - see above). Your name should 'sound' right for the type of business you want to build.
5. Not educational. It's not the job of the name to tell people everything you do and everything you represent. Trying to do this only succeeds in destroying any chance you had of coming up with a good name (Unique? Simple?). The tagline that goes under your brand tells people what you stand for, the name just has to tell them who you are. You wouldn't name your child "Melbourne-located third son who will hopefully become a doctor" so don't do the same thing to your business. All it will do is make prospects ignore you. Your website, advertising and a range of other marketing collateral will explain your offering to prospects - that's not the job of your name.
6. Strange. Don't be afraid if when you tell people your name they tilt their head and ask "Why would you call it that?" This is actually the response you want. Mediocre names are always met with "That sounds nice". You want people to be curious. Nobody knew how to pronounce Nike when they launched, and most thought 'Just do it' sounded daft. What non-marketing people don't realise is that the name/brand is just a vehicle into which you pour meaning via marketing. Once people were educated about Nike, the short, simple name, icon and empowering brand tagline became one of the most successful in history. Yes, they could throw a lot of money at the problem, I get that, and if you're a local dentist I get that there's a lot of pressure to call yourself 'Town X Dentist'. But that name isn't scary, and if you make a marketing decision and it's not a little bit scary, that's a pretty good acid test that you're stuck in the middle of the road. And for those who don't know, the middle of the road is where you get run over.

There's a bazillion other points we could cover here, but the above are the most commonly misunderstood or ignored (in my experience). Anyone starting a business, or rebranding an existing one, could do worse than giving themselves a checklist containing the above as a starting point. Or, if you really want to avoid a head-plant, do two other things: 1 - go find yourself a branding company/expert to help you, and 2 - find yourself another branding expert to help decide whether the person you chose knows what they're doing. I know this seems like overkill, but hanging a shingle and saying you're a branding expert doesn't make you one, any more than wearing basketball boots makes me Michael Jordan. If you're buying a product that you don't understand, having a friend who can act as a sounding board and tell you when the train is going off the rails is an incredibly important asset. And if they're a friend, maybe they'll do it in return for beer (in my case it's scotch, but you get the picture). 

I'm deadly serious about this last point. I can say without equivocation that I've made this offer (to be a sounding board) to so many people over the years and I'm struggling to think of one person who took me up on the offer. I get that people feel awkward asking for something for nothing. I also get that perhaps the fact that they've chosen someone else to design their brand makes them too embarrassed to ask me for help. My advice? Get over it. This is way too important a decision to make blindly, and I can tell you that I drove past two marketing companies today whose own logos instantly confirmed to me that they don't understand branding, despite branding being one of the key services they advertised on hoardings, flags etc. There's good doctors and bad. There's good lawyers and bad. And there's good branders and bad. If you're not a branding expert yourself - ask for help. It's a decision that could bear fruit for decades.


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