The business name you choose must be trademark-able and have an available domain name. Without these two important points, how clever and memorable the name might be matters very little!
Step 1: Select Smart Name Possibilities
Start by using the products you’ll sell, or the service you’ll perform, to create a central theme for brainstorming. As Entrepreneur Magazine says “The more your name communicates to consumers about your business, the less effort you must exert to explain it.” Write down as many names you can think of that convey a relationship with your central theme. Think of derivative names or synonyms for each of the possibilities on your original list. Size the list down to your top five strongest names and order them, starting with the very best first.
Good business names clearly explain what you’re selling. Be careful not to think too small. Smart business owners consider the future growth and expansion of the business. Here are two examples showing why it pays to plan ahead:
You’ve probably heard of the US auto insurance company, GEICO. (You may recall a lovable Gecko who surfaced as their “spokesperson” in 2000 and an annoyed Caveman appearing in 2004.) GEICO is an acronym for the “Government Employees Insurance Company.” When the company was founded in 1936, it targeted federal and military employees. Jump to today, where GEICO is one of the largest and well known auto, home, business and commercial insurer in the country. Today, it’s reach has expanded to every type of consumer, which is well beyond it’s original target and original name. The lesson of the story is spend some time now so you end up with a name that still applies as your business grows and changes.
Zappos is an online store known for footwear and their unparalleled return policy and customer service. When they first launched in 1999, they were called “ShoeSite.com.” They changed their name within a few months, as to not be tied to footwear forever. I wonder how much that re-branding exercise cost them? Might it have been faster (and cheaper) to have launched with the name they are known by today? No doubt there is old shoesite.com company swag and letterhead in a landfill somewhere. (Interestingly, Zappos is derived from “zapatos”, the Spanish word for “shoes.”)
That brings me to my next point: consider your audience. While you’ll want a name that resonates with your target customers be very sure that it doesn’t inadvertently offend large groups of people! You’ll want to check for possible double entendres, misreadings, unintended translations, and acronyms that could mean other things. You don’t want a photo of your company name or product name posted on some humor website under the heading “unfortunate company names.” Also, beware of puns and idioms that don’t translate well to international and diverse audiences.
Make sure your name is easy to remember, pronounce, and explain. If you’re spending time explaining what your company name means, you are wasting valuable time that could be used to talk about your product or service and convert a sale! Unless you have an unlimited advertising budget, stay away from names with words that don’t already exist. One example that comes to mind is Zoosk. Zoosk is an online dating service that integrates with social networks. In 2011 they were given the number 29 spot in The Wall Street Journal’s “The Next Big Thing” list. I have no doubt that they will be huge, but I fear that they will have to spend a lot of money to get the name recognition and market saturation they’ll need. Why didn’t they just name their service something that clearly states what service they provide?
Resist the temptation to name your business after yourself. Unless you have a very famous name (that won’t violate an existing trademark – see below) or are already famous, using your name is likely to make your business appear very small, both in size and therefore capability. (Again, you need to think bigger and plan for the future,) Using your personal name will also make it hard for you to sell the business or disassociate yourself from the business in the future.
Finally, stay away from names that are already in use, contain part of a name already in use, or is “confusingly similar” to other existing company names or trademarks. The photo shown here is from my personal collection. Do you recognize the brand being infringed upon? Here’s a hint. I was on safari in Africa when I stumbled upon this gem.
In addition to avoiding existing and similar trademarks, you should determine if your proposed name would fall into any non-trademarkable categories. Names that are too generic, general, deceptive, scandalous, or immoral generally cannot be trademarked.
Step 2: Trademark Search
While you could certainly hire a Lawyer to help with the trademark search (and filing) process, you can also do it yourself. Here’s how:
- Search the US Patent and Trademark Office database. (Also known as the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS).)
- Do an sample search of a brand you know well. For example, do a “Basic Word Mark Search” for the internationally known soft drink, Coca-Cola. The trademark database search results will contain records for names, words, slogans, images, logos, designs, symbols, numbers, sounds, and colors affiliated with the brand. Do another search, but this time, under the “Search Term” text box, change the “Field” dropdown value to “Serial or Registration Number” and search for the number 0022406. This will show you the trademark record for the stylized logo registered in 1893. Coke has even trademarked the shape of their bottle shape. See mark 73088384.
- Search the State Trademark Databases
- Use the USPTO State Trademark Information link list.
- Search the Internet
- Launch your favorite search engine and see what existing or similar results come up.
The initial point of all this searching is to specifically avoid choosing a name too similar to an existing name. Whether you then choose to register your own trademark is a separate activity that we’ll tackle in a future article.
Step 3: Domain Search
As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, an available or complementary domain name is an absolutely essential part of the naming process. If there’s no feasible domain name available (or no way to obtain one) you might as well choose a different company name. (Yes, is really is that important to your brand!)
All domain name registration information is stored in an easily searchable WHOIS (pronounced “who is”) database. There are hundreds of websites that can search the database. My favorite is: www.whois.sc.
As an example, search for coke.com. The WHOIS results will show you who the domain is registered to, when it was first registered, when the domain expires (must be renewed), and other standard domain name registration information.
If there is no WHOIS record for a particular domain name, it means it is not yet registered and is available for purchase. Jump on over to our article about Selecting Effective Domain Names. (This is another area that deserves proper thought and thorough research.)
Put “Name the Thing” to Use:
Looking back, I now realize that the name I chose for my first business was potentially too complicated. The name was highly original, trademarkable, and had an available .com domain name. While it’s meaning was deeply personal to me however, it had the potential to be confusing to customers.
The purpose of the business was to provide high end web development services. The name, logo, slogan, sales copy, and the brand centered around an architecture theme. The analogy and relationship was: the foundation of your website must be as strong and stable as the foundation of your house. I drew upon this analogy often and found it helpful when speaking to clients about the right way and the wrong way to build their online presence.
Since all new business came from referrals, I didn’t much worry about customers being confused with what we offered. (They generally came to us pre-sold; we just needed to discuss semantics and close the deal.) Every now and then however I’d get a call from a business looking for architectural drafting services, not web development services. This tells me that the business listing alone (without the referral) confused some people. The company name wasn’t an exact description of the service we provided either. I was lucky. We had a referral funnel constantly feeding new business. Had I needed to rely on search engines and more passive forms of marketing however, I probably would have been in trouble.
Having learned from that experience, I’m going to keep it painfully simple this time. No analogies, no clever comparisons, just an easy name that says exactly what is provided. While I expect a small amount of referral generated customers, the new business I’m building will likely rely heavily on search engine traffic. The name has to work and make sense for that purpose and audience.
I went back to the “what” in the “Put it to Use” section of the last article. If I had to chose one word that represents what I’ll sell, that word is “templates.” Next, I considered who I’d be developing the templates for. As you may remember, initially, I will start with the web development industry and expand into other complementary vertical markets. Since the potential audience is diverse, I need to stay away from a limiting term. The most generic and descriptive “who” word I can think of is “industry.” I put the two words together and ended up with a company name of “Industry Templates.” Yes, I am aware that this name is in no way sexy or creative! (I’m not initially planning to actually market this name – see below.) The one thing it does however, is accurately describe what is sold and who it’s sold to.
I then did the needed trademark searches, domain name research, and ultimately purchased the address industry-templates.com. A highly generic name like this might not be trademarkable, but it affords me the ability to do more specific targeting as I build. For example, I could file a fictitious company name (known as a “DBA” – “doing business as”) and purchase an additional domain name for each vertical market I tackle. I can use these for specific marketing purposes, while keeping the company as a whole under the more generic umbrella.
- Make a list of potential company names that represent the products you’ll sell or the service you’ll perform.
- Exposing nothing about your business plans, ask others what products or services come to mind when they hear each proposed company name. It’s best to do this type of preliminary market research with people who don’t know you well. Use the responses to gauge how easily the names depict your business plans.
- Do the needed trademark and domain searches on the strongest of your potential names. Review our Selecting Effective Domain Names article before making a domain purchase.