Nine Ways To Better Naming

Need to name your business? Want your name to have zing? It’s not as easy as it looks — the naming process can be full of hidden challenges and pitfalls! To guide you, Harbus offers the following nine tips to better corporate naming.

1. Do not hire “naming consultants.” Look, if you want to reallocate wealth to English majors, that is your choice, but leave your shareholders out of it. Here is what you will accomplish by hiring a naming consultant: You will spend $100,000, talk a lot about plosive consonants, and end up with a crappy name like Altria or Agillion. Advice: Get out a scratch pad and think up your own name. Pocket the $100,000.

2. Do not succumb to peer pressure. Let’s say you want to name a new bank. Your first instinct will be to think up something solid-sounding but meaningless, such as First United Commerce Bank, or U.S. National American Bank of America. This is a great strategy if you want to seem like a soulless jerk.

A better name would be “Big Billy.” This says, “My bank is large and solid but also friendly. I am not a ‘William’ kind of bank.” Better, yes? Or, if you want a less dramatic break from tradition, you could try something like “Ramblin’ Commerce Bank” or “Cud One.”

3. If you are the founder, and you have a dumb name, do not name the business after yourself. Michael Dell, you had no business naming your company “Dell” or “Michael.” Maybe you should have considered co-founding Dell with someone named Iglesias or Zmed. Then maybe you could sell some computers instead of boring people into a coma.

But a worse sin than being boring is choosing a name that actually detracts value from your brand. Example: Baskin-Robbins. “Mommy, mommy, the accountants opened a new ice cream store! Can we go, can we?” Or Entenmann’s. People named Entenmann do not make a moist coffee cake. They serve subpoenas.

4. Name your business after something that has nothing to do with your business. My favorite names include “Domino’s Pizza,” “Piggly Wiggly,” and “Yahoo!”. Regional examples: Flyrabbit and Gray’s Papaya. All these businesses have pride in themselves. Piggly Wiggly did not think to itself, “Gee whiz, we sell food, and people are retards, so we better call ourselves ‘FoodMart.'” No, these businesses are so confident in their value proposition that they use their brand just to have a bit of fun. This is admirable.

My favorite example of this phenomenon is “Coach.” Imagine if I brought a product line full of $400 purses to a bunch of naming consultants. Then, I suggested the name “Coach.” They would spontaneously combust.

Through the flames, they would say, “COACH?! It brings up associations
with leering middle-aged men with skin-tight Bike shorts and whistles! It reeks of cheap airline seats! I am on fire!” Nevertheless, Coach is named Coach. And I am thankful for that.

5. Do not mess with spelling, punctuation, or grammar. English language, baby: Love it or leave it. Krispy Kreme, can we talk? You know I’m your most loyal fan. But Lord knows you do not make it easy on a guy. Your disregard for proper spelling is contemptible and contagious. I blame you for “Ludacris.” Tangentially, someone in your organization must have noticed, at some point, that your product is neither crispy nor creamy. It is gooey and sugary. Why not call yourselves “Tasty Fatty”?

And you, Chili’s. You can’t hide. You can fry a tasty meal but you cannot speak proper English. “Chili” is a defensible name, as is “Chilis” or “Chilies.” Even “Chile’s” is fine, if you want to denote ownership by the nation of Chile. But “Chili’s” is unacceptable. Go ahead, weasels, produce a guy named “Chili” who started the restaurant. You can’t, because there is no guy named Chili. Go back to 3rd grade. You have lost your apostrophe privileges.

6. Do not name your business Wal-Mart. If you could seize a hopeless and defeated human soul and stamp it underfoot, and if you could use a paper towel to wipe off the dirty soul goo from the bottom of your shoe, and if you could then grind up the paper towel and smoke the remnants in a cold gray pipe, soon after you would come up with the name “Wal-Mart.”

The hyphen! The horror! Let us change the subject before we grow

7. Be careful with foreign influences. If you want to jazz up a name with
some international flavor, be wise. Japanese names are cool and fun to say: “Mitsubishi,” “Kawasaki,” “Toyota,” and so forth. Whereas Bosnian words are not so mellifluous: “Brnjic,” “Grdovo,” etc. And yet, in defense of Bosnia, even its most vowel-hungry phrase would have been a better choice than “Au Bon Pain.”

8. Pick the name before the business. In the movie business, directors were sometimes asked to take a movie poster and turn it into a movie. Similarly, a striking name can actually generate a suitable business. Here are some names that I think you can take in any number of directions: “Plop,” “Li’l Travesty,” “Makin’ Stubbies,” and “Munchausen’s Place.”

9. Use other parts of speech. So many business names are nouns. This has grown tiresome. Let’s mix in some adverbs (e.g., “Contemptuously,” the local coffee shop) or conjunctions (“But,” the therapy clinic).

We owe thanks to one creative company, “Dunkin’ Donuts,” for opening the door to a gerund phrase. Others should follow suit: How about a waxing salon called “Rippin’ Privates” or an Indian buffet called “Loosenin’ Stool”? The possibilities are encouraging.

Conclusion: To sum up, naming can be a very challenging and trying process, but it can be satisfying and fun if you keep a cool head, use a little dollop of creativity, and don’t name your company “Wal-Mart.”

March 15, 2004
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