Eric Karjaluoto

The Perils of Naming Your Company

Not long ago, the people at 53 were upset with Facebook, for having named their new product Paper. You’ll likely appreciate their frustration. The people at 53 had built a nice drawing application for the iPad, and the behemoth’s use of the same word presented a risk of confusion for the smaller entity. Nevertheless, the problem was one of 53’s devisal, and hardly something they should blame on the social media giant.

We’ve done our share of naming at smashLAB, and I consider these projects among my least favorite. The reason for my aversion to naming is in how difficult objectivity is to maintain during such processes. Naming an entity tends to become emotional, and draws out many opinions. These biases make comparison and analysis difficult. Names that seem good at first might feel so because they are familiar; whereas, less known ones almost always seem somehow wrong—and are therefore passed over, even when they could prove viable.

Most names live on a spectrum of sorts. At one end are those based on existing words, at the other are ones with little inherent meaning, and in the middle you find mash-ups that play on existing words. Every part of this spectrum contains types of names that present their own benefits and challenges. What you need to determine in naming your organization, is which trade-offs you’re willing to make—and live with for the lifespan of your company.

Most people tasked with naming an entity tend to gravitate toward choosing names that are based on existing words. I think they do so as these names seem easier to say without feeling silly. Everyone already knows how to pronounce words like Shell, Caterpillar, Amazon, Oracle, and Gap—allowing these names to be immediately agreeable. Additionally, these words have existing associations, which makes them seem more evocative and powerful. As such, proposing a name like Spectacle for an events company would likely go over well with those involved. Unfortunately, such a name would also have limitations.

Using a word for an organization’s name is risky, as such monikers are often in use by other entities. This competition makes domain names difficult to acquire, and opens up the possibility of the company being confused with another. A quick fix to such a challenge is to append some kind of descriptor to the name (i.e. Spectacle becomes Spectacle Events); however, this add-on can limit the brand from expansion, should the company move into other areas. This approach can also anchor the name in the past, as descriptors tend to change with time. Ten years ago, there were lots of web design companies that used “Interactive” to describe their work, but this term has become quite antiquated seeming since then.

Worst yet, choosing a word for your name puts you in the dubious spot of being vulnerable to a larger group effectively taking your name from you—as might happen to 53 and their app. Given Facebook’s history of launching and rapidly shuttering experiments, their Paper might go away as quickly as it came; however, if they do gain traction with this app, they’ll own the name Paper, due to their size. This would leave 53 staff explaining to others, ad infinitum, “no, not that Paper.”

The somewhat more defensible approach of merging two common words tends to be popular amongst startups. This choice probably isn’t deliberate, but rather, a reaction to how few domain names are available. These names are somewhat invented, but use existing words, therefore leveraging existing associations, and (sometimes) making spelling easier. You can likely think of many groups using such names; the ones come to mind for me include Dropbox, Snapchat, and Coinbase. The nice part with these sorts of names is that users almost instantly “get” what these companies do. However, this literal approach can also prove a limitation, as these names get rooted in their existing meanings, and therefore are harder to build new associations around. (For example, should Dropbox start a content division, the company may need to create a more appropriately named sub-brand.)

We see many portmanteaus in use amongst iconic brands, as these names are more suited to building a unique set of associations around. A portmanteau combines two or more words into a single name—and typically removes some of each word to simplify the name. You’ve seen portmanteaus in use in names like Groupon (Group + Coupon), Rolodex (Rolling + Index), and Pinterest (Pin + Interest). These names all become unique creations, and therefore are more flexible and defensible. Similarly, securing a domain name and social media handles, is often easier with such names. That said, these sorts of names often die early in the process, as they just “seem weird.”

Another approach similar to the use of portmanteaus is strategic misspelling, as we see in names like Netflix, Codecademy, and Dribbble. Such misspellings can be difficult because they need continued explanation, until they’ve become household names. You know how to spell Netflix, because you’ve seen the name hundreds of times. That said, even I thought Codecademy was spelled Codeacademy until I double-checked. The takeaway: if you choose to use strategic misspelling in your company’s name, you’d best be confident you’ll eventually become as commonplace as Febreze.

Look at the world’s most recognized brands, and you find many variations on invented names. There’s Sephora (the Greek word for beauty, “sephos,” and the name Zipporah), Intel (a portmanteau of Integrated Electronics), Pepsi (inspired by the pepsin nuts in the recipe), Kleenex (the word clean, plus characteristics of the name Kotex) and so on. These names are amongst the most defensible, due to how unique they are. That said, at the outset, they were likely not met with great approval, given how few instant associations we have with them. Invented names like these start out as empty vessels—this lack of immediate association might seem frightening, but the advantage is that you can fill them with whatever you’d like.

This same “empty vessel” argument can be made for brands that utilize family names and acronyms (although acronym-based names are less defensible). The names Disney, McDonalds, Kellogg’s, Colgate, and Louis Vuitton were at one point just as unremarkable as Smith, Brown, Lee, Wilson, or Martin. The name didn’t make the brand; the brand made the name. Again, acronym based names like LG, H&M, and BMW also benefit from a kind of clean slate, which anything can be built upon. (So long as the “shape” of the letters/elements are suitable, but I’ll talk about that in a future post.) For those aimed at building a long-standing organization, an empty vessel might be all that’s needed. So, a fashion label would be well suited to such an approach; whereas, a tech company looking to grow quickly and get acquired probably isn’t.

Most looking to name a company are in search of the “perfect” name, but I’ve found such magical finds are rarely ever made. Instead, you need to figure out what you need your name to do, and then step back enough to think about the big picture, and ultimately settle for something that works. As time passes, and familiarity grows, your choice will likely become increasingly normal seeming.

Naming is a serious—and sometimes dangerous—task that’s often undertaken overly casually. First-timers tend to pay little attention to the potential obstacles presented by the names they chose. Most reason that a name change can easily be made in the future, should such a rethink prove necessary. To the contrary, the moment a name is put in use, the organization starts to pay into this one moniker. Should the name be discarded, they’re forced to abandon that investment. (This says little of the price of redesigning collateral, erecting new signage, and all the other costs associated with renaming an entity.)

Although this post certainly doesn’t cover all there is to naming an organization (I don’t know how one article possibly could), it should help illustrate how a spectrum of name types exists. I also hope that you have a better sense for the pros and cons that each grouping comes with. In a future post, I’ll discuss how to establish a criteria when naming an entity, and how doing so can introduce some much needed objectivity into an otherwise nebulous—and sometimes maddening—process.

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