What’s in a name? Well, for a business owner, a lot actually. Naming your company can be as emotional as naming your firstborn, experts say.
The name of your business can let potential customers know what you do, how you do it and what you stand for. Many an entrepreneur have spent sleepless nights grappling with the right combination of consonants, vowels and IP address. To rhyme or not to rhyme? Alliteration or straightforward statement? Catchy phrase or reliable surname?
Name of the Game
“The first step for any business owner deciding what to call a company is to take a good long look in the mirror to determine what you are as a company and what you truly believe in,” says Troy Thomas, executive creative director for Farmington-based agency ThomasArts. The best brands are evocative and representative of the true characteristics of a company. Ultimately, honesty and self awareness on the front end will save considerable time and money in the long run, says Thomas.
While there may not be just one right answer, the right name should always fit the personality of a business. If the company is a bit playful, a catchy name with a fun slogan may be in order. If it’s a narrowly focused company that is a bit more serious, a descriptive name might be a better fit. For Draper-based 1-800 Contacts, the direct approach worked best.
Founder Jonathan Coon originally called the company Eye Supply, launching it as part of BYU’s Business Plan Competition in 1992. He won the competition and was soon using his coll-ege apartment as a stockroom for popular brands of contact lenses and organizing a home-grown call center, says Allen Hwang, CMO of 1-800 Contacts.
Convinced sales would skyrocket if he acquired the name and phone number 1-800 CONTACTS, Coon went on an exhaustive search for the current owner of the name, even hiring a private detective. He bought it for $163,500—the owner’s asking price was $500,000. Without spending a dime on advertising, 1-800 CONTACTS received 2,000 calls the first month, producing $38,000 in revenue. “1-800 CONTACTS is an easily memorable name and enabled us to benefit from competitors’ advertising, i.e. consumers would call us after seeing a Lens Express ad,” says Hwang.
A less literal approach is to use or invent a word that’s catchy, even if it’s not directly connected to the product or service the company provides. However, it’s important to provide context for what the company is all about in a slogan or phrase. Pleasant Grove-based Mozy has seen success using a name that has little to do with its core offering of data backup services, says Thomas. “But it’s a memorable name and in the framework of their communications, they provide what they offer. They certainly could have done something like datastorage.com but it would have created a very different feeling about what they offer.”
Such memorability is key for a business name, says James Rabdau, creative vice president and principal at Salt Lake City agency The Summit Group. “Words have different meanings for everyone, but does that word reinforce the picture you’re trying to paint?” Rabdau asks.
On the technical side, Rabdau also encourages business owners to ensure customers can easily spell and pronounce the business name so no one has a hard time finding the business, either online or through traditional marketing avenues like the phone book. Difficult names also have a lower chance of being recommended to friends, experts say.
Though a name should be simple, it can also be fun. A common mistake business owners make is trying to be too literal about their name, says Rabdau. “In the quest for credibility, some companies play it really safe because they think people won’t respect them unless it sounds like they know what they’re doing. They can’t see the rest of the picture, which is the logo and overall brand,” Rabdau says. “I love it when I see people that have done interesting things. Everyone respects Google and knows they are really smart but it’s an unusual name.”
Just because you love a particular name for your company doesn’t necessarily mean it’s yours to use. In today’s lawsuit-happy world, protecting your intellectual property can be an expensive and time- consuming game without following some basic guidelines.
To secure and protect the name you want for your business, immediately start digging to make sure you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes, says Randall Bateman, founder of Bateman IP Law Group. “The last thing you want to do is start a company with the name you like and then get squashed. If you just spent $20,000 on business cards and signage for your company and you get a cease and desist letter, that’s very painful,” Bateman says. Every entrepreneur should begin by doing an Internet search to see if anyone else is already using the business name. If so, go back to the drawing board.
Bateman urges entrepreneurs to consider how protectable a name is during the selection process. Though it’s easy to adopt a name that tells customers exactly what a business does, descriptive names are not very protectable, says Bateman. For example, it’s nearly impossible to secure trademark protection on a name like Grocery Store. “Instead, pick something that’s suggestive, it doesn’t mean exactly what you do, but as soon as customers hear it they would associate it,” Bateman says. Another idea is to add a name before the descriptor, like Sunbeams Grocery Store. “It lets people know what you do, but you have a portion that is unique enough to provide protection,” he says.
Yet another route is to incorporate a first and/or last name into the title. To successfully protect a personal name on a business, an owner must demonstrate the name has developed secondary meaning or good will, Bateman says. This serves as quality protection for customers and relationship protection for companies, Bateman says.
That approach worked for Tony Divino, owner of Tony Divino Toyota in Ogden. When Divino purchased the dealership in 2001, it was called Toyota of Ogden. Employees soon began asking Divino to change the name to reflect the new ownership, but Divino was hesitant. He eventually gave in, citing the fact that he had grown up in Utah and thought there might be a few car shoppers that would recognize his name and experience in the industry. Divino also wanted to reconnect with former customers who had less than stellar experiences under the previous ownership. The change soon proved to be the right one. “As soon as we changed our name, we saw an immediate uptick in business, which proved employees right and me wrong,” says Divino. “From that point, if you treat customers right, you’re going to keep them, so sales have been increasing ever since.”
Brent Brown felt the same way. When Brown purchased the dealership in 1999, it was called Rick Warner Toyota. When an employee asked Brown what he would call the dealership, he replied, “Well I don’t know yet, but I’ll tell you what it won’t be called. It won’t be Rick Warner or Brent Brown Toyota!” In the following weeks, Brown reconsidered after his wife, Kim, pointed out that of the other local Toyota dealerships, none were named after an owner who was regularly present in the store. Kim felt it could be a great opportunity to personalize the dealership and let customers know the owner was present and available. “Our first ad was me on my cell phone saying, ‘Call me, I’m happy to help,’” Brown recalls.
After changing the dealership’s name, Brown says he saw an immediate increase in store traffic and the dealership has been breaking sales records every year. “I think it endeared the community; they liked having someone in there that they could get a hold of,” he says.
The most airtight way to secure a business name is to register it with the U.S. Patent Office as soon as possible. If the mark comes back clean after extensive searching on your own or with an attorney, entrepreneurs can file an application for the name. But beware, it’s “a deceptively simple process,” says Bateman. “If you know what you’re doing, patent applications are super simple. If you don’t, they are a morass.” Since most business owners have little or no experience with trademarks, a professional can step in to assist with the application.
The application goes to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office where an examiner decides if the name is likely to create confusion with any other registered mark. If not, it will be published in the Trademark Official Gazette and the public has 30 days to oppose the mark. If there is not any opposition to the mark and it is already in use, the business name can be registered. If it’s not yet in use, the entrepreneur will get a notice and has six months to show it is in use, although that can be extended for up to as much as four years.
Bateman says entrepreneurs ought to plan on spending $1,000 to $1,500 per mark. After a name is registered and use is shown, it must be renewed every 10 years, but can be held as long as you can show use.
One of the most significant aspects of a company’s name today is its domain name, or its address on the Web. Whether a business only sells goods or services online or is a clicks and bricks crossover, securing the right domain name can lead to increased site traffic and sales.
Jarod Marrott, an attorney with Kirton & McConkie specializing in intellectual property law, advises clients to not fall in love with a particular name until they’ve completed searches through uspto.gov and the Trademark Electronic Search System, then he advises them to bring an attorney three or four options. “For the online space especially, fanciful marks are best, the ones that are totally made up,” Marrott says.
Particularly for an Internet business, picking the right name is the most important thing a company can do, but creativity is always necessary, says James Stone, founder of custom software developer Aculis. “There was no way we could have come up with a name that fit what we do, so we invented a word,” Stone says. “It’s realistic to find a word you can change and invent from that.”
The company initially picked a name that wasn’t quite right and spent six months trying to figure out what to change it to. The criterion was to keep the name to one, catchy word. It didn’t have to mean something necessarily, it just had to not be too cumbersome, says Stone. The founders eventually settled on Aculis, derived from the word accurate.
Having the name Aculis has helped the business be successful because it’s memorable, yet easy, says Stone. “We’re an ‘A’ name so we’re always at the top of the list at tradeshows, events or on any lists in alphabetical order,” he says. “People often say, ‘How did you come up with that? It’s so catchy.’”
Expand the Brand
A business’ entire brand can be developed around good business names. A branding philosophy champions the one thing a company really wants its name to stand for, or the essence of a brand, says Shannon Cornelius, strategic planner at Farmington-based agency ThomasArts. For example, for Maytag, that’s dependability, for Volvo, it’s safety.
“Every person, whether they know it or not, has an emotional connection to whatever they see, and this includes brands,” says Cornelius. “If you can get to the emotional root cause of a brand, you can understand what is most effective in making a brand reach out to consumers.”
To develop the core essence of a brand, ThomasArts will take clients through a branding workshop which produces key concepts the company represents. Research then takes those key concepts and tests them with a viable target audience. After positions are tested and refined, the creative team personifies the emotional aspects of a brand into a visual look and feel that includes all elements from typefaces to color palettes. The research which leads up to the creative development provides the basis that ensures a company’s brand connects with its target audience, Cornelius says.
The personalization of Brent Brown’s dealership soon developed into the Brent Brown Automotive Group brand, which took on the slogan, “We’ll bend over backwards for you.” It’s been a huge hit, Brown says.
“People really identify with it, they remember it,” he says. “It’s also a call to action that they hold us to. If we’re coming up short, they’ll say, ‘You haven’t bent over backwards for me in this situation.’”
When a business has great branding backing up a dynamic company name, it’s like the pieces of a puzzle fitting together, says Troy Thomas, executive creative director for ThomasArts. Customers start to get a clear picture of what your company is really about and are more likely to remember who you are and the benefit of using you. They become more likely to take your company into account in a purchase consideration, he says. Which is about all you can really ask for these days.