The Do's and Dont's of Naming a Business

If you're in the process of naming your company, or even a new product or service, there are a number of factors to consider -- not least of which is how the name translates into the world's major languages used in commerce.
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You've probably heard the one about the Chevy Nova, and how executives were shocked and dismayed to learn, after the fact, that no va means "doesn't go" in Spanish.

If you're in the process of naming your company, or even a new product or service, there are a number of factors to consider -- not least of which is how the name translates into the world's major languages used in commerce.

I recently sat down with Brannon Cashion, president of the branding company Addison Whitney, the firm responsible for naming Microsoft's Outlook, Hershey's Kissables, and Honda's Element, among many others.

Here are some insights from our talk.

Short names are great. Take PUR water filters, a brand of Procter and Gamble, now known as P&G. PUR is easy to remember and evokes the nature of the product itself. Or take P&G, for that matter. Many of the big companies are jumping on the short-name bandwagon. Apple is a classic example of the 5-letters-or-less rule.

Anticipate nicknames and double entendres. Before Mark Tebbe founded, he was a youngster of 23 who started a microcomputer consulting company called Tebbe & Associates. He learned that what started as Tebbe & Associates quickly because T&A -- not a good reference for a business. The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists wisely changed their URL to once they realized that Therapist Finder suggested a whole different line of work when spelled in all lowercase letters:

Make it pride-worthy. For founders as well as employees, the second most important name in all of your business transactions, meetings, and conversations, after your own, is your company's. The name of your company needs to touch every part of your business. It's your lead story, the name that inspires your workers, and it reflects on you in conversations. In other words, feel the name and see if you can wear it and speak it with pride.

Leverage the subliminal. Words, even made-up words, should create a story. Amazon -- sells everything from A to Z. Your eyes and your unconscious mind get it right away, even if your analytical, left-side thinking doesn't just by saying the word. Amazon is also mighty, like the river or the woman warrior. It's Amazing! Or how about the nonsensical name Groupon? Get a groove on. Rhymes with coupon. Right on! It works for reasons we can't even explain.

Make sure you can own it and protect it. Before you get too far in a new business, make sure your company's name is one you can legally own and protect. Does someone else own a name that's very similar and could be easily confused? Does someone own the web address? If so, will they sell it? Having a unique name that no one else can claim will prevent legal and branding complications down the road.

Brainstorming is a good method. One of the best ways to find a great name is to brainstorm with a few trusted colleagues. What is your company about? What are your core values? What do you deliver to consumers? What's different about your business approach? Having a pool of ideas is also a good way to uncover potential complications, such as negative associations different people have with it. Could the British-made RetarDEX oral plaque-control rinse have survived a brainstorming session? Doubtful!

Research the word itself. Do impeccable research -- in several languages including English -- to look for potential minefields like the Nova debacle. In particular, find out how the word might be pronounced in other languages and accents. Try to find a name that is not prone to mispronunciation.

Renaming can go both ways. Famous examples of perfectly good brand names that were ditched for new ones, only to be brought back because of consumer uproar, were New Coke, which became Coke again, and the Ford 500, which became Taurus, the retired brand name for which consumers already had an enormous affinity. On the other hand, when there's a negative association with your name, changing it can be a good thing. It worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken, now KFC, with the unhealthy-sounding "fried" taken out, or Xe Services, formerly Blackwater Worldwide, infamously linked to the Iraq War.

We company founders can't always predict why certain names are home runs and others aren't. And you can't always predict how unforeseeable events, such as a crash in the Florida Everglades, can permanently sully a company name like ValueJet, now known as AirTran.

But if you follow the guidelines above, you can avoid the most common mistakes start-ups make when naming their company.

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