If Donald J. Trump still carried the family moniker of Drumpf, do you think he’d emblazon it atop his hotels? Do you think that more than 60 percent of primary voters in his home state of New York would have chosen him?
As late night talk show host John Oliver of HBO recently noted, Trump’s ancestors changed the family name centuries ago, and the billionaire developer, promoter and presidential candidate is no doubt thankful every day for their foresight. Because, in the world of branding, names matter. — Except when they don’t.
There are two schools of thought on names: that they are vitally important and can determine the success of your business — or that they are immaterial, and your brand is what you market it to be.
As a result, many of the startup founders I talk to wrestle with naming their companies. They tend to fall into two camps: They really like a name everyone else hates. Or, they are unable to choose a name (which holds everything else up). Either trap they fall into can be tricky to navigate.
But the good news is that both schools of thought offer helpful advice. Knowing what to take from each can help you choose a name that works for your particular business — and, most importantly, let you move on with building your company.
Evocative names save time and money.
Good branding can shape a company’s image, but that’s no reason to make the task harder than it has to be.
Words have meaning and connotations that can give strong initial impressions. If your brand name evokes a strong image in people’s minds, and that image aligns with your brand identity, your marketing will go much further than it would with a name that evokes an image contrary to your identity.
For instance, if you started a gourmet ice cream company, it would take a lot more marketing to convince people that Bronx Creamery was a luxury brand than if you gave it a faux-European name the way Häagen-Dazs did.
Tesla, led by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has built a brand identity around brashly challenging the status quo. It pairs perfectly with its namesake, Nikola Tesla, who was one of the most famous and brilliant inventors of the 19th century. He was also known as a “mad scientist” for challenging conventional wisdom, even contradicting titans such as Thomas Edison.
In each of these cases, the company’s name holds a connotation that plays directly into the mission and product of the business itself. This, coupled with a strong product offering, makes both companies the powerhouses that they are.
A good product is better than a good name.
While it can be helpful, an evocative name isn’t necessary for a company’s success. Word of mouth, the quality of your product and the pain point it solves will ultimately determine your success.
And there are plenty of examples of successful companies with meaningless names. “DuckDuckGo,” for example, was chosen on a whim. It describes nothing and has no deeper meaning. But the company’s search engine solves a major problem (privacy and tracking), so people flock to it.
You can even change your name entirely. Do you know what Yahoo’s first name was? Jerry’s Guide. Company leaders (smartly) changed its name, and no one quit using the search engine because of it. With nearly 300 companies in the U.K. named “Isis” or “ISIS,” now might be a good time to keep that particular point in mind.
Choosing a name is a process.
A name may not make or break your company, but some names are better than others. Choosing the best one is all about finding the best approach.
1. Ask your critics what they think of your name. The best feedback is from critics who are potential customers or vendors. My reservations booking company had already spent $200,000 on marketing materials with the name “Clubscore.” But we kept hearing that it was too similar to that of many of the clubs we’d actually be servicing.
So, we started asking potential customers and vendors to describe their pain points, then took careful notes of the words they used. “In” and “list” quickly rose to the top; thus, “InList” was born.
2. Think about what you want to be when you grow up. As a business, your first job is to master your niche. Build one product that people love. But keep in mind that you’ll grow into other products and markets, so choose a name that can grow with you.
We could have chosen something more descriptive, but InList ties well to the entertainment industry broadly, evokes the idea of inside access and is flexible. Tesla is a great example here, too, as it applies equally well to a company selling electric cars, solar panels or batteries.
3. Consider your customers’ emotional reaction. Brands with a high price point and luxury appeal have different needs than those working toward a broad market segment. If you’re selling a premium product at a premium price, your name should give your customers some sense of entitlement when they interact with you.
Overall, choose your name wisely, while drawing comfort from the fact that your name alone won’t determine your company’s success. That success will be built day by day, every time you connect with a customer and deliver exceptional value.