What’s in a Name? It Might be More Than You Bargained For

Photo: xynoxyno

Over half a million new businesses and even more products are launched every year. They’re all looking for a great name. These days that’s a tall order.

In the old days, say 15 years ago, choosing a name for a business was a fairly simple. If "San Diego Chocolates" was already taken, you could go with "Chocolates of San Diego", or "San Diego’s Best Chocolates". Today, however, it would be death by cacao to pick a name for a store that wasn’t also available as a URL. With over 200 million domain names already in existence and 25 million more being added every year, it’s getting harder by the nano-second to find the right URL.

But picking a good name isn’t just about finding one that’s available.

For example, my partner and I thought "Barnstorming Adventures, Ltd." was a great name for a biplane ride business. It had so much character. And the ‘Ltd’ gave it that old-timey feel that reflected the era of the planes we flew. At least that’s what we thought.

It turned out most people didn’t even know what ‘barnstorming’ meant. The mispronunciations and misspellings over the years were downright embarrassing: barfstorming, branstorming, brainstorming. The only thing we were brainstorming was how to change the company name without losing the value of the brand we’d spent years building.

Sixteen years and probably as many doing-business-as (dba) names later, you’d think we’d have learned our lesson. But no.

In 2009 we wrote a book titled Undress For Success—The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home. We thought it was pretty catchy and so did our publisher, John Wiley & Sons—kind of a play on the 1970’s bestseller, Dress For Success, that banished green leisure suits from the boardroom. The URL, UndressForSuccess, was not in use, but someone else owned it. We tried to buy it. They wouldn't sell, so we went with Undress4Success.com, instead.

Both the book title and the web address turned out to be bad ideas. Let me count the ways.

  1. TV or radio mentions, unless they spelled out the web address, inevitably led folks to the ‘For’ address.
  2. The word ‘Naked’ in the title of the book triggered spam bots and in some cases caused mail servers to block our messages.
  3. No one remembered the old Dress For Success book so they didn’t get the joke.
  4. One of the top accounting firms we’d interviewed for the book opted out in the final proof—apparently they didn’t think the image of a CPA wearing nothing but a pencil behind his or her ear would be good for business.
  5. Worst of all, the ‘For’ web address we tried to purchase has since become the kind of website you need to trash your cache and toss your cookies after a visit.

So, to help you learn from the mistakes of others (ours!), here are a dozen tips for choosing a good name for your next venture or product:

  1. If you can’t own the web address, choose another name.
  2. If it’s easily misspelled (or miss-heard) and you can’t own the misspelled web address too, choose another name.
  3. Descriptive and understandable trumps cute and artsy any day.
  4. Most people won’t get the joke, whatever it is.
  5. Be careful not to infringe on any patents or trademarks. Mistakes can be costly.
  6. Check the meaning of the word in multiple languages (see below).
  7. Avoid lingo or jargon that only insiders can appreciate.
  8. Choose one that won’t limit your growth. "Coastal Pizza" is going to look a little funny in Kansas City.
  9. Think about any potentially embarrassing abbreviations or acronyms (Fitness and Tanning, Inc.).
  10. Consider how it will look on a business card or letterhead.
  11. If possible, choose a name that starts with a low letter. Apology Flowers will likely get the business over Repentant Blooms when someone is in need of a quick rose fix.
  12. Avoid special characters such as "&" that don’t work in a URL or require special web code.

If you're already stuck with an albatross of a name, take heart; somebody else has probably come up with something worse. In fact, whole web sites are devoted to the naming mistakes of others, some of them from the biggest names in business:

  • Coca Cola’s first Chinese translation read, "bite the wax tadpole".
  • "Gerber" means "puke" in French.
  • American Motors' "Matador" translated to "killer" in Puerto Rico.

Sticks and stones may break your bones and bad business names really can hurt thee. Be careful out there!

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