How to name your brand (and how not to)

Back in the old days, when cities and towns were smaller and everyone knew everyone else, it made sense to name your business after yourself — like Ford. In the not-so-old days, starting, say, in the 1980s, the trend was to give your business a meanignless, made-up name (like Exxon or Altria ), on the theory that the name would be an empty vessel into which all the right meanings and connotations could be poured. This approach works fine as long as you have millions of advertising dollars and years of campaign time to bed that meaning in with its target audience. Most local businesses, particularly startups in need of a brand name, don’t.

Yellow Pages vs. White Pages names

A clever name is great if you’re a brick-and-mortar retail oopration depending solely on walk-in business. Then, the cleverness will attract attention and traffic. But if you’re looking for business from any other source, cleverness alone won’t cut it. That’s because of the way customers search for goods and services.

If they already know who you are, then they can just look you up in the White Pages, so any old name will do. But most consumers (and businesses) don’t know who you are. They’re looking for what you sell, in the Yellow Pages paper or, overwhelmingly, online versions. So a successful brand name should also include what you do.

Of course, knowing what a brand name should and shouldn’t contain isn’t the same as knowing how to come up with one.

Make a list

Creating a brand name is like the monkeys at the keyboard. If you have enough monkeys at enough keyboards typing long enough, they’ll eventually key in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

So be your own monkey, sit down at the keyboard, and start typing — anything and everything that pops into your mind. Don’t judge, don’t edit at this point. Fill up two to three single-spaced pages. Look over what you’ve got and do another page or two of mixing and matching. Now put the list aside and sleep on it. Repeat the process the next day. Then, and only then, narrow down to the winner or winners.

Check it twice

Finally, test the winners by showing them to friends or prospective customers and asking objective questions.

“How do you like this name?” is not an objective question, especially since most Richmonders tend to be nice, polite folks who wouldn’t dream of offending you by telling you the brand name’s a real stinker.

Better to ask, “What does this mean?” Or “What do you think a company with this name does/sells?”

And after you get the brand name designed as a logo, check it again.

Both ways are good insurance against branding disasters like the ones here.