Naming a business can be about as nerve wracking as naming a child—maybe more so. There’s no new-business name that can be handed down from an admired grandparent, or a favorite Survivor cast member or pop star to tie your professional identity to. Your business is all you, asking the world to like you enough to spend its expendable income to support you and your dreams.
You obviously don’t want a name that’s hard to pronounce, easy to forget, too generic or similar to others’, or that doesn’t quite communicate who you are. Some people believe the best names are abstract, a blank canvas on which to apply an image, while others think they should be directly informative so customers know immediately what your business is. Some are partial to coined names (which come from made-up words) over those that use concrete terminology, while thers say made-up names are forgettable. And while a clever, appropriate name can impress, an overly obvious one communicates a lack of enthusiasm for your venture.
With so many possible endpoints—abstract, direct, coined or plain English—there’s no secret formula for naming a business. So start simple by making a list of words—nouns, verbs, adjectives—that you want your business name to communicate. The list should reinforce the key elements and personality of your business, fitting your quirky, creative or professional style.
Get to the point, with purpose.
Just as you make your signature coffee drinks with skill, efficiency and a smile, your business name should please you and your customers—without appearing to try too hard. Thus, beware the pun. Coffee-business names are on par with hair salons in this regard; from “Bean There Done That” to “Do or Dye” the possibilities are endless. Just be sure your joke is relevant, and that it’s not one you and your customers will tire of telling.
Whether you’re making a joke or not, be brief. Studies show that brevity lends itself to memorability. Also, in our digital-ad age, short names sell. Google Adwords allows just 25 characters, so if your business name is longer you’ll have to abbreviate it if you advertise there. Even if you don’t plan to use AdWords initially, consider planning for it; it’s one of the most cost-effective marketing methods around. If you really need a long business name, ensure that it’s easy to pronounce and hard to forget.
As soon as you start researching business names, you’ll notice that just about every existing word has been trademarked. Hence, coining a name is a popular alternative. Names like Acura and Gizmodo didn’t exist before they became beacons of successful companies. Both imply positive character traits—Acura suggests precision engineering and Gizmodo is a playful nod to technophiles. If you can’t think of an entirely new word that resonates, combine two words or concepts, such as with ItaliTour, a company that offers travel packages to Italy. Let other businesses settle for simple names and allow yours to live outside stale parameters.
Hash it out.
Be wary of double consonants or double vowels, particularly when one word ends with the same letter as the next commences; people regularly miss one of these letters when typing them.
Also, translate your proposed business name into any languages that are likely to apply in countries where you may be doing business. Many international brands have been surprised when their name either cannot be pronounced, or worse, has a meaning in another tongue that is totally different or even offensive. Even the seemingly innocuous Puffs tissues can’t get a break; in German it’s a colloquial term for “whorehouse.” Same thing with the practically ubiquitous “Got Milk?” slogan, which in effect asks Spanish speakers: “Are you lactating?”
Since all business lives on the Internet, your business name should include key words that reflect what your business does.
Keep your options open.
This doesn’t mean you’ll be changing your name anytime soon (more on this later). But if you even dream of expanding at a later date, consider not including your city or region in your business name. Sometimes it works, if you’re exporting a part of your local culture to other regions that people will immediately recognize, as with New York Bagels or Portland Roasting. But more often, it’s limiting. No one in L.A. wants to ponder why coffee from Tallahassee is (or isn’t) a premium product.
And while you want to be specific about what you offer, don’t necessarily add “shop” or “café” to your business name, in case you want to expand to roasting, catering or whatnot.
Consider expert help.
If you’ve got cash to throw at a name (anywhere from $2,000 to $40,000, very roughly), you might consider consulting an expert. Marketing folks and professional naming firms have elaborate systems for creating new names and they know their way around the trademark laws. They can advise you against bad name choices and explain why others are good.
Test your name.
Recall your initial criteria. Which name(s) best fits your objectives and most accurately describes the brand image you have in mind? You may arrive at a final decision by going with your gut, surveying friends or by doing consumer research. Read each name aloud, paying attention to the way it sounds so you can determine if it rolls off the tongue or ties it up. After much deliberation, hopefully you’ll end up with three to five names that pass all your tests. Now comes due diligence:
Do a trademark search. A good place to start is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/. Not every business name needs to be trademarked, as long as your state government gives you the go-ahead and you aren’t infringing on anyone else’s trade name. But be sure your new name doesn’t infringe on another business’s trademark; even the two names are just similar, it could have expensive legal consequences.
You may want to apply for trademark protection yourself to secure the words, names, symbols and logos that distinguish your goods and services. Your name is one of your most valuable business assets, so it’s worth protecting. You can file for a trademark for under $300.
Are the domain names and social-media handles available? Search beyond the local options (through GoDaddy, Network Solutions or another web-hosting service), especially if your business lends itself to expansion into overseas markets. Consider purchasing urls for .au, .ca, etc., even if they don’t feature in your initial plans. If .com or .net are taken, consider .us, which is becoming more commonly used. But before securing the domain, also look into the likely social media platforms you may use. Is your name available on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.? If it is (or some similar abbreviated form of your name), secure those, too.
Incorporate or register?
If you intend to incorporate your business, you’ll need to contact your state filing office to find out whether your intended business name has already been claimed and is in use. If you find a business operating under your proposed name, you may still be able to use it, provided your business and the existing business offer different goods/services or are located in different regions.
Registering your business name involves a process known as registering a “Doing Business As (DBA)” name or trade name. This process is different from incorporation and doesn’t provide trademark protection. Registering your DBA name is simply the process of letting your state government know that you are doing business as a name other than your personal name or the legal name of your partnership or corporation.
What if you want to change your existing company’s name?
Some of the best businesses have changed their names when a better idea came along. (Xerox used to be called The Halloid Company; Nissan was Datsun; and LG shortened its name from Lucky and GoldStar Co.) But don’t change your business name simply because the current one bores you. If you come up with a killer new name, sit on it for a few weeks to see if it maintains its appeal.
Given enough time, you may realize that it’s not worth the costly, disruptive process involving checking existing trademarks, domain names, filing a new DBA, revising all marketing materials (signage, menus, logo, business cards, etc.), business licenses, contracts, lease documents, bank accounts and permits, and notifying the IRS. Also, marketing experts recommend that any business changing its name maintain two websites for at least several months so that customers going to the old site can be redirected.
A name change can work if your company still has low brand equity—that is, the estimated monetary value added to your brand because people know who you are. On the other hand, if your local brand equity has grown greatly, a name change could end up costing more than it’s worth.
Realize that you will encounter some initial resistance from some customers and staff that have grown accustomed to your existing identity and may not understand your long-term strategy. Remain positive and upbeat and demonstrate a sense of leadership. In a matter of a few short months, your old company name will seem like a distant memory.