Naming a product or company can be tricky. You want the name to tell customers something about why they need what you do. The name has to be unique enough to be protectable while not stepping on someone else’s name. The web has complicated the job — with 250-some-odd million domain names reserved, what’s left?
The usual approach is to think about the product or service and develop descriptive names. But descriptive words are usually the worst choice because they are inherently difficult to trademark and most likely to have already been used.
Here are some tips.
Invented names that evoke a mental image of a product’s chief benefit or unique selling proposition are the coveted prize. For example, Kleenex says nothing about tissues or paper products. It’s aimed at the primary benefit: a sanitary way to handle messy noses. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) calls these “suggestive” marks.
Next best are completely abstract names: Exxon, Accenture, Yelp. The PTO calls these “fanciful” names.
A common solution is to twist the meaning of words or combine them to create uniqueness. E.g. RealAudio — its audio is not “real,” but real evokes an image of fidelity or up-to-date-ness. Another example: “Windows.”
Generic and descriptive names
Unique, catchy names are not always needed. “Generic and descriptive” names are literal names that simply describe the product with little uniqueness, e.g. “ListManager” or “Fast Pizza.” They have the advantage that they need no explanation but they are very difficult to protect and difficult or impossible to trademark.
A name can become generic if the owner fails to protect its overuse. Escalator used be a trademark but is now generic, as are linoleum, aspirin, and thermos.
Brand + generic + finesse
Sometimes, a good name is beyond the reach of the amount of time and attention you have. A straightforward solution is to use a generic name paired with an existing brand. Adobe Illustrator is an example. In this case, the two names are always used together.
Once you do this and gain extended marketplace presence, you can develop some standing and can likely defend against encroachment.
When I worked at Videonics, a small ($30M annual revenue) video editing equipment maker, we had a product called TitleMaker. The PTO refused a trademark, saying it was generic and descriptive, since the product made titles. We trademarked “Videonics TitleMaker.” In practical use, we often used the TitleMaker name by itself but the fine print on the piece always said “Videonics TitleMaker is a registered trademark….” That was enough. One company tried to use TitleMaker but stopped when we sent a letter. Had they pressed the issue, we might have had a messy fight on our hands but in our specialized market, we were able to prevail.
A person’s name, applied to a product, is dicey. McDonald’s became a powerful mark only after investment in the name. Rubenzahl’s Fine Cookies would be easier (unless I have a baking cousin I don’t know). Some countries do not allow surnames to be trademarked. Geographic marks (Vermont Ice Cream) can be problematic as well, especially internationally.
Good vs. good enough
Your name is front and center. Everyone wants a mighty name: catchy, clever, instantly understandable, sophisticated, and unique enough to bear be protectable. But names like that take inspiration, time, work, and cash. You can succeed with a name that’s merely “good enough.”
Don’t be afraid of names that lack immediate magic. Big names are generally not found — they are grown. “Amazon” was just a river until they grew their brand. Paola Norambuena of Interbrand said, “A great name can’t fix a bad product. A great product can fix a bad name.”
Designer John McWade says “For all of the time we put into coming up with just the right ‘target-market’ sort of name … I get the feeling that we’re over-thinking things.” He points out examples — how Mercedes was the name of the founder’s daughter, Taurus was the sign of two executive wives, and “Pepsi was named for the digestive enzyme pepsin.” Here are hundreds more.
It is important to guard against troublesome names. The biggest problem is that inside the echo chamber of your own company, it’s easy to lose objectivity. I know a company whose market research product is based on four questions, so they named it “4Q.” Great idea but not so great when said aloud. I met the founder a few years ago and asked about the name. They had no idea.
The only way to know is test. If you have customers already, a simple survey can do the job. The trick is to compare one proposed name against another for various attributes to find one that floats to the top. (I can do this for you.) Finally, when you have a few good possibilities, you need to move forward. Avoid paralysis. “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Even the most troublesome name can be overcome. Witness Schiit Audio, which uses humor to make an outrageous name work for a serious product line.
What do you do if “good enough” is not good enough? If you have (or hope to have) a big brand in busy markets, that’s the time to turn to a “namer” — a naming professional. See the references at the end of this article.
So you pulled out the white board and came up with some good names. Now what?
Next step is to see if they are available. In general, the web is a good way to find problems. If no search engine finds your proposed name the chances are pretty good it’s not being used — but it’s not a guarantee. A name might be used locally.
Be careful about similar spellings. For instance, if you want to call your company Aextra and there is a company out there using Axtra in a related product area, you could be in trouble. You cannot respell someone’s trademark and use it — I could not sell Mr. Feld’s Cookies, given the existence of Mrs. Field’s cookies (even if my last name were Feld).
Trademarks are examined by industry classification. Just as I could not sell Mr. Feld’s cookies, I could not sell Mr. Feld’s potato chips, because chips and cookies share a class. But I could probably open Mr. Feld’s Quick Oil Change (because it’s a completely different industry class). As a mark gathers investment, its scope widens: I could not sell Exxon Cookies or Exxon Carpets because Exxon’s massive investment in the mark gives it authority in other industry classes.
For a small business, a web search may be enough confidence but if you are planning a larger brand, you need to go further. Start with the free US Patent and Trademark database (Tess) is online at http://www.uspto.gov/. Then get a proper international search. Most intellectual property attorneys will do a quick search for a few hundred dollars before doing a detailed legal search.
Registering the name
You do not have to register a trademark to use it but it’s a good way to establish your claim and a wise move if you invest in the mark by building a business or promoting products using the name. Register the trademark by applying to the PTO. They evaluate and do their own search, publish for public objection, then issue the mark.
If you are a small firm, you can do all of this without an attorney. But if you’re investing in a mark and changing your name a few years from now would be a big problem, then it is wise to hire an intellectual property attorney at the outset.
If the business may go international, consider registering outside the U.S.
Here’s a wonderful real-life story from Alex Blumberg’s StartUp about how they named his fledgling Gimlet Media. He encounters and explains all the typical challenges and along the way reports, in a very honest way, the missteps, discoveries, and musings. (Be warned, there is a very obscene South Park clip; no worries, he gives ample warning.)
Who would have thought the arcane world of naming would be appropriate for the New York Times? Apparently, the New York Times did. A must-read for anyone with a naming project, it provides great details on the process and techniques.
- The Weird Science of Naming, by Neal Gabler, New York Times
For a deep dive into naming, see the Operative Words blog from naming guru Anthony Shore. Wow.
To understand what you can and can’t trademark and what constitutes a strong brand, start with the Patent and Trademark Office’s article, and then Nolo press:
- Trademark Basics from the Patent and Trademark Office
- Nolo Press: Look for their trademark info page
For high-caliber help in naming, the companies below are the experts.
- Operative Words (Anthony Shore, @operativewords)
- A Hundred Monkeys
Some creative tools (from the Times article):
- onelook.com shows how words work with other words
- sketchengine.co.uk combs texts and concordances, flags parts of speech and shows how a specific word appears in billions of words of text
- rhymezone.com finds words that rhyme