What’s in a name?

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By Leo Valiquettehello-my-name-is1

A company name that is a mashup of the founders’ initials. A company name drawn from the item the first business plan was sketched upon, or where the founder was enjoying a cocktail when they struck upon the idea. Even names arbitrarily plucked out of thin air without any intention of there being any kind of profound or clever meaning.

I’ve seen it all with over 13 years as a business journalist and marketing and PR consultant. A company’s name is not the company’s brand, but the two do enjoy a symbiotic relationship. A name is a point of reference, an introduction, which may or may not make a direct reference to what the company does.

But a name alone does not sell products, win customers or grow market share. These things are accomplished through the hustle of the team members, how they treat their customers, how they research the market to understand to whom, and in what form, their product or service delivers value, and how they execute on that intelligence.

In other words, a name alone will not make up for shortcomings in these areas. So don’t get hung up on it. The same way that true strategic marketing is about a whole lot more than what shade of blue should be used in your company logo, your marketing effort should not be stalled by attempts at clever wordplay.

A fundamental marketing exercise

This is not to suggest it doesn’t require careful deliberation and sober second thought before you rush to design that website and order those business cards. But you must stay grounded. Brainstorm names and phrases that reflect what the company does and what it stands for. This may even necessitate a full messaging platform exercise, in which you create a matrix with a number of blanks to fill: what do we do, why are we here, who do we serve, how are we different, what is the culture and tone of our organization, and so forth.

(Do I have to point out that you should already be doing this hand-in-hand with the development of your business plan for any new business, and as a regular exercise to keep the ship on course as a more mature company?)

Using this messaging exercise to come up with a name is somewhat analogous to finding the right title for a book. Authors may begin with a working title, but by the time they’ve cut a draft or two and the essence of what the book is really about, the meat and potatoes of its central conflict, has percolated in their soul for a while, that’s when they may in fact come up with the title that really works.

In other words, if you take the time as a team to truly understand and qualify what unique and compelling value proposition you are offering, and to whom, the right name for your organization may become self-evident.

For example …

I once again turn to some examples that came up recently through my work on the Best Ottawa Business Awards:

An Ottawa software consultancy named Manta Corp. changed its name to Halogen Software when it pivoted about 12 years ago to refocus on talent management software. The attached tagline is “Be Brilliant.” Choosing the name of a big bright light conveys Halogen’s intention to lead its industry, while the tagline suggests it is its clients who most stand to benefit.

Hugues Boisvert, founder of HazloLaw Business Lawyers, is accustomed to the occasional prospect walking in and asking to speak with “Mr. Hazlo.” Unlike other law firms, which typically bear the names of their founding partners, he chose a name that reflects his firm’s focus on working with entrepreneurs and relates to his early professional experience in Argentina. “Hazlo” means “do it” in Spanish, which is, of course, what any true blue entrepreneur does.

Sean Murphy chose the name A Hundred Answers (AHA), for his employee-based management consulting and systems integration firm. Why? As a reference to the many strengths, talents and capabilities the AHA team brings to its clients every day, and to serve as a reminder that there are many ways of approaching business challenges and opportunities.

For brothers Richard and Michel St-Jacques, founders of extra-low voltage electrical components and LED lighting maker Rimikon, the choice of name was eminently practical, but it still sounds cool and high-tech. “Rimikon” is an amalgam of “Richard”, “Mike” and “Ontario.”

When to back up and hit delete

Of course, I have seen my share of company names that were too clever for their own good.

Anyone even on the periphery of the high-tech scene knows how startups tend to use odd capitalization in their names. Why? Because they can. Journalists love to hate this. I was part of many a newsroom debate about whether to honor these odd ducks or to impose conventional capitalization.

Even better was the use of superscript numbers, as in something is squared or cubed. It sounds clever. Looks cool on business cards, too. But again, if the company is written up by the media or talked about on social media and that formatting isn’t followed, it can totally muck up the name so the reader doesn’t grasp its intended meaning.

And on the subject of meanings: Avoid using a word or phrase from another language that has no particular relevance to the origins of the company or the history of its founders. Even then, consider your target audience – are they going to understand it? The last thing you want to inspire is a WTF and roll-of-eyes moment. A Canadian tech company founded by middle-aged white men, for example, likely should not take as its name a Japanese word, no matter how well it encapsulates what the company does. Unless, perhaps, the intention is to primarily target the Japanese market.

Simplicity, common sense and, as much as it is possible in today’s crowded marketplace, uniqueness. These are the key considerations for coming up with a strong and enduring name that will pop. But remember, what you do matters more than what you call yourself.

/// COMMENTS

One Comment »
  • David J French

    November 26, 2013 1:33 pm

    These are very valid observations by Leo on the importance of selecting a suitable name for the company. They apply equally well to trademarks.

    In both cases, it’s critically important not to adopt a name or brand designation that is in conflict with what other people have already adopted in the marketplace. This was addressed in a previous article: “Trademark hygiene: A cautionary tale” – http://francis-moran.com/marketing-strategy/trademark-hygiene-a-cautionary-tale/

    The message there applies equally to business names as well as trademarks: search, search, eat humble pie, and search again. You don’t want to have to change your name after you’ve adopted it!.

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