Having a fledgling business is a lot like having a newborn baby. On one hand, it’s the most exciting thing ever – you’re so full of pride, the world is full of possibilities, and your little nugget is so full of potential!
On the other hand, though, it’s the hardest time of your life. Ahead of you lie countless sleepless nights, anxious moments and gut-wrenching risks. Hard decisions, too – because you know that the things you do now will make a big difference down the track, for better or worse.
One of the first decisions you’ll tend to encounter is the inevitable: choosing a name.
Anyone who’s flicked through a baby name book can tell you that while this game may seem fun, the novelty wears off very, very quickly. Somewhere between Barry and Bartholomew. And if more than one person has any say in the choice of name, things can get very ugly indeed.
But here’s the good news: naming a baby is a walk in the park compared to naming a business.
Over the years I’ve been involved in more naming projects than I care to count or remember. And I have to say that, without a doubt, they are the most difficult type of projects in my word-riddled world.
Think I’m being dramatic? Bear with me and I’ll enlighten you as to why choosing a business name is one of the most stressful jobs you’ll ever have to do – and also one of the most critical.
#1. You need to be really, really, painfully original.
When you’re naming a baby, there are plenty of places you can go for inspo. Classic novels, movies, gossip mags, family trees…the world is packed with possible monikers ripe for the picking. And the best bit? It’s totally fine to choose a name that someone else is already using. In fact, it’s normal. Who doesn’t have a kindy class with triplicate Rubys and Coopers these days?
With business names, though, things are unfortunately very different indeed. Because no matter how much you might love a name (or how long you’ve had it mentally earmarked for yourself) – it’s off limits if someone else has gotten in first.
This would have made things hard enough in 1970. But these days? Forget about it. With countless new brands and businesses being spawned every day, it’s now nearly impossible to find something genuinely new (and available to register). This is why (as you’ve no doubt noticed) names are getting increasingly weirder and, well, less name-like. From mash-ups (Buzzfeed) to phrases-as-words (Fightthenewdrug), almost anything goes.
Put it this way: naming is no longer as simple as flicking through the thesaurus to find a nice-sounding synonym for ‘beacon’.
This need for originality isn’t just token either – it’s a necessity. Because, thanks to the all-seeing internet, you can get into a lot of trouble if you step on someone else’s toes (even unknowingly).
To get the lowdown on the legal side of things I consulted Stephen Digby, of Digby Law, who has over 25 years of experience advising creative businesses on these matters.
“When it comes to naming, you really need to look at the practical side of things first,” says Digby. “Many people believe that if a name is available to register as a business, that’s all the protection you need – but in truth, that offers no protection at all. You really need to run a trademark search to see if similar names to your chosen one have already been trademarked. You can do this yourself with IP Australia, but it’s worth getting an expert to help, as they’ll understand some of the subtleties you need to take into account.
“It also helps to do a good old Google search! Put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about your business; who has never heard your name. Do some searching and see what comes up. If there are lots of businesses already attaching themselves to a name, differentiating yourself will be a challenge.”
#2. Think clever spelling can save you? Think again.
While wedging a random Y in the middle of your baby name may give your progeny something special, it won’t necessarily help you secure a unique business name.
“Trademark searches don’t just look at how a word is spelled, they take phonetics into account too – that is, the way a name sounds when it’s spoken,” explains Digby. “If someone has registered a name and yours sounds too similar, you could find yourself in trouble regardless of how you have spelled it.
“It’s not a game of snap – there are shades of grey. Essentially, the more similar a name or mark is to yours, and the more similar their offering, the greater the degree of risk.”
#3. You need to think ahead. Like WAY ahead.
When you start a new business, you often have no idea where it’ll end up going. Will the idea fly, or will it crash and burn? Will you remain a local specialist, or become an international juggernaut? Will you trade in bricks and mortar, or online?
Obviously these are tough questions to answer at the start-up stage but they ARE things you need to at least ask yourself when choosing a name. “If you have aspirations of trading overseas, you need to check other markets,” says Digby. “Online businesses generally have an international footprint, in which case it won’t just be Australian businesses you’ll need to look at – but international trademarks too.”
As if that wasn’t enough to think about, there’s also the growth factor. A name that may suit you to a tee now may not feel so comfortable five years down the track – either because it’s dated, or because you’ve changed or diversified your offering. For this reason, I usually recommend avoiding anything too specific or literal. Think of names like clothes: a classic white tee might not say much about your personality but it’s way less likely to go out of style than a glittery rainbow jumpsuit.
#4. Everyone tends to take it too personally.
The last reason that naming is so damn hard is that we all, without exception, get too emotional about it – especially when it's a name for something close to our heart. We don’t just want the name to work, we want to like it…even love it. And we can’t help but get pissed off when other people don’t agree with our preferences (just ask George Costanza).
According to Digby, this degree of emotion is one of the greatest obstacles of all. “Unfortunately in this day and age, the practical aspects of naming really do outweigh the creative aspects. All too often we encounter businesses that have fallen in love with a name and become very attached to it – only to find out that someone else has already trademarked it. If this happens too late down the track it can become very difficult, and even necessitate finding a new name and starting again from scratch.
“On the upside, when you do manage to secure a trademark, you have more than peace of mind – you have a tangible asset on your balance sheet.”
So what’s the bottom line? Is there any light at the end of this naming tunnel?
While there is little doubt that finding the right name for your business is difficult – and that looking at the legal side of things is essential – I don’t think there’s cause for complete despair (not QUITE yet anyway).
Because the fact of the matter is, a name is just ONE aspect of a brand – and not even a particularly important one. Yes, some brands have soared to great heights off the back of a great name, but just as many world-famous icons have succeeded with a name that’s obscure at best: Google, Accenture, IKEA, Apple and Kodak to name a few.
What all those brands have in common, though, is that they have attached great meaning to their names over time – whether it was through a distinctive visual identity, reputation for innovative products, or a particularly awesome way of packing furniture. “Branding and naming is all about creating something your goodwill and reputation sticks to,” says Digby. “There’s a lot more to a brand than a name.”
My advice is simple (though often not what people want to hear): don’t get too hung up on the naming thing. Don’t fall in love. Pick something that won't break you, but don’t expect it to make you either. Invest your time in thorough legal checks, rather than creative whims and workshopping. And invest your energy in bringing your brand to life through design, communication, and (of course) products and services.
And remember that you can make a name for yourself no matter what you happen to be called.