What we're talking about
Choosing the name for your business tends to come pretty early on in the process of starting up. It's fundamental to your brand's identity, which means some rigor is needed: creativity, research, planning and plenty of deliberation. While you need to make sure the name works from a branding, domain and social handle point of view, there's also a legal side to consider – more often than not, you won't be able to register the name you want. This is about being creative and finding something unique in the sector you're operating in.
Why it's important
Whether it's one word or several, the name of your business is what you'll build your brand around. Of course, it doesn't mean your product or service will succeed, but landing on the right name is a huge element of your branding. In the split second that a customer spends reading or hearing your name, assumptions will be made about what you do, what you're like and who you're for.
It matters hugely from a legal point of view, too. It's surprisingly common for small businesses, often a few years into their journey, with an audience base and brand identity, to have to change their name when they realize someone else is using it. For example, challenger bank Monzo was formerly Mondo. Renaming can be a costly and laborious process – especially if you've invested in things like packaging. Plus, if the worst-case scenario hits and you're sued for trademark infringement, you'll have legal fees to deal with, too. For that very reason, you'll want to register your name to avoid someone copying you.
Having a unique name is increasingly important. And, as small businesses proliferate, they need to get more and more inventive. A 2020 survey of 4,000 small business names by company insights brand Crunchbase picked out creative misspellings, puns, first names and food names for non-food brands as current trends.
Things to note
Don't let it paralyze you early on. It's pretty common for small businesses to be held back by fear when it comes to finding the right name. Remember, it's far more important to define the problem you're solving and your target customer than your name. This might take time, and patience is a virtue – after all, you want to get this right the first time. Changing your business name later down the line is possible, but not preferable. It'll involve plenty of legal hassle, not to mention domain names, brand assets, social media handles, packaging… the list goes on. Often, businesses rename as part of a wider rebrand, hoping to refresh their offering or message with a shiny new brand identity.
Know the law. There are systems in place to stop you from using the same name as another business, and they vary from country to country and state to state. There are also intricacies depending on your industry and whether your business is a sole proprietorship (a business owned and run by one person), a partnership or a private limited company. Make sure you've familiarized yourself with the relevant government advice – and, ideally, involve a lawyer. In the US, broadly, the Small Business Administration identifies four levels of clearance for business names: entity names (your business' legal name) and doing-business-as names (the public-facing name you operate under), plus trademarks and domain names. Often you'll have the same name in every category, but you can scope out the lay of the land here and here. If you want to level up from standard name registration, look into protecting your trademark with our guide.
Don't limit yourself. It's not just the identities of other businesses you need to worry about. If you don't think things through at the start, you may find that, as you grow, your name starts to limit what you can do. For most businesses, a good name will leave space for brand extension and pivoting. That means steering clear of anything too specific, such as overtly referencing the kinds of products you sell or using adjectives that confine you to one market. Also, your name shouldn't stand in the way of international expansion (will it sound stupid to or offend speakers of another language?) or be too rooted in contemporary trends or technology.
Understand what generally works and what doesn't. Your name is a personal decision; first and foremost, it needs to reflect your brand and appeal to its target audience, so don't be afraid of putting some people off. That being said, there's some naming best practice worth knowing prior to any ideas sessions. Names fall into categories, from abstract to descriptive, real words to made-up words – all of which have been helpfully accumulated here. There are also some no-nos. These include initials, words that are tricky or unintuitive to pronounce, punctuation (usually), complexity and genericness.
How to land on a good name for your business
1. Write a brief. Start by listing the essential information about your business: what your product or service does, your values, unique selling proposition, goals and target audience. What are you hoping to evoke through your name? Consider the practicalities or potential limitations, too. For example, if your name is going to be on packaging, it can't be super long.
2. Gather as much inspiration as possible. Get to know your target market in more detail, perhaps by referring to or creating customer personas. Draw up a list of your competitors' names to get a sense of your sector norms – and how you might be able to stand out. Think broadly and widely, mood-boarding words, images and concepts for inspiration. You'll have a fruitful creative session only if you turn up prepared.
3. Run a handful of idea sessions. If you have a team, get together the core members and run an idea session. There are specific naming exercises you can use at this point – for example, you could list all the words you can think of that tie in with your brand, then see what you can do through mashups, different spellings or adding suffixes and prefixes. You could write down a bunch of established business names that you really like and figure out why you like them, or experiment with online name generators and worksheets. Hold several sessions if needed.
4. Don't forget about your logo. Your business name and logo go hand in hand, so you should think about the visual, as well as the verbal, as you ideate. Incorporate words into initial sketches, or mock up logos and retrofit potential company names.
5. Evaluate your options. Land on a list of around 15 potential names. Now do some due diligence on your shortlist. Say the names out loud, think more seriously about how they'd work in your branding and do a Google search to see if anything obstructive comes up. Will that name impinge on your growth? Does your name fit your original brief? What does it mean in different languages and territories? Does it sound right and is it unique?
6. Test what you've come up with. Whittle down that list further to around five names, and test them on your target market (friends of friends might be helpful here). Ensure that they're in the dark about what your business does. Show them each name, asking them to say it out loud, state their first impressions, what they feel it conveys and anything they don't like about it. Then, give them some context and seek further feedback.
7. Rank your options. Thinking about the kind of business you're hoping to build, and with insights from your market research, list your names in order of preference. Trust your gut above all. Try the following steps with the front-runner – and fall back on some others if using it turns out to be unfeasible.
8. Check online availability. Now you need to think about securing your business' domain name and social media handles. It's most professional if you have a .com address and use your exact business name in your domain and social media. You could think about buying it if it's already in use, but minor concessions aren't the end of the world. Just remember SEO. Check availability via domain platforms GoDaddy or iwantmyname.com and register your name once you're happy.
9. Register your name officially. At the same time as registering your domain, register your name with the relevant authority in your territory. If you're in the US, there's more info here and, if you want to register a trademark, head to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
• There are two sides to the naming game: the branding side and the legal side. You need a name that's appealing and isn't already in use.
• The name that's right for you will vary depending on your business, product, sector and audience. Whatever you opt for, know that it'll likely sound weird initially – but it'll become internalized and normalized as your business grows.
• Hearing from prospective customers, through something like A/B testing on social media (where you test out two versions of a post and compare the results) or a tool like SurveyMonkey, is super important. You need to take into account perspectives beyond your own.
Perspective. Here's a TED talk from Jonathan Bell, the founder of marketing agency WANT Branding, on creating a great brand name.
Example. There are heaps of case studies and examples on what works, what doesn't and why, in this article on choosing a name from business publication Sifted.
Tool. NameSnack and Looka are two excellent online name generators; brand advice platform Eat My Words offers a free name evaluation test; and there are interesting naming prompts here, from branding agency Fuze.
A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.