How NOT to Create a Great Business Name

This is part two of three in our Naming 101 series. In part one we looked at 13 “Do”s: the crucial research and development issues surrounding your choice of a name for your firm, product, service, or division. In part three, we’ll names names! For links to all the articles in this series, click here.

Time for the top “Don’t”s. These mistakes are costly and painful, but completely avoidable! From start-ups to the big boys, we can all think of firms that have made these mistakes. A great name is the first and possibly most important step in getting the business growth you need, so watch out for these pitfalls:

1. Do not name your business after yourself. Unless you are already famous, and in a good way. (I will not make any jokes about past or present athletes whose names will not be gracing any businesses, products, etc. in the near future.) This takes a lot of time out of your marketing day, as no one has any idea why Joe Smith’s Woodworking Shop is any different from Karl Johnson’s Woodworking Shop. It completely defeats the number-one job of a good name: conveying your Vision, purpose, and benefits to a potential client.

(I know, I know, McDonald’s. #1: Ray Kroc did not name the joint Kroc’s. #2: Do you have twenty years or so and several million dollars to throw at the problem, in order to get established? I thought not. More in part three of this series.)

Some professions have a history of firms named after one or many owners (accountancy firms, law firms, clothing designers, interior design firms…). I still recommend against it. There is so much work your business name can do for you!

2. Don’t choose a name that is already in use! No excuses! This may take time but it is easy for anyone to do at least a minimal job of checking for usage issues.


Did you check the phone book? You have a big problem if businesses even slightly similar to yours are already in your community. Nix that name.

Slightly more advanced: Internet research, using your favorite search engine. Try the name “within quotation marks” to search for the exact name; if you already get too many hits, no need to move on to what happens if you remove the quotation marks.

In the U.S., the Trademark Electronic Search System at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is a necessary search if you expect to register your name (still a useful resource if you are in other English-speaking countries).

In Canada, search for your name’s availability at the Canadian Trade-marks Database

The World Intellectual Property Organization’s Madrid Express Structured Search (whose unfortunate acronym—MESS—violates #6 below) includes international registrations and applications.

Why not skip straight to the trademark databases? Because registering there is not a requirement for going into business, and you will find out a lot more about how fresh (or tired) your name selection is from the web than the trademark databases. However, there you can learn very detailed information about words, names, symbols, and even sounds and colors which make up a trademark.

You can’t say “I didn’t know” anymore.

Please understand. There are TOO MANY A Cut Aboves, Happy Paws, and The Write Stuffs in this world. Do not do this, even if you are oh-so-sure you will never cross state lines and wind up competing with the other Burger Barns (over 198,000 results on Yahoo!).

3. Don’t choose a name that is too similar to something already in use, even if it is in another field. I know how clever you feel you are, but worlds do collide and it will cause confusion. I wonder why American Express Financial Advisors, with the world of words and coinage available to them, chose to rebrand a couple of years ago as Ameriprise, which violates the rule of being easily spelled in Part 1 of this series (“Ameriprize,” anyone?), and is also one letter off from the well-known hospitality supply company AmeriPride (see also #2 above, because while well-known they are hardly alone). Should anyone in hospitality also have an interest in financial services, there will be a tougher learning curve. Because of these associations, the name may already have a downscale feel, as well—not good for a financial services firm.

4. Don’t name your firm ABC anything (or AA, or AAAA,…). This trick to jump to the head of the telephone book is now and always was cheap and fly-by-night sounding. (Not to mention that the telephone book itself is, well, less relevant than it once was—though it’s an easy place to start your research.) If you are inexpensive, you can imply that in your name without sounding cheap. (-Mart works well for this. Not that I recommend it.) Get the difference?

5. Don’t pick a name that is easily misunderstood in another language. Example: The 1970s Chevy Nova. Remember your high-school Spanish? Hard to roll out a car in Mexico with a name that means “It doesn’t go”: No va. No matter that they were going for “new” (Latin, nova) when they named it.

6. Don’t pick a name that is easily misunderstood in this language. No names that can be misinterpreted as meaning something embarrassing, or foul, or offensive to any group, or X-rated. Think about: possible misspellings, acronyms, short-form “nicknames,” and slurs of any kind. See how much like naming a child this is? Did you choose a misspelling (coined word) on purpose? Think hard about that. (I don’t need to say be sure you’re not accidentally misspelling, do I?)

7. Don’t date yourself, or your firm, with a fad-ish name. Trendy soon becomes “so yesterday.” Related: unless you have a lot of venture capital to throw at it, don’t choose a name that’s so “out there” it gets the Huh? reaction from too many people. (Yes, Yahoo!, I do love the name now. In part three we’ll list others that break the mold.)

8. Don’t narrow your potential with your name. If Bowling Green Coffee is any good, they’ll soon wish they’d chosen a descriptor related to how their coffee makes you feel, rather than related to location, so they can add locations in Poughkeepsie; on the other hand, if Bowling Green Coffee also sells teas, or sandwiches, or… bowling balls, they’ll wish they’d chosen a name that allows for their line to expand.

Bonus Tip: Don’t fall in love with a name before testing on innocent bystanders, or at the least, honest relatives. If there’s a guffaw or a Huh? that you missed, this is the time to find out.

We’ll finish the series on Friday with Part 3: The Hall of Fame, the Hall of Shame, and How’d They Manage With That? so make sure you subscribe to get the latest updates for creating your Maximum Customer Experience!

Got a pet peeve (or a resource) to add to this list? What blunders bother you most when you think of the businesses you interact with every day?


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson