Choosing a Brand Name: Descriptive or Unique Coined Word?

A common question by startup entrepreneurs and established business owners goes something like this:

“Is it better to choose a descriptive name, or is it better to make up some unique word that never existed before?”

There are different schools of thought on this same question.  Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Descriptive Name for a Brand

A descriptive name is something like “Mary’s Bakery” or Akron Plumbing.  They clearly describe the type of businessNames like these have several advantages:

  • Inexpensive to convey what business you are in.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money on advertising to establish a brand identity that the public will come to know and recognize for the line of business you are in.  With a name like Smith’s Towing, for instance, people will know exactly what your company does just based on the name itself.
  • Easy to think up.  You don’t typically need to go through the expense of hiring a brand naming consultant.  For a small business on a tight budget, a naming consultant may be out of reach, and the task of thinking up a unique name on your own too daunting.  No wonder so many small businesses opt for simplicity, choosing something like “Sally Mae Candies” or a similar descriptive name.
  • Easier to get found in the search engines.  If your business name is Akron Plumbing, you already have a natural advantage for getting found when someone searches for Akron plumbing companies.

 But of course you have to weigh the advantages against the negatives. Here are two downsides of using a descriptive name or phrase, instead of something unique:

  • Descriptive names may seem unexciting.  This may not be a big concern if it’s a plumbing business — after all, people don’t necessarily expect a plumber to have an exciting name.  On the other hand a beauty salon or a clothing boutique or a jewelry line or a Web 2.0 business may be a different story – there, the creativeness of the brand name could make or break the business.  Would Google have been nearly as memorable or intriguing had it been called “Sergei’s Search Engine”?
  • Tougher to establish competitive advantage and customer benefits.  When someone is searching in the phone book or in Google or Bing for a vendor, how do they know that Akron Plumbing is better than Joe’s Plumbing at unclogging drains?  Does the name convey that the service is friendlier, cheaper or perhaps faster?  Can a prospective customer tell what sets the business apart?  One way to counter this is to use a tagline. “Service in one hour” or “We unclog drains with a smile” or some other tagline can help differentiate the business, even if the name doesn’t.

Unique Made-Up Name for a Brand

Now let’s take a look at using a newly-coined word or a unique word for your brand.  Using a unique, made-up word or phrase to name your business has its advantages: 

  • Made-up words set your brand apart.  Think of some of the online business names:  TechCrunch, Squidoo, Boing Boing, Gizmodo.  They are distinctive and easy to remember.
  • Flexible enough for strategic business changes.  If your business is named Mary’s Bakery, but later on you decide to open a deli or develop a line of mail order gift baskets, you may find your name is too limiting.  Whereas, something like “Teaberry’s” does not limit you to a single line of business.
  • Easier to trademark.  With a name you’ve coined, you don’t have to worry about it being so generic or descriptive that the trademark examiner refuses to pass it on the grounds that it would prevent others from using normal words in everyday parlance. Unique names that have never before been used are less likely to be challenged by some other party. They will be easier to get a trademark on.
  • Easier to get the matching domain name.  Many descriptive dot com domain names are long gone (remember — the dot com extension is what most people trying to find a website naturally assume, here in the United States).  It could be impossible to get the matching domain for a descriptive name.  Worse, if another company already is using it, they could end up siphoning off traffic that was otherwise meant for your site, or at the very least confusing the public. These days, if you want to get an exact domain name, you’ll have a much better shot if it’s for a word you just made up last week

Of course, made-up names have their challenges, too.  Here are some disadvantages of unique or made-up words as brand names:

  • Don’t always convey what the business is.  Some bizarre made-up word may not convey what the business does. Take, for  example, this completely made-up brand: Piquatantap.  Would you have any idea what that business sells or what industry it is in, based just on the name?  Unlikely.  It may require big bucks to develop brand recognition among the public.  You may need to do more to explain what the business does, such as include a tagline.
  • Hard-to-spell words lead to confusion.  Unique and newly coined words have an inherent challenge:  people don’t know how to spell them, because they’ve never encountered the name before.  If the name is intuitive and easy to say, spelling may not be such an issue.  But there’s a recent trend to take a word we already know, and give it a unique, made-up spelling.  Example: leave out a vowel, or change it to a more phonetic spelling instead of the common spelling. That certainly makes the name unique.  But it may also confuse someone who remembers the name but can’t remember the unique spelling, and who insists on spelling it the commonly-accepted (and wrong) way.

No matter which route you go – descriptive name or unique coined word – don’t stop with just the words.  Remember that the choice of fonts, colors and graphical elements can subtly change the impression you convey. 

Emotion is an important element in a brand.  Ask yourself this about a logo — how does it make you feel?  Happy?  Energetic?  Playful? Comforted?   Emotion can be conveyed through the use of colors and fonts and graphical images, in addition to the words used.

Some of the disadvantages of a descriptive brand can be overcome with fresh, exciting, interesting colors and graphics to go along with the words.  By the same token, drab colors or ponderous fonts can cause even the most catchy coined name to miss the mark.

And as pointed out above, the use of a tagline or slogan along with the name can add important meaning along with the name.  Think of some well known slogans, like that of the U. S. Marine Corps.  Actually, the Marines have had more than one phrase associated with them.  Semper Fi is one.  But the slogan that conveys in the minds of the public what we should think about the Marines is: “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.”  That phrase conveys so many things in six words.  It conveys that only the best have the qualities to become Marines (“The Few”).  It also conveys a tradition of excellence associated with the Marines (“The Proud”).  And it conveys that they need no other description or introduction because their reputation precedes them (“The Marines”).

Whichever route you choose, keep in mind the big picture.  You are creating an overall impression about your business in the minds of the public.  Think carefully about what you want people to  think about your business.  It’s easier to start with a good name than change it later.  But if your chosen brand name is not working out, don’t hesitate to re-brand into something better.

33 Comments ▼

Anita Campbell - CEO


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses, and also serves as CEO of TweakYourBiz.com.

33 Reactions

  1. Anita,

    You are not “talking into the wind,” you are more talking to the choir! :) Do you know about specialized companies that could give consultation regarding this matter? Here is my comment (awaiting moderation) on Small Business Marketing Guide:

    Great list of things that you should consider. After you have decided the name of your company you end up with a hard task to convince the “companies registration office” in your country about the uniqueness of your name and that you should be able to stick with it. I had a long verbal “fight” with registration office in Sweden about my company. I wanted to have the following name: Ego International Business Coordinator. I want to build on my long standing EGO blog and use the Latin word for I. The bureaucrats thought that the word ego was too similar with other entities so I had to come up with another suggestions. I ended up with Egoist International Business Coordinator and I gave them a lesson in philology and philosophy! ;) My company name is descriptive and has a twist to it at the same time. Could you imagine how telemarketers and other sales people have to pronounce my company name and read it out loud. I often hear a pause of silence and that they are scratching their heads on the other side of the telephone line.

    In order to “hammer in” the message I have added the following tag line on my business card: “Trader in Matter & Spirit.” I have symbolic picture of a glass jar with pieces of gold inside. I have recently purchased the domain name Ego Sole Trader and I will describe my services on the site and I will give sole traders (proprietorship) and business owners moral support by writing blog posts and supply them with other types of reading and listening material.

  2. Hi Anita
    I voted in the wind as number 10 that found the post useful.
    Numerous friends of mine are brand experts and I have always been impressed with their work. And I’ve anguished over naming several of my own companies. Now I don’t anguish anymore because for my service-based company it doesn’t really matter. I know it can be argued that it does matter and my branding expert buddies certainly have given me flack here and there.

    There is value in it. It does stick with you a long time and it is a pain to keep changing your name if you don’t like it. Besides, constantly changing isn’t a good option — you’ll look like a flaky business.

    I’m going to ask one of the top branding guys I know. He runs a branding shop called Authenticity run by Nick Bean. His tagline is: The Cure for Brand Anxiety… I love that tag. It isn’t just that he’s good at it — he is incredibly passionate about it and that always inspires.

    http://authenticity.net/
    TJ

  3. Backing up to the begining of this process, the best brand names are the ones based in a strong positioning strategy.

    Vicks Company invented the “night time cold medicine” market segment. They named their product “NyQuil” to take advantage of their “positioning strategy”. NyQuil is still first in consumers minds some four decades later.

    That is a strong brand naming case study.

    Steve

  4. I agree with Steve and due to past life in large companies I prefer to be able to trademark the brand name.

    Small businesses may also want to conduct a simple test with their target market to see which brand names appeal the most before they make the final decision.

  5. Hi Anita,

    I also voted it as number 12 who found it useful. ;)

    I honestly fall under the creative camp. There are always changes and I usually prefer my brand name to be as flexible as possible.

  6. RE: “especially useful for small local businesses without much of an advertising budget”
    Yes, descriptive name is useful for specialized small companies.
    But if we have the company with many spheres of activity the unique BRAND is necessary.

  7. Great thoughts on both sides of the coin. I’ve seen budding businesses run polls for consumer opinion on business names. I think it’s a good idea to get the actual opinions of your future consumers.

  8. I go for made up names – IF and only if they remind people of the product + are easy to remember and fun to say – like Doogles – googles for dogs that need to protect their eyes from the sun.

    We have 3 naming firms in my small village of Sausalito so I’m very aware of the value some firms rightly place on creating a name that reinforces the brand image.

    Those three traits, quoted from the guide are essential.
    Here’s other considerations when choosing a name
    http://sayitbetter.typepad.com/say_it_better/2008/04/the-art-of-nami.html

    I clicked like on this post

  9. Hi Anita
    I happened into a great site around this topic: The Name Inspector. Guy has a great blog and explains some of the things you’re doing from a linguistic perspective. Pretty cool. Plus he looks at all these popular terms and names and adds some cool commentary. He’s in Seattle, but I don’t know him. Yet.
    TJ

    http://www.thenameinspector.com

  10. Anita,

    I do not think your point about the ability to expand can be overlooked. Your brand needs to not only be consistent with your current strategy, but supportive of future success. Often small businesses forget to plan for great success and make decisions based upon their current business model only.

    Cecilia Edwards
    Equipping Business for Phenomenal Success
    http://www.ceciliaedwards.com

  11. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on the product branding side of marketing but it used to be a favorite of mine. Our rule of thumb was the name(for the most part) should not be longer than two syllables; preferably end in an ‘up’ vowel (a,e,i); have meaning that tied to the product (or service or business); had meaning if possible – but if there was too much competition it was always better to work with a made up name, than one that sounded similar to a competitor.

    Enjoyed the article – it brought back some great memories (one of our hardest-to-name products had us literally dancing on our desk tops to Marvin Gaye’s Heard it through the Grapevine – once we named it!).

  12. At ePhiphony we chose both descriptive and unique. As a whole, our name is intertwined with our mantra to “Reveal Hidden Wealth”. In individual components our name continues to tell a story. e implies easy and electronic. Phi also known as the Golden Ratio communicates to us the optimum balance of cost and cast so that economic profit is maximized. Finally -ph and -ony like a symphony our solution brings together all the elements of a business, ie its inventory items, together in harmony.

    Our product name Phitch is the same way. Just like pitch in music, our solution defines the frequency of ordering an item. The process of assigning note names to pitches in music is called tuning. Our solution Phitch fine tunes each inventory item (ie note) at the point of maximum economic profit, which again is represented by the Golden Ratio or Phi. The best part of this naming strategy was that it was developed by my 11 year daughter.

    While at first glance someone may not be entirely aware of all this, it is subtle enough that as the relationship continues it becomes more clear. Our uniqueness in name is often a great opportunity to tell or describe our story.

  13. I’m new in the internet business field. I’m skilled in the graphics side, but I need info to learn about this business. I was going through your post and got a few pointers.

  14. I am Looking for a “Brand Name” for my “Event Management Company”.
    Can U Give Me Any Idea???

  15. iam a home based retailer dealing in branded perfumes and also selling the splits of the same. iam in search for a good name for the purpose . i have some names which i have worked out , which i have listed below . help me out with a good name .
    scent touch , scent rite , scent shine , scent impress ,
    scent breeze , scent sense , scent berry

  16. Thanks for a great article. Looking to create an up market leather jacket website. Have a few ideas and open to any you guys h=might have. Thanks

  17. There are definite pros and cons to both styles of names. However, your points about the benefits of unique, coined, brand names are spot on.

    The other thing to consider about this type of name is longevity. In addition to allowing your business to grow and change, this style of name only develops with age. Unlike generic keyword names, that eventually fall flat with customers, the right unique name can have a catchy quality that continues to attract more interested customers over time.

  18. A nice tip for you all is this naming resource: GlobalNaming. It’s really powerful.

  19. Thanks for the valuable advice for brand name, Please keep us informed like this.

  20. I am in search of a brand name for Medical Products/Medical Supplies.

    Vision: ASCLEPIUS – frame of mind.

    Two company name that is involved: (1) Aroma Scientific Corp. and
    (2) Aromed Corp.

    Seeking a unique brand name that will incorporate both company in the medical supplies field.

  21. I am looking to access the linked article “Choosing a Brand Name: Being Descriptive vs Coining a Unique Word”. It seems to no longer be available under the smbmarketingguide domain. The entire site seems to be unavailable.

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