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Choosing a Brand Name: Descriptive or Unique Coined Word?

Posted By Anita Campbell On April 29, 2009 @ 10:55 am In Marketing Tips | 33 Comments

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.


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