Choosing a Brand Name: Descriptive or Unique Coined Word?

How to choose a brand name - descriptive or unique

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

“When choosing a brand name or company name, 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.  Descriptive names clearly describe the type of business.  Brand names like these have several advantages:

  • Descriptive names are inexpensive.  Descriptive names immediately convey something about the business. 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 need to go through the effort of spending hours or days thinking up a name.  Nor do you need to hire a brand naming consultant.  For a small business just starting out, the task of thinking up a unique name on your own may be too daunting. And if your business is on a tight budget, a naming consultant may be out of reach. 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.  However, this is not the advantage it once was. The nature of Google search has changed in recent years with the creation of Google My Business listings, mobile search and map search.  Google has gotten better at matching up searchers with businesses in their local area. And today a variety of listing sites such as HomeAdvisor, Yelp, Angie’s List and others will show up prominently for geographical searches.  But still, the name can help, such as by getting your company a knowledge panel in Google. That knowledge panel that calls out a single business is valuable search real estate.

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

  • Descriptive names may seem unexciting.  Descriptive names often lack pizzazz, and do not cause your business to stand out. This may be less of a 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 clothing boutique or jewelry line or trendy consumer product is a different story. There, the creativeness of the brand name could make or break the business.  For example, what if Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, had named her company “Sara’s underwear” instead?  It wouldn’t have had the same appeal. And she might not have become a billionaire with a wildly successful brand.
  • Descriptive names are not catchy or memorable.  A name that is catchy can make a difference. It makes your business more memorable.  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 Google or Bing or a local community 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 and products has its advantages: 

  • Made-up words set your brand apart.  Think of some online business names, as an example:  TechCrunch, Instagram, SnapChat, Boing Boing, Gizmodo.  They are distinctive. The name conveys an identity that is unique to that business.
  • 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 Starbucks does not limit you to a single product or 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 because it doesn’t create enough of an identity. Nor are you likely to encounter others using the same name or something similar as you might with common names. Unique names that have never before been used are less likely to be challenged by some other party. They will be easier to secure 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 it could confuse 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 associated with a product category in the public’s mind.  You may need to do more to explain what the business does, such as include a tagline or slogan.
  • Hard-to-spell words lead to confusion.  Unique and newly coined words have an inherent challenge:  people don’t know how to spell them. The public has 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 add extra consonants such as Dribbble. Or change it to a phonetic or unusual spelling instead of the common spelling — example: Lyft, the ride sharing company, instead of Lift. Odd spellings certainly make the name unique.  But an odd spelling may also confuse someone who remembers the name but can’t remember the unique spelling. Or it may confuse those who insist on spelling it the commonly-accepted (and wrong) way.

Adding Uniqueness to Brand In Other Ways

No matter which route you go – descriptive name or unique coined word – don’t stop with words alone.

Brands are made up of more than the name itself.  Fonts, colors, imagery, slogans, even jingles and sounds can create a distinctive brand.

Use Fonts and Colors to Add Uniqueness

Remember that the choice of fonts and colors can subtly change the impression you convey. 

Emotion is an important element in a brand.  Ask yourself this about a name or logo — how does it make you feel?  Happy?  Energetic?  Playful? Comforted?

Emotion can be conveyed through the use of the marketing colors as well as fonts, in addition to the words used. Some of the disadvantages of a descriptive brand can be overcome with fresh, exciting, interesting colors 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.

Slogans Set a Brand Apart

The use of a tagline or slogan along with the name can add important meaning to a brand.  Think of some well known slogans.

For example, consider the U. S. Marine Corps brand.  Actually, the Marines have had more than one phrase associated with them.  Semper Fi is one.  But another slogan used off and on over the years is: “The Few. The Proud.”

That slogan conveys so much meaning in four 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 (“Marines”).

When you’re asking young men and women to put their lives on the line for their country, your brand had better convey a higher purpose. It needs to inspire. And the Marines’ slogan does. It’s the power of a few well-chosen words.

Imagery Creates a Unique Brand

Another thing that sets a brand apart is use of graphics. Consider the image at the top of this article. The Marine dress uniform with the distinctive white cap, dark jacket, medals and white gloves is recognizable immediately.

The use of the Marines logo and slogan adds to it.  But even without the Marines logo and the slogan superimposed, you’d have no trouble recognizing the photograph as the U.S. Marines.  It’s part of the overall impression that a good consistent brand makes.

Whichever route you choose for naming your brand, keep in mind the big picture.  It’s all about creating the right overall impression.  Think carefully about what you want people to think about your business — and how you want them to feel.

It’s easier to start with a good name than change it later.  And a good brand can make the rest of your marketing and advertising easier. But if your chosen brand name is not working out, don’t hesitate to re-brand into something better.  In the end you will be further ahead.

If re-branding to a new name seems like too much hassle, try adding unique colors, fonts, images, a logo and/or a slogan.  The total package can make your chosen brand stand out despite a plain descriptive name.

Image: U.S. government, remixed

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Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO 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.

34 Reactions
  1. Martin Lindeskog


    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.

  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.


  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

    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.

  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

  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.

    • Hi Francis, yes, I see that site is offline. So I have updated this article with the full text of the article. Thanks for pointing that out.

      – Anita

  22. Really insightful article. Company naming can be quite a challenge. The name should be simple, unique and impactful.

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