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.